The Problem With Cashmere

In a time when we are constantly questioning fashion’s impact on the environment, many people are becoming more aware of the devastating consequences of the industry – but some aspects of it seem to have evaded the scrutiny. As we learn more about the provenance of our clothes, some knitwear materials are still seen as “natural” – when in reality they are only natural when still on the animal who was born with them.

Cashmere is one of the most sought-after fabrics in luxury fashion – it was worth $2.66 billion in 2018. It is considered a luxury material because of its softness and warmth: as cashmere goats live in the Himalayan area, where temperatures can drop to -30 degrees Celsius, their hair has warming properties. Virtually all luxury brands have at some point used – and many still use – cashmere in their collections.

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But as more fashion consumers are increasingly interested in finding out more about where their clothes come from, more information is starting to emerge about the impact of the cashmere industry on the environment. As fashion brands churn out a larger number of collections than ever and more fast-fashion brands are using this fibre, production has ramped up, answering the demand for cheap cashmere – with devastating consequences.

American cult brand Everlane features ‘Grade A cashmere’ in its cardigans and knit collections. Credit: Everlane.

Most cashmere in the world comes from China and Mongolia, and a large part of those areas is already in danger of desertification. Roughly 65% of Mongolia’s grasslands are degraded, and 90% of the country’s land is at risk of desertification. Grazing cashmere goats contribute largely to soil degradation, which leads to desertification: when these animals graze, they eat the entire plant, with the roots, which prevents it from growing back. And these animals are big eaters: they consume 10% of their body weight in food each day. Overgrazing is linked to 35.8% of all forms of degradation.

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As other industries that use animals on a large scale, the cashmere industry is rampant with cruelty to animals. Investigative footage from PETA Asia has shown workers holding down the animals and stepping on them, bending their limbs into unnatural positions and tearing the hair from their bodies with metal combs. Animals left with bloody wounds as a result of this process received no pain relief or veterinary care. One farmer described shearing as “very stressful” to the animals. The process also removes the animals’ natural insulation, which makes them vulnerable to the elements and opens them up to illness.

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After PETA exposed the cruelty involved in the industry, fashion giants H&M and ASOS both promptly banned the material from their ranges – ASOS did so in a mass-ban of animal fabrics that also included mohair, silk and feathers. H&M committed to a ban on “conventional cashmere”, which was the only kind that it sold. PETA, of course, was happy about the developments.

“Frightened goats’ hair is torn out, and then the animals are hit with hammers and hacked to death – all to make cashmere jumpers and scarves,” said PETA Director Elisa Allen in an official statement. “PETA urges all retailers to follow H&M and ASOS in dropping cashmere and asks consumers to leave cruelly produced items on the rack.”

Consumers who are concerned with cruelty to animals can choose innovative plant-based materials such as hemp, which grows without any need for chemical fertilisers and is ideal for organic farming. Vegan outerwear brand Hemp Tailor has launched a range of knitwear made with recycled hemp and organic cotton – another great choice for warming, ethical and cruelty-free knitwear. Organic cotton uses less water, pesticides and fertilisers than conventional cotton, and is a vegan fashion lover’s year-round wardrobe staple.

Hemp Tailor features animal fur-free materials in its jackets and coats
Hemp Tailor creates collections without the use of animal wool or fur. Credit: Hemp Tailor.

Another option is the little-known but up-and-coming fabric soybean cashmere, which is biodegradable and mimics the warmth and comfort of animal-derived cashmere. This material is biodegradable with a cradle-to-cradle approach and free from any petrochemicals.

And last but definitely not least, there is Tencel – a wood-pulp cellulose fibre made with a closed-loop technology, meaning that the water and chemicals used in the process are re-used. All these materials are versatile and eco-friendly, without contributing to the misery and killing of animals.

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Feature image via Everlane.

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