There is a crisis in cashmere. Climate change, the mining industry, and the voracious global demand of cashmere have caused the lush grasslands of both Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia to decline into dry desert. Needless to say, today’s cashmere goats live in stressed and low-nutrition environments, growing weak, unhealthy coats of fleece. As a knitwear label using cashmere, and not wishing to contribute further to environmental damage, what is a designer to do?
Conscious of the Earth’s limited resources, Ply–Knits tries to take as many responsible sourcing and design decisions where possible. First, the deliberate choice is to source deadstock or upcycled yarn from mills or other knitters, instead of purchasing new yarn. Surprisingly, this limiting factor is creativity rewarding, as it sets tight limitations on color and material available, forcing creative thinking outside the box. Secondly, all knitwear is made fully-fashioned. As only the necessary parts are knitted out—the sleeves, the waistband, the collar—there is little material wastage. For example, Ply–Knits’ knitted pants create 30% less material waste than a pair of denim jeans. Lastly, Ply–Knits is very rigorous with production standards. Carolyn’s family-owned knitwear factory TL Tricots is up to par with international criteria for sustainable excellence. It is validated in three pillars, measuring social, ethical and environmental standards. These principles include:
- Respectful fair labor
- Minimal waste of resources
- Use of organic energy sources and waste-disposal methods
- Friendly animal welfare
- Positive contributions to the economic and social development of the community.
Trouble in Outer Mongolia
Cashmere yarns from several decades ago are higher in quality than the new ones you can buy today. The reason is a quick lesson in Outer Mongolian history and politics.
Where are Cashmere Goats From?
Most cashmere goats live in Inner Mongolia and Outer Mongolia. When a sweater label says "Scottish cashmere" or "Italian cashmere," that means the raw Mongolian cashmere goat hairs were imported into Scotland and Italy for spinning into yarn. The best goats live in Inner Mongolia, which is a part of China. This region is different to Outer Mongolia.
Outer Mongolian Politics
In 1996, Mongolia's socialist government ended its 70 year run. With the end of the commune system, families were suddenly reliant on their herds for new expenses that had previously been covered by the government, including medical bills, school fees, water, fertilizer and feed.
As state-owned enterprises deregulated under the market economy, herders were now free of previous strict herd-size caps. Quantity quickly preceded over quality since herders get paid for cashmere by the kilo. In attempts to boost output, herders crossbreed fine-haired Cashmere goats with coarse-haired Angora goats. As a result, from 1990 to 2010, the cashmere goat population increased by 500%, jumping from 4 million to 20 million.
Change In Quality
Moreover, the Mongolian government began subsidizing cashmere output, and pays herders twice the amount to market prices. This gave herders incentive to merely maximize quantity, not quality. For example, herders are keeping their older male goats, which produce very coarse hairs, around instead of culling them. The cross-section of a herd, which used to be 4% male goats, has swelled to 25% male.
As a result, much more coarse hairs have been in the market. This is sadly why cashmere you buy today, even from top brands, is not as high quality your grandmother's. It would take a lot of time to reset the equilibrium and rebreed pure, fine-haired, goat herds.
There is a little known environmental impact with cashmere. Cashmere goats graze in open pastures, and are, in fact, not great for environmental preservation, and ecological sustainability.
Cashmere goats eat by plucking out grass with roots, which stops pastures from growing back. On the other hand, merino sheep graze just the tops of grass and do not destroy the pastures.
Yet, herd sizes continue to increase exponentially. "The cost of living increased for the herders, so they raised more livestock," said Hu Jingping, director of the Inner Mongolia Grassland Area Cooperation and Sustainable Development Research Center. "But the grasslands didn't get any bigger."
With more and more swelling herds, plus rapid growth of other industries like mining, Mongolia's grasslands are rapidly eroding into dry, dusty desert. Direct links can point to how desertification therefore destroys nearby soybean fields, depletes arable land, and increases the frequent sandstorms and air pollution that engulf Outer Mongolia and China every Spring.
Furthermore, the rapid desertification impacts Mongolia's ecological cycle, such as native populations of endangered herbivores like ibex, saiga antelopes, chiru antelopes. The threat spreads along the food chain, to the carnivorous snow leopard population, and so forth into Mongolia's ecological cycle.