It’s nearly Christmas so if you haven’t got your Christmas jumper out yet you’re sure to have spotted others wearing theirs. Whether you’re wearing, giving or receiving knitwear this winter though, it’s worth giving a thought to where that jumper came from. It’s all too easy to think that stuff just ‘appears’ in our favourite shops, but the supply chains behind these commodities can be long and complex. Cashmere is particularly pushed by retailers at Christmas as a luxury, yet increasingly affordable, product. But how many people know where cashmere comes from? I’d like to tell you the story of cashmere, and the journey might not be as plush as you imagine.
Cashmere fibre comes from a specific breed of goat. Traditionally it has been very difficult to get hold of cashmere, as three to six goats are needed to make just one medium sized sweater. Only twelve regions in the world have the right temperature and terrain to accommodate cashmere goats, the best spots being in Mongolia, China, India and Iran. To survive freezing temperatures, the goats develop a thick protective layer of hair, over a downy coat of super fine hair (the cashmere). Unsurprisingly, cashmere has long been an exclusive, luxury item. Until now that is, when you can pick up a cashmere sweater at the supermarket for £30-£40, but how?
Much of our cashmere used to be spun in Scotland, but by 2004 restrictions on cashmere imports had been lifted and spotting demand, China rushed in and flooded the market with cheap cashmere sweaters. There are now more than 2000 cashmere companies in China who source their cashmere from one of two means. PETA warn that many Asian cashmere goats live in atrocious conditions on factory farms. Others, whilst left to wonder free, are having disastrous effects on the environment due to their large numbers. There are simply too many living in the same place but farmers have found themselves in a vicious cycle. Stripping the land of pasture leaves nothing for the goats to eat and undernourished goats produce less fleece, forcing farmers to put more and more animals on dwindling land . It’s a problem found in other areas of livestock rearing and agriculture, but few solutions have been raised.
The Alashan Plateau, which extends from the Tibetan Plateau northward into Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, was home to 2.4 million Gobi goats in the 90s and now accommodates 26 million. As well as their grazing potential (eating 10% of their body weight a day), the goat’s hard hooves pummel away at the rest of the land. What should be grassland areas are turning to dust and desert at the rate of 400 square miles a year, disrupting the ecosystem and causing severe dust pollution. According to a study, 80% of this desertification can be attributed to overgrazing livestock. Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages because the land cannot sustain their livelihoods.
So what can consumers and retailers do? “Our industry’s challenge is to change this unsustainable system and put new, sustainable practices in place,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs at Kering. “Companies need to recognise that their business depends on natural capital and also impacts many livelihoods at the base of their supply chain.”
In the world of fashion, cheap often is far from cheerful. For ethical alternatives try the Oxfam Online Shop for second-hand cashmere (even cheaper than the supermarkets!) or check out Brora and Izzy Lane, both of which source sustainable cashmere.