Cashmere Is Cheap These Days, but There's a Cost to That

Increased demand has taken an environmental toll on the lands where goats are raised
By Gina Carey,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 30, 2023 9:28 AM CST
Cashmere Is Cheap These Days, but There's a Cost to That
A cashmere goat stands outside a house made of mud and rock in remote Kharnak village in the cold desert region of Ladakh, India.   (AP Photo/Mukhtar Khan)

Buying a cashmere scarf or sweater was once a pricy purchase, but the cost of the luxe fabric has gone down in recent years. And according to NPR, the reasons why aren't so great. They caught up with landscape ecologist Ginger Allington, whose research has tracked something of a vicious cycle with cashmere goats in Central Asia, northern China, and Mongolia. As grasslands there have degraded significantly, the goats produce coarser (and lower quality) wool, which fetches less money at market—leading herders to add goats to their herds, thus perpetuating the cycle. "Goats have been raised in this area for a long time," she says, "but there are just many, many more of them than there used to be."

Allington calls goats "efficient browsers and grazers." Not only do they eat a whole lot more than other livestock common to the region, but they do so with vigor. "Sheep nibble the tops of grasses but leave the base and roots intact," she notes in a New York Times op-ed, while "goats eat plants down to the roots so they cannot regrow, degrading habitat and causing soil erosion." In Mongolia (where 40% of cashmere comes from, per CNN), 58% of the rangeland has been compromised, with 23% classified as "heavily or fully" degraded. As goats graze in poorer conditions, they end up growing lower quality coats.

On the consumer side, Allington notes that all people see is a lower price tag. She laments some marketing of cashmere, which she says hints at sustainability and quality, while the truth is just the opposite. The global market is projected to grow to $4.4 billion by 2030 (up from $3.2 billion in 2022), and she believes there is little pathway to making the fabric sustainable, while others stress pushing the market to higher quality materials that will benefit growers. Allington suggests buying other types of fabrics or going vintage, where you are more likely to score a higher quality product. "A lot of the used, older cashmere that you can buy on eBay and from thrift stores—that's much likely a much higher-quality sweater that's going to last a lot longer," she tells NPR. (Cops thought they were saving a human, but found a very unhappy goat).

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