I was once offered a job herding goats in Mongolia. Seriously. We were working for an aid agency with its headquarters in Hong Kong, and were approached to go and support a development project in Outer Mongolia, farming cashmere goats. But we were young, it was cold there, and the goats in the picture looked a bit scary. Besides, we had already set our hearts on working in Cambodia where we did eventually end up, so the goats had to manage without my suburban British insights. They were probably very relieved.
I have however become much more interested in goats and cashmere now, partly from years teaching textiles and trying to stimulate students to question and learn about their clothes. But also, from recent forays into charity warehouses to collect recycled jumpers. We originally went to source lambswool, but were staggered by the amount of waste cashmere. The charity shops can’t sell it with holes in, or shrunken, and that is mainly why it gets thrown out.
This raises lots of questions, and we shouldn’t ignore the uncomfortable niggles from our consciences just because we like fluffy soft cardies. Natural fibres are not necessarily guilt-free or sustainable.
Traditionally cashmere is seen as luxurious, timeless, and crucially, aspirational. That’s the root of the problem: we all want to feel a bit posh. It’s a treat, it feels fantastic, and it’s now affordable. If a mixed fibre sweater is £35, and cashmere only £50, it’s not much more and we deserve something special sometimes. Don’t we?
But back to the goats. They live in a really cold place, which has led to them growing a thick soft undercoat to survive the long bitter winters, and we love those soft fibres. But they graze. A lot. The problem is that they graze the whole of the grass, roots and all, and their sharp hooves churn up the soil, so it is very hard to regrow. Hence the traditional herding from place to place by nomadic pastors. Which was all working well until we increased our demand to massive proportions, which has led to overgrazing by vast herds of goats, who incidentally breed really fast. Add in climate change affecting the winters and water supply, and the environmental cost is devastating to the grasslands and the indigenous other species.
Like a lot of issues around fashion and the environment, the upsurge in cashmere demand came about almost logically. If you’re a poor Mongolian herder and someone wants more of your product, that’s great. New technology to clean and process (or even blend) the fibres offered cheaper production, so that’s progress, right? Marketing the final product as ‘affordable luxury’ had us drooling for more, we didn’t need much persuading there. And only recently have we learnt to demand transparency in the sourcing and producing of our clothes. In many cases we are still being fobbed off with the bit of transparency the manufacturers offer in their publicity, but the full story is rarely told. Only top brands like Johnston’s of Elgin, Brora, Loro Piana, and some recent ethical brands like Naadam, are working with the Mongolians to establish responsible farming methods.
So, we need to get a whole lot more choosy. Fussy. Picky. Snobby even. It just isn’t that cheap to produce cashmere responsibly, and we should be very suspicious of low-priced jumpers in supermarkets or high street chains, they are ripping someone off somewhere. We need to constantly increase pressure on retailers and manufacturers to be properly accountable, and it wouldn’t hurt any of us to buy less clothes and make them last longer. Just don’t shrink them.