Ethical Cashmere: Mere-ly a Dream or Fur-fectly Possible?
Anyone familiar with the plethora of animal rights abuses in the fashion industry (and knows anything about the term “greenwashing”), may be excused for being a little sceptical at the conjunction of ethical and cashmere.
Can the two coexist, or is it just another oxymoron of our fashion imagination?
Unfortunately, claims of sustainability and ethical manufacturing are big money in today’s economy. To be blunt, green sells. Like really sells. While this causes some brands to make real and genuine change within, for others it’s an opportunity to pay lip service via a new marketing ploy.
This is why it’s healthy to maintain a little skepticism in this day and age, especially when it comes to the fashion industry…Which is why we’ve recently been diving deep into fabrics like modal, lyocell, hemp, and bamboo.
Like ethical wool, we get the sense that ethical cashmere isn’t the norm (and is never a possibility for those following a vegan lifestyle), but it does appear there are some producers and brands who are doing cashmere in a way that makes us feel a little better about snuggling up in that ethical sweater.
Let’s unravel them a bit and see if they’re really as soft on the environment as cashmere itself, or if it’s all a bunch of hogwash (or rather, goat-wash).
WHAT IS CASHMERE?
Cashmere, also known as kashmir, gets its name from the region in which it was initially produced—Kashmir, a territory located between Pakistan and India. References of kashmir fabric generally date back to the third century BC, with some indications that it was around even earlier than that.
Like other types of wool, cashmere fabric is made from the hair of an animal. In cashmere’s case, it uses the undercoat of a Kashmir goat, sometimes known as the down of the goat for its softness. These goats are commonly found in Central Asia and the Gobi Desert region. They’ve been traditionally raised in Northern Asian countries like Nepal and Tibet but now the largest producers are China, Mongolia, Afghanistan, and Iran.
Cashmere Fabric Properties
Cashmere is technically a microfiber (like pashmina and yak wool) and shares a lot of similar properties with other types of wool, namely its ability to insulate even when wet, making it a great fabric for socks, thermal gear, sweaters, hats, scarves, gloves and coats.
It’s a very light and breathable fabric, with excellent moisture-wicking abilities. It does okay in terms of stretchability (in fact it can stretch a little too much), but is unfortunately prone to pilling.
What Does Cashmere Feel Like?
Cashmere isn’t as insulative as other types of wool, but it is one of the softest and most luxurious-feeling fabrics —which explains those eye popping price tags. Even the lowest grade cashmere is more valuable than most other wool.
To explain, cashmere has three market grades: Grade C (up to 30 microns per fiber) is the lowest quality, followed by Grade B (16-19 microns), and finally the super fine Grade A (a mere 13 microns). For reference, the average strand of human hair is 75 microns, with the finest hair being as small as 17 microns.
There’s a whole science behind the feel of cashmere, and some suggest giving it an “in-store massage” to test if it’s been over or under processed (you might experience some slippery cashmere if it’s the former).
Suffice it to say that cashmere feels good… on your skin anyway. How it feels in your heart and your head is another question.
ADVANTAGES AND DISADVANTAGES OF CASHMERE
Cashmere Fabric Benefits
Cashmere is soft, breathable, and ultra-comfortable (especially for those with sensitive skin). It’s lightweight, resistant to wrinkles, and won’t leave you feeling itchy, like some other types of wool.
As a natural fabric, it can also be composted at the end of its lifespan.
Cashmere Fabric Drawbacks
Cashmere is prone to pilling. As one of the finer fabrics with short fibers, it can also become damaged more easily than some other fabrics. Wearers should be careful with cashmere (try saying that five times fast), course jackets or other articles of clothing may snag the fibers.
HOW ETHICAL IS CASHMERE?
Right off the bat, we can say that animals are involved in the production of cashmere, which inherently calls to mind a whole host of ethical dilemmas.
While goats aren’t directly killed for their hair, some of them do suffer from the process. From that standpoint, some people might not think that ethical cashmere is a possibility at all.
Also, we should mention here that every sweater on average requires the hair of four goats. If four animals have to be raised and potentially harmed for you to wear a sweater just a handful of times, there’s really nothing ethical about that.
Animal Cruelty Concerns with Cashmere
In the Kashmir region, winter temperatures are low and in some places reach -40°F. Combined with their rougher, weather-repellant outer coats, the luxuriously soft and downy wool on Kashmir goats allows them to survive several months during these conditions—and also makes them a lucrative resource.
The goats naturally shed this wool in the spring, once temperatures start to rise. During this time, producers can (and some do) comb this wool out in a way that doesn’t hurt the goats. It’s much like shedding a warm jacket once you’ve reached the office.
The act of combing versus shearing is a less aggressive method of harvesting the hair that won’t lead to cuts (accidental, careless, or otherwise) in the goats’ skin. While some suppliers do practice this method, they’re in the minority since it’s far more time consuming (and thus less lucrative) than shearing.
Not only that, but producers have been known to shear the goats too early, causing them to freeze to death.
Even when shearing is done at the right time, many times the goats are required to be chained down. This places a lot of stress on the goats, during which their sudden, anxious movements can lead to injuries and cuts even for the most conscious shearers (which, let’s be honest, are already in the minority).
Social Concerns with Cashmere
The democratization of cashmere has transformed it from a fine fabric into just another problematic product in our fast fashion world.
Where demand goes up, so too do the demands of the people around the globe who herd or process the fabric. To keep up, farmers often have to increase their herd sizes—and are met with dwindling prices as a result of an increase in low-quality cashmere.
With a lack of transparency in the steadily growing cashmere industry, many workers along the cashmere supply chain are being subjected to unsafe work conditions and unfair pay that doesn’t cover a basic living.
What About Fair Trade Cashmere?
Unfortunately, you won’t see the official Fair Trade certification on cashmere of any kind, which makes discerning good cashmere from bad even more difficult.
But we do love a good challenge, and we’re more than happy to roll down our turtlenecks and roll up our sleeves to do a little extra work. The payoff? Finding brands that improve combing practices, support herders and their communities, and ensure proper health care for their goats.
Where might we find such brands, you ask? Let’s look at the world’s most up-and-coming cashmere source: Mongolia.
Is Mongolian Cashmere Ethical?
You may be wondering by now (or at least we hope so) are there any situations in which cashmere can be ethical?
As it turns out, the answer is yes. Done properly (i.e. with considerations for workers and the environment), cashmere can provide much-needed livelihood opportunities for people, especially in Mongolia in fact.
In the past decade, the number of Mongolian herdsmen has tripled to more than 450,000 people. Differing from global urbanization trends, the economy in Mongolia has done the opposite and encouraged people to return to rural areas and lifestyles. For some of these people, they have greatly benefited from the cashmere industry.
Given that the most ethical cashmere brands (as we’ll discuss later) have partnered with these Mongolian herders and pay direct to supplier prices (meaning no middle man to take a percentage of the profits), the herders are able to charge a fair wage for their labor and animals.
IS CASHMERE SUSTAINABLE?
Throughout history, cashmere has been a prized fabric for nobles and royalty. Even in recent decades, the price of cashmere meant that it was something reserved for special occasions and wealthy consumers.
However, as the overall wealth of the world has increased and fashion has been “democratised”, so has the demand for cashmere. Where the fabric was exclusive to luxury and boutique shops in the past, it can now be found in sweaters sold at budget retailers like Costco.
If there’s one thing we should understand about economics, it’s that when demand exceeds supply, it tends to result in producers trading in planetary health for short-term profit. This, coupled with natural goat behavior, leads to some pretty serious problems for mother Earth.
Goats have notoriously sharp hooves and are, let’s just say, not the most delicate of eaters. They use their hooves to break down into the topsoil, then rip up grass and plants—roots and all, meaning the grass won’t even grow back.
When they’re kept in larger numbers to keep up with cashmere demand, the land simply doesn’t have enough time to regenerate itself after it’s served as an all-you-can-eat buffet for some hangry goats.
More goats = more ecosystem devastation, or desertification as the process is officially called.
With this in mind, we can take a look at China, the world’s largest producer of cashmere (in some part due to its ideal climate and topography). When the demand for cashmere meant a doubling of the number of goats in 1993 to 44 million by 2009, it took a significant toll on grazing lands.
In fact, some of the dust storms that are seen in cities like Beijing are a direct result of goat over-herding and its associated land degradation.
Farther north in Mongolia, the situation is even direr. Ethical practices do not inherently mean sustainable ones, you see.
The region now commonly experiences a unique phenomenon known as a dzud, a severe winter storm that follows a summer drought that killed over 9 million animals (mostly cashmere goats) in 2010. This has been associated with climate change and desertification (AKA the transformation of fertile land into deserts) of land as a result of cashmere production.
Ironically, as millions of goats are commonly lost by the terribly cold temperatures, it causes herders to raise more goats that eat more food, leading to malnourishment and lower quality fur from unhealthy animals. Again, herders increase their livestock numbers to compensate, perpetuating this vicious cycle.
This “cashmere crisis” is just as alarming as it sounds, and the numbers speak for themselves. Mongolia is on a fast track to expedited climate change, with average temperatures having risen 3.85°F since the 1940s. For reference, that’s twice that of Earth’s average temperature increase in the same timeframe. 90% of Mongolia is now at risk of desertification.
Is there a Sustainable Cashmere Standard?
When we think of cashmere’s sustainability, it’s important for us to realize that it is a natural fabric that is biodegradable and often doesn’t require toxic chemicals to process it (for fear of ruining the fine fiber)—both of which make it a somewhat attractive option for sustainable shoppers.
Additionally, there are some certifications out there that help us choose sustainable cashmere that’s better for the planet.
- The Good Cashmere Standard: Developed by the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF), The Good Cashmere Standard was launched in early-2020 to help improve the welfare of the goats, the communities that raise them, and the environment in which they live.
- Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): If you’ve read one of our sustainable fashion articles before, you’ve likely read about GOTS. They certify a variety of natural fabrics with a “seed to shelf” assurance that no chemicals were used in the processing of that fabric, farming all the way through dying.
- The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA): SFA is a multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to the long-term sustainability of the cashmere sector. The Standard is used by producers who meet SFA’s criteria about environmental impact, animal welfare, and herder livelihoods.
- Kering Standard on Cashmere: Kering is the parent company of brands like Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, and Balenciaga. Their standards aren’t as strict as some of the others listed here but, at a minimum, it requires producers to know from what country their wool was sourced—which is really the bottom of the transparency rung.
- Global Recycled Standard (GRS): Wool products are often recycled, if you find a recycled cashmere cardigan, you’ll likely see the GRS logo as they oversee the recycling of both natural and synthetic textile products. GRS reassures us that a garment bears a minimum amount of recycled fabrics. Otherwise, a brand could say “recycled cashmere” when only maybe 10% is actually recycled.
- Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): Similar to GRS, the RCS can be used as a third-party verification to let customers know that textile materials (including cashmere) have been recycled.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN CASHMERE AND OTHER FABRICS?
Is Cashmere More Sustainable than Merino?
Remember how we mentioned that it requires the hair of four goats to produce one sweater? Alternatively, just one merino sheep can produce enough for eight to 10 sweaters.
Merino is relatively similar to cashmere (just not as soft, really), but is considered to be a much more sustainable option. Merino sheep tend to be raised in areas where the topography doesn’t make it suitable for much else.
Is There a Cashmere Ethical Alternative?
While producers have experimented with a range of synthetic alternatives for cashmere, they haven’t been successful. That said, however, there are other natural fibers that might be a suitable ethical alternative: alpaca wool and yak wool.
Raising alpacas in the Peruvian mountains don’t come with the same environmental concerns experienced in the cashmere industry. They don’t overgraze, are a well-established part of the natural ecosystem, and provide livelihood opportunities for indigenous farmers.
They’re also a culturally and economically respected animal, so you can feel a little more comfortable. Though always check sourcing practices, because there are no guarantees.
Yak wool has been called “the new cashmere” by numerous entities. That’s not just because it’s actually softer than a lot of Grade B and C cashmere (between 18-20 microns), but because it’s far more sustainable and could prove to be the future of Mongolia’s cashmere industry.
Mongolia’s indigenous Khangai yak is a gentle grazer, with a shorter tongue that does not pull out the grass by its roots. Combined with the fact that they are usually raised by traditional nomadic herding families that continually move with their animals, they prevent overgrazing in one particular area.
Plus, their fur yields itself to hand-combed harvesting far better than shearing.
CASHMERE CLOTHING BRANDS
Whether you’re looking for something to treat yourself, or want to purchase a cashmere scarf as a gift, there are some brands that are extremely conscious about their cashmere.
Naadam is relatively new to the cashmere scene, but they’re already making waves. Everything in their range—from sustainable socks to sweaters and scarves—is made with what they call “the only cruelty-free cashmere.”
They hand-comb their goats in a traditional and gentle way, pay higher direct-to-supplier prices to herders (along with other benefits like health care and livestock insurance), provide livestock insurance and veterinary care funds for their herders, and give back through a partnership with the Gobi Revival Fund.
Even more importantly, they set herding limits and winter their goats in an area the size of Manhattan to minimize overgrazing. The Bayangovi region in which their herds are located is also less fragile and susceptible to desertification than others in the Gobi desert.
When it comes to traceable, sustainable cashmere, Naadam simply can’t be bleat.
In 2017, Patagonia was one of the many brands that began to question their relationship with cashmere. They quit cold turkey and chose to use something else for things like their comfy menswear and cozy organic hoodies. Now, they only use recycled cashmere (blended with 5% virgin wool) that’s sourced as scraps from European factories.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON CASHMERE
Despite the few brands that are committed to sustainable and ethical cashmere, we still have a long way to go.
Discerning those that are making a genuine effort from those that aren’t is even more difficult given the lack of transparency. Even when you’re purchasing top quality cashmere from a sustainable brand, it’s likely that they don’t know much about the treatment of the goats or the environmental impact.
The burden unfortunately falls on us as responsible consumers to comb out the legitimate threads. Just remember “ethical cashmere” is a big selling point, so be sure that the brand can back up their claims and don’t fall victim to greenwashing.
That said, if you’re looking for the GOAT of cashmere sweaters, secondhand or vintage is the way to go. If you’re needing something new, look for producers who use recycled cashmere.
Unless a brand is an open book on these details, and we mean open book(!) it’s best to avoid them because the default of this super soft fabric is certainly not soft on the planet or the animals that produce it.
We’re curious: is the ethics of cashmere something you’ve thought about before? Are you willing to fork out on ethical and eco friendly cashmere, or is it a fabric you would still generally avoid? Let us know in the comments below.