I’ve written before on the negative environmental effects of the cashmere industry, but I’d like to write on the subject in greater detail, and how knitters and other fibre artists can avoid contributing to the problem while not giving up the chance to work with luxury fibres.
Up until very recently, cashmere truly was a luxury item: produced in small quantities of a high quality and commanding high prices in a select market. Grown predominantly in central Asia, most cashmere was milled in Scotland and Italy with the finished garments known for their softness and long life. The explosion of Chinese textile mills in the 1980s began to alter how cashmere is produced and sold, with the changes accelerated by relaxing of EU tariffs in 2005 that allowed cheap cashmere to flood the market. These garments were by and large lower quality than their Scottish-milled counterparts, but their low prices (and the cachet of the word ‘cashmere’, no doubt) resulted in a very high demand.
In response, cashmere growers increased the size of their flocks, and many people who had never raised goats purchased their own herds to take advantage of the demand. Goats, whose sharp hooves tear up the soil and foraging habits that strip the land of all vegetation, replaced lighter-grazing sheep as the predominant livestock animal in the steppes of Mongolia and China. The end result has been a worsening of the desertification occurring in the region–between 1994 and 1999, the Gobi desert grew by an area the size of the Netherlands, and the incidence and severity of duststorms has risen dramatically. These duststorms even affect air quality in North America, with Asian-originating dust accounting for as much as 40 percent of the worst dust days in the western US. The goats themselves suffer as their grazing areas become desert, and it is not uncommon for them to starve. The situation has not worked out well for the herders, either, as they lose their livestock either to starvation, or government-mandated culls designed to combat desertification. Many nomads living in Inner Mongolia have had to give up their livelihood altogether, unwillingly relocated to cities after generations of herding goats on the steppes.
As I mentioned above, many of the cashmere garments exported from China are of a lower quality and wear poorly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to speak with Angus McColl, of Yocom-McColl Wool Testing Labs in Denver, about cashmere production. He said that most of the Asian “100% cashmere” samples he tested contained wool or other fibres. The cashmere fibres themselves in Chinese-produced garments are often coarser and shorter, and therefore less soft and more prone to pilling, but with an attractive low price.
Some companies only buy cashmere produced sustainably, i.e., from goats kept in pens rather than allowed to openly graze the steppes, with the herders paid fairly for their clip. Linda Cortright, of Wild Fibers magazine, has spearheaded an effort to educate nomadic Asian cashmere producers on how to best sort their fibre in order to ask for better prices. In addition, some cashmere is produced sustainably in North American, though not nearly as much as in Asia.
So what does this mean for the knitter/fibre artist who wants to work with a luxury fibre like cashmere, but doesn’t want to contribute to the environmental disaster of desertification? Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to know if a cashmere yarn or other item was produced sustainably. Even high-quality cashmere may come from a non-sustainable herd. Until sustainable cashmere growing practices become widespread in Asia, the best thing a concerned knitter can do may be to buy only North American cashmere products, or substitute another luxury fibre such as alpaca, and certainly avoid any cashmere that seems to be priced much lower than it should be. I would encourage anyone buying cashmere, as with anything else, to fully investigate claims of sustainability made by a manufacturer. Ultimately, for the sake of the environment, the nomadic cashmere growers, and their goats, the ideal solution is to reduce demand. Cashmere is an example of the negative environmental and human impacts that can occur when a luxury good becomes commonplace, and should serve as a reminder to us to reduce consumption wherever we can.