How your cashmere jumper may be causing desertification

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.

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In Search of Sustainable School Uniform

A few weeks ago I was in the FAIR shop, Brighton, chatting to owner Siobhan about the perils of kid’s school uniforms. Manufactured in their masses and worn five days a week by children in the UK they are a significant part of the clothes economy. Parents also have little control over what they must buy as most schools have designated suppliers, and certainly regulations on colour and style. Most suppliers focus on price and practicality, resulting in cheap synthetic materials which might wash well but could be uncomfortable and unhealthy to wear, and manufactured with little ethical regard for people and planet.

Just days after this chat I heard from Ecooutfitters, the first independent school uniform brand. Ecooutfitters school uniforms are made of ethically sourced, 100% organic cotton certified by the Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS), ensuring that production meets rigorous environmental and social standards. Thus an Ecooutfitter uniform cares for every individual in the chain not least the children that wear them. The entrepreneurs behind the brand, Marina and Irina, are both mothers themselves and were inspired by the desire to dress their young boys in natural, healthy fibres every single day, not just at the weekends. They said ““When you consider that our children are forced to wear these harmful fabrics for some 36.5 hours a week, running around all day, getting hot, sweaty and agitated, at a vital stage of their development, we knew something had to be done and Ecooutfitters was born.”

The British Skin Foundation has reported a dramatic rise in the number of children in the UK suffering from irritable skin conditions, with at least 10% of children suspected to suffer from eczema during their childhood. Many items of children’s clothing is Teflon coated to repel stains but such chemicals can irritate delicate skin and detrimental long term effects on health aren’t really known. Whilst Marina and Irina were motivated by the desire to banish such chemicals from their children’s wardrobes, they quickly learnt about the hugely devastating effects of the non-organic cotton industry on the communities and the environment around the world.

ecooutfitters shorts

Production of a single cotton T-shirt requires a third of a pound of dangerously toxic pesticides, the effects of which result in 77 million cases of poisoning recorded every year, 20,000 of which result in death. These revelations put ethical production at the heart of the Ecooutfitters mission and since organic cotton doesn’t use dangerous pesticides, protecting farmers’ lives and the environment, it became an obvious choice. “Our uniforms are not only healthier, comfortable and ethical, but competitively priced, durable and practical, disproving the widely held belief that cotton uniform cannot withstand the playground test.”

For more information, to buy or to nominate your school to offer the Ecooutfitters uniform, go to

For more information on the concerns about chemicals found in children’s wear, take a look at Greenpeace’s Little Monster campaign

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H&M Ban Harmful Perflourinated Compounds (PFCs)

H&M have announced that from the 1st of January 2013 they will ban Perfluorinated Compounds from any products that they sell (PFCs).

PFCs are used to achieve the water repellent finish mainly found on outer wear garments, but also on shower curtains, tents, etc. PFCs are harmful for the environment, for reproduction and for aquatic organisms. Worryingly:

‘PFCs can be detected almost ubiquitously, e.g., in water, plants, different kinds of foodstuffs, in animals such as fish, birds, in mammals, as well as in human breast milk and blood. PFCs are proposed as a new class of ‘persistent organic pollutants’. Numerous publications allude to the negative effects of PFCs on human health’ (Stahl, T. 2011).

It is all too easy to forget that the textile industry is a major environmental polluter globally. For example during the dyeing process an average t-shirt will use 16-20 litres of water and whilst 80% of the dye is retained by the fabric, the rest is washed out.

H&M teamed up with other fashion and sport brands in 2011 to help lead the industry to zero discharge of hazardous chemicals. As a brand, they have since worked on restricting and phasing out perfluorinated substances. H&M is also a part of AFIRM, an international working team of leading companies within the textile and footwear industries, educating the suppliers to achieve good chemical management. The group’s common aim is to reduce the use and impact of harmful substances in the apparel and footwear supply chain.

Read their most recent sustainability report at:

Scientists amongst you might want to read this article from the Environmental Sciences Europe Open Access journal. Stahl, T. et al. ‘Toxicology of Perfluorinated Compounds’, 2011, 23:38

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First Collection of Ethical Men’s Shirts by Arthur & Henry

Arthur & Henry is a brand new label offering the UK’s first collection of ethical men’s shirts. The press release says ‘Finally, what eco minded men (and women) have been waiting for’ and they are quite right. Beautiful work and casual shirts made from sustainable fabrics – why has this not been done before?

Ethical fashion isn’t about buying your token organic cotton tee; it’s about changing the way you dress on a daily basis. Shirts are a wardrobe staple – for women as much as men, and now ethically minded individuals can opt for the ethical choice when dressing every day. Arthur & Henry launched this summer by founders Mark and Clare Lissaman (brother and sister) and Sreeranga Rajan. The name Arthur & Henry derives from Mark and Clare’s great-grandfather and grandfather.

The summer collection, available exclusively online now, includes five styles in ten fabrics. Shirts in the collection include classic double and single cuff as well as contemporary shirts in single cuff, along with casuals in floral, plaid and fine linen shirts. They are made in India using organic fairly traded cotton or linen (the least environmentally-damaging material available – production is mostly chemical-free) and all dyes used are azo-free or vegetable-dye.

Attention to detail is second to none. The shirt seams are sewn with 20 stitches per inch, which compares with the more standard 14-15 stitches per inch to make the shirts more durable and create a smoother silhouette. All buttons are attached with thermo-fused thread with lock stitches so they shouldn’t come loose.

So how much will an Arthur & Henry shirt set you back? Well prices range from £65 to £85, which I think compares very favourably to designer shirts which aren’t half as good quality. Arthur & Henry – I wish you well.

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Ethical and Sustainable Fabric Information Talk

Are you a designer or textile student wanting to use sustainable fabrics but don’t know where to start? More and more designers are converting to ethical and sustainable materials but there is still confusion over the quality of such fabrics and where they can be found. To answer these questions and more, sign up to the discussion session happening this month in London. The session is ideal for those who want to learn more about ethical textiles, particularly start-ups keen to introduce them into their designs and collections.

With the growing demand for environmentally and socially beneficial clothing, this unique, hour long discussion not only allows attendees the opportunity to physically feel a huge variety of ethical textiles, available to purchase at both retail and wholesale quantities, but also offers the remarkable opportunity to pick the brains of a Fashion consultant, usually valued at hundreds of pounds. Over the course of the hour, you will be introduced to the terms and jargon associated with the ethical fashion and textiles industry and offered an insight into the variety of ways designers can be ethical through their fabric choices: from reclaimed, to fair trade, to organic, to recycled.

Date: Thursday, 26 July 2012, 11am-12am
Venue: THE CUBE, Studio 5, 155 Commercial Street, London E1 6BJ


– £20 per person for bookings made before 14th July 2012;

– £10 for Ethical Directory Members. Find out how to join the Ethical Directory:

Book Tickets Online Here

For any further information or to book a place, please email:

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