What is cashmere? Cashmere is one of the most luxurious fabrics out there. Can it be made sustainably and ethically?
| All products featured on The Wellness Feed are independently selected by our editors for their environmental and ethical impact. However, we may earn an affiliate commission when you buy something through our retail links. |
On its face, cashmere is a high-end fabric designed to keep those who can afford it warm and fashionable all winter long. It’s a symbol of status and style–a mark of good taste and wealth. Or at least, this is the case with traditional cashmere.
In the past 20 years, we’ve seen a rise in lower-end cashmere scarves, gloves, and sweaters for a fraction of the price. Some of these garments are true-blue cashmere goods that just happen to have low prices. Some are cashmere blends and faux cashmeres. Either way, cashmere’s state of affairs is quite different now than 20 years ago. Truthfully, back in 1999, the cashmere market looked drastically different from its origins earlier in the 21st century. For more on that, read the incredible 1999 article, “The Crisis in Cashmere” from the New Yorker.
Reformation Maya Cotton Cashmere Oversized Cardigan $298
This chunky cardigan is a blend of 50% recycled cashmere and 50% organically grown cotton.
For the everyday consumer, the cheaper version of cashmere is a steal. Instead of paying luxury prices for a luxury good you can pay bargain prices for a product that at least looks like the real thing. It’s the kind of deal you write home about. How could you possibly find something so good for such a good price?
As someone who writes about sustainable fashion, when I see a cashmere sweater for such a low price, alarm bells ring. How was that made? What’s the actual fiber content? What corners did they have to cut to put out a product like that?
And as much as fast fashion versions of cashmere seem like a red flag, I’ve also been curious about traditional, high-end cashmere. Just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s made with fair labor practices and without environmental harm, right? Well that’s what I wanted to find out. Let’s explore the world of cashmere together.
Mongolia produces 40% of the world’s cashmere, making it the main source for 30% of the population. That’s nearly 300,000 nomadic households that harvest cashmere in Spring when the animals’ fibers molt with the change in weathe.
Goats grazing on Mongolia’s grasslands outnumber people in the country by more than 8 to 1. This increase combined with climate change has depleted 70% of pastureland.
Organizations such as the Sustainable Fiber Alliance (SFA), help herders mitigate these challenges by improving their land management, animal welfare, and access to the global cashmere market.
How Is Cashmere Made?
Cashmere is up there with silk and leather when it comes to luxurious, staple fabrics. But what exactly is it? Cashmere is a wool that’s harvested from cashmere goats–a type of goat originally found in the Kashmir region of India that can also be found in western and northern Australia, as well as around the in various regions of China, India, Mongolia, Myanmar, Bhutan, and Nepal.
Cashmere is a natural byproduct of the cashmere goat. Cashmere goats’ fleece is their natural protection against cold weather. But in warm seasons, they shed their wool on their own. Harvesters brush out their goats to help strip them of their fine wool. While shearing is possible, it is far less common, which sets cashmere apart from other wools.
Notably, cashmere yield is quite low. These goats produce about 4 ounces of cashmere annually. This means that several goats are needed to produce one single garment. Encyclopedia Britannica claims that an overcoat uses the fleece of 30 to 40 goats. This contributes to the traditional pricing for cashmere garments (more goats means more labor, which means a higher price for the garment).
Once it is harvested, it can be processed in a variety of ways; it can be left raw and greasy, but authentic to its origins; or it can be doused in cleaners and dyes, natural or chemical, to produce various textures and styles of wool. However you want your cashmere, there’s a way to make it.
The White Company Cashmere Layering Crew Neck Stripe Sweater $169
This sweater is made from 100% cashmere certified by The Good Cashmere Standard®
Sustainable And Ethical Concerns
If you believe that any animal byproducts are inherently cruel, unsustainable, or unethical, it’s quite easy to label cashmere as any of those things. But setting that issue aside, what are some of the largest ethical and sustainable concerns when it comes to cashmere?
One of the greatest problems is its popularity. Cashmere goats can only live in specific climates and geographic regions. Most of these regions are grasslands that are rapidly becoming deserts. One of the primary reasons for this shift is the overpopulation of goats. Keeping in mind the incredibly low yield of fleece per goat, it’s easy to see how a rise in demand for cashmere would cause such an incredible shift in the cashmere goat population.
Unfortunately, with such high demand, overpopulation seems to be a symptom of the luxury it offers. Larger goat herds also spell problems for goat farmers. With an increased need for large populations, it means that conditions are harder for their farmers. Farmers now have to manage unprecedented amounts of goats.
What’s worse is that the problems brought about by overpopulation of these goats have come back to bite them. The shifting climate in regions that are densely packed with cashmere goats has created intense summer droughts, followed by harsh winters. These conditions damage the quality of cashmere, and can even kill the goats.
Oyuna Gabi Sweater $495
This sweater is made from 100% Mongolian cashmere in partnership with the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA).
How Brand’s Source Cashmere Responsibly
Like with any natural fiber, sourcing is key. There are responsible producers and there are irresponsible producers. But it can be challenging to suss out who to trust when it comes to cashmere.
Luckily, there are organizations working toward responsible production. The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) works with farmers in Mongolia to educate them on best practices, both for the animals and the planet. Through their partnership, they ensure that farmers are able to properly care for their goats and their grasslands, as well as produce a more economically viable product, which is then sold to brands like Burberry, J. Crew, Madewell, and several cashmere specialty brands.
COS Chunky Pure Cashmere Crew-Neck Jumper $290
This jumper is made from 100% Good Cashmere Standard certified cashmere.
In addition to its use of best practices, the SFA also focuses on the traditional values that Mongolian herders and farmers have. Rather than trying to implement a fully foreign program, they’ve created a culturally sensitive model. To me, this is what sets the SFA apart from other organizations that focus more granularly on agricultural practices.
Outside of the SFA, there aren’t many organizations that offer certifications or third-party validation for cashmere specifically. This makes it even harder to know when virgin cashmere has been made responsibly–in any sense of the word.
So what else can you do as a consumer to buy better cashmere? Stop buying virgin. Back in 2016, Stella McCartney stopped using virgin cashmere in their designs and they reduced their cashmere-related environmental impact by 92%.
Reformation Becky Cashmere Collard Sweater $248
This everyday sweater is made from 90% recycled cashmere and 10% virgin cashmere.
The alternative: recycled cashmere. Just like any other recycled natural fiber, recycled cashmere comes from pre- and post-consumer waste and is just as good as the real thing–because it is. And if you’re looking for a supplier for recycled cashmere, try out Re-verso. They’re the go-to for Stella McCartney, along with Eileen Fisher and Patagonia.
All in all, cashmere is complicated. There’s no easy answer to the question “is it sustainable?” or “is it ethical?” But there are ways to buy and wear it responsibly. It might not be perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction.