How Is Cashmere Made and Is It Sustainable?

Some grasslands are straining from the popularity of this soft goat fiber

Assortment of Rolled-Up Pashminas, Close-Up
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Cashmere is a type of fiber made from the soft, downy undercoat of cashmere goats. It has been used for centuries to make fabric, yarn, and other materials, dating back to the original shawls and other handmade materials produced in Kashmir, India (the word "cashmere" comes from an anglicization of Kashmir).

Fabric made from cashmere fiber has long been popular due to its extremely soft texture, as well as its warmth and the way it drapes. It is also biodegradable, which is a huge environmental advantage. However, cashmere has also raised some concerns about the well-being of the goats who create the fiber and the environmental damage the animals can cause as they graze.

How Is Cashmere Made?

A cashmere goat is any breed capable or producing cashmere wool. Most goat breeds aside from Angora can produce cashmere down to varying degrees, including dairy goats. Since they are not a distinct breed, there is no such thing as a "purebred" cashmere goat.

Cashmere goat being combed
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There are two types of fiber in the fleece of cashmere goats. A protective outer coat consists of coarse fiber, or guard hair, which tends to be straight and relatively long. The downy undercoat features the fine, crimpy, and soft fiber commonly referred to as cashmere. While the guard hairs can be up to 8 inches in length, cashmere itself is generally between 1 and 4 inches. The cashmere undercoat can be plucked, combed, or sheared in the spring, during the molting season.

Once they are removed from a goat, the fibers are cleaned and processed. The processing removes coarse guard hairs to increase the ratio of downy cashmere, and the resulting fabric is softer — and generally more expensive — if it has fewer guard hairs remaining. Once removed, the guard hairs may be used for other purposes, such as rugs or brushes.

Cashmere is typically harvested from goats once a year. One individual goat may produce between 1 and 3 pounds of fleece, although it often takes several goats to produce enough fabric for a single garment. China is the world's leading producer of raw cashmere, followed by Mongolia, Kyrgyzstan, and other countries in the Middle East.

Environmental Impact of Cashmere

Cashmere goats don't have a lot of body fat, which is why they grow such enviable fleece to protect themselves from the cold. If they are shorn, combed, or plucked too early in the year, before the weather has begun to warm up in spring, they could suffer or die without this natural protection.

Sheep and goats freely grazes in Gobi desert of Mongolia
Sheep and goats grazing in the Gobi Desert, Mongolia. Chinguun Batkhuyag / Getty Images

The goats also cause problems in the grasslands where they graze, particularly a region in the southwestern Gobi Desert known as the Alashan Plateau. As the financial appeal of raising cashmere goats grew in recent decades, more herders began switching from camels to goats. Due to the difference in the goats' hooves and feeding habits, this shift has had a harmful effect on the ecology and hydrology of the region.

Goats have ravenous appetites. In addition, rather than simply grazing the tops of plants, they tend to munch all the way down to the ground and even pull up the roots. The shapes of their hooves are a problem, too — unlike the broad, softer feet of a camel, goats have smaller, sharper hooves that pierce the soil surface.

As the scale of goat herding grew, the combination of these effects began to degrade the grasslands and accelerate the spread of desertification. The region has faced recurring droughts and dust storms, spelling trouble for local wildlife, people, and even the goats, whose diets sometimes have to be supplemented with grain when they can't find enough grass to eat. The dust from these growing deserts is often carried east by winds, mixing with pollution from coal-burning in China before soaring across the Pacific Ocean to North America, a journey that can take less than a week.

The cashmere goat boom has also had a negative impact on the wildlife in the arid ecosystems of Mongolia, India, and China’s Tibetan plateau, affecting many vulnerable or endangered species like saiga, chiru, Bactrian camel, snow leopard, khulan, and wild yak. More goats and domesticated livestock displace these large mammals by reducing their food sources and overtaking their ranges. The reduction in biodiversity is also the result of conflicts with herders, predation of wildlife by dogs, and retaliatory killings, according to a study published in the journal Conservation Biology.

Alternatives to Cashmere

Spools and reels of spun cashmere wool
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Cashmere is biodegradable and, if managed properly, can be sustainable, as goats grow their heavy coats every winter. However, it can be hard to trace the precise source, let alone the sustainability, of cashmere garments. And due to the influx of cheaper cashmere from China in recent decades, a significant swath of affordable cashmere sweaters out there likely came from goats who are unwittingly helping turn grasslands into desert.

Despite the long history of cashmere, there are also many other fibers worth considering that deal much less environmental damage. Yaks, for example, produce wool that is reportedly as soft and warm as cashmere, but with less harm for grasslands from their hooves.

Of course, softness isn't everything. Even if they all don't quite match the precise properties of cashmere, there are also many vegan fabrics to choose from, which aren't made from animals at all. These range from organic cotton, hemp, and linen to beech tree fiber and soy fabric.

How to Wear Cashmere Responsibly

  • Buy used cashmere garments. Good quality cashmere is incredibly durable and looks like new even after years of use. Whenever possible, opt for second hand or older cashmere pieces to reduce demand for new products.
  • Look for recycled cashmere. Companies like Patagonia, Reformation, and Naked Cashmere use recycled cashmere for their winter apparel. The Global Recycle Standard Certification is another good indicator that your garments are made from recycled fibers.
  • Check where your cashmere comes from. Since it is impossible to pinpoint the exact source of your cashmere, the next best thing is to choose brands that require sustainability practices from their sources. The Sustainable Fibre Alliance is an organization dedicated to ensuring responsible production practices throughout the entire cashmere supply chain, from herders to retailers. Look for brands associated with the organization.
View Article Sources
  1. Spina, Marco. “Annual Cashmere Market Report.” The Schneider Group, 2019.

  2. Berger, Joel et al. "Globalization Of The Cashmere Market And The Decline Of Large Mammals In Central Asia." Conservation Biology, vol. 27, no. 4, 2013, pp. 679-689., doi:10.1111/cobi.12100