Cashmere: Sustainable Fiber or Environmental Disaster?

Goats in a very dry landscape huddling together.

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In theory, cashmere is the TreeHugger's ideal natural fiber. Knit or woven, it produces long-lasting garments. Quality cashmere will not pill and will keep its form for years, even generations, getting softer the more it is used. Knit garments can be hand-washed, no dry-cleaning impacts. The goats which are the source of cashmere fiber may be sheared or combed, but research suggests that combing results in better yield and less "loss" due to goats injuring each other as they huddle for warmth in the last blustery spring days. Goats which are properly kept and combed should not tweak the conscience of all but the most extreme animal protectionist (who will suggest a petroleum-based alternative for equal warmth and breathability, which has its own drawbacks). And now cashmere is so cheap, everyone can benefit from this fiber that is 8 times warmer than wool, stores without wrinkles and modulates its insulating capacity based on humidity (so you are never too warm but always warm enough). Is there a catch?Indeed, there is a catch. Cashmere is a textbook study in the Tragedy of the Commons*, which describes the inevitable outcome of a capitalistic market economy where the resource costs are not fully calculated in the production costs. This is the case in China today, where desertification and increasingly severe dust storms arise from the overpopulation of goats, eating the grasslands bare and piercing the protective topsoils with their hooves. Goats consume over 10% of their body weight daily in roughage, eating to very close to the roots and stripping bark from seedlings, preventing the regrowth of trees.

An excellent article in the Chicago Tribune documents cashmere's true cost. Millions of goats are farmed on land suitable for only a fraction of the population. The farmers are only beginning to glimpse the reality that their cash boom-crop is so unsustainable that the balance is tipping in front of their very eyes.

The Good News

A farmer brushing a goat for its cashmere wool.

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There are people researching the sustainability of cashmere production. One example is described at the SARE(Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) site. There are small to medium size farms protecting the humane methods of raising and farming goats, such as Chianti Cashmere Goat Farm, which specifically sells only to European farmers, presumably to ensure the welfare of the animals they sell.

So what should a TreeHugger cashmere fan do?

A woman holding folded wool cashmere sweaters.

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Do you have to give up what you thought was a good choice of winter wear to stay true to your TreeHugger principles? It is, as usual, not an easy question to answer. As cashmere has the potential to be a good renewable resource when properly managed, the right answer is two-fold. First, look for the right cashmere product, some tips are given below. Second, realize that you cannot change the behavior of Chinese (or other) farmers. But you can learn from the tragedy of the commons and work as a TreeHugger to make the right choices. Ask yourself: where am I using resources in the commons at an unsustainable level? And then use the many tips in TreeHugger and elsewhere to control your own consumption. If you are in a good position, push for the implementation of controls, ideally certifications of preferred farming methods which can make visible to the consumers the source and sustainability of the cashmere they buy.

Tips for buying cashmere

Cashmere scarves in neutral colors in a pile.

cristianoalessandro / Getty Images

Buy cashmere which will last: the best way to reduce overfarming is to reduce demand by choosing products with good lifespans. How do you know which sweater is high quality?

Don't pick the softest sweater.

 Woman's hands with painted nails touches a soft wool sweater.

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The manufacturer has certainly used a looser knit to minimize the raw material input and the softness of the fiber at purchase is achieved by using yarn that has a high percent of shorter fibers on the surface. These fibers will "pill" (form small balls on the surface), resulting in a shorter sweater life and less pleasure in the joyously plush fabric that will evolve from the higher-quality garment after a period of wear.

Pick a two-ply or four-ply wool.

Close up of blue and brown yarn balls.

Svetlana Dolgova / Getty Images

Single ply yarn is cheaper, but it cannot produce a sweater you want to last a decade. Ply is the term used to describe how many single "threads" of fiber are twisted together to create the final string of yarn from which the garment is made. The twisting of several threads together strengthens the yarn, improving durability.

Does buying a more expensive sweater guarantee the goats were treated humanely?

Grey and cream sweaters on a rack in a store.

Volker Schlichting / EyeEm / Getty Images

Obviously, industrial farming techniques can reduce raw material costs and may be a hidden cost in a cheap garment. However, there is really no way the consumer can know this because even the high-end fashion suppliers will source wool as available. There is no system yet widely available for labelling to indicate cashmere raised under preferable ecological conditions and animal husbandry techniques.

If you have not yet read the classic paper by Garrett Hardin, go to Tragedy of the Commons.

Via: Inspired by Chicago Tribune