What Is Cashmere? And Is It Ethical and Sustainable?
12 Apr

Material Guide: How Ethical Is Cashmere?

Cashmere. One of the rarest and most luxurious fibres in the world. This exceptionally silky material is said to be three times as warm as wool and is known to be long-lasting.  But what is cashmere exactly? And is it sustainable and ethical?

The Good On You team has decided to have a look at the impacts of the material on the planet, people and animals.

Where does cashmere come from?

Cashmere production is said to have originally started around the 13th century, in the Kashmir region.

Until the 19th century, cashmere shawls were used by Iranian and Indian rulers for religious and political ceremonies. In the 18th century, Europeans discovered the fabric and started importing it in Europe, and especially in Scotland and France, where its popularity exploded.

Nowadays, cashmere still comes from Asia, where it’s produced and refined before being sent West.

What is cashmere and how it is made?

Cashmere doesn’t come from sheep, but from goats. Although the soft fibre can be taken from any type of goat, there is that one nomadic breed that produces hair fine enough. This breed is found between Mongolia, Southwest China, Iran, Tibet, Northern India and Afghanistan.

These goats have very little fat to protect them in the winter from the cold arid plains, so they develop soft, fleecy fibres underneath their coat, on the underbelly. These hairs are what makes cashmere.

When the temperatures rise, the goats naturally shed their coats. That’s when producers comb out the fine hair, sort it by hand, send it to facilities to be cleaned, refined, baled and shipped to Europe, where they’re sold to companies.

Is cashmere ethical and sustainable?

Now that you know a bit more about what cashmere is, you might be wondering how is it affecting the planet, people and animals?

Because of the rarity of the material (it takes four goats to produce enough hair to make one sweater), cashmere was initially expensive. It’s something you invested in and passed on to your children and grandchildren, the fabric getting softer with time.

But these days, with the advent of fast fashion (her again?), it’s become easy to find cashmere beanies, scarfs and crewnecks at very competitive prices.

But as always with fast fashion, when you get a low price, someone or something is paying, somewhere.

Goats are the first to pay the price of cheap production. As they have very little fat, shearing them too early mid-winter means they can freeze to death.

The grasslands of the Asian regions where the goats roam are also suffering. The increase in demand for cashmere came with the pressure to lower cost, and so a decrease in the price of the raw material. Herders now need more goats to produce the same amount of material. More goats mean more mouths to feed and overpopulation is killing these lands: once green and unspoilt, these regions are quickly becoming deserts. This does not only affect these specific regions but creates an ecological imbalance for the planet.

With concerns about climate change at the forefront of everyone’s minds these days, it is important to recognise the devastating effect cashmere production can have on the planet. In recent years, there has been an increase in the phenomenon unique to Mongolia known as a dzud. Basically, this is when a summer drought is followed by very cold and snowy winter. Not only does this impact quality of the fabric, but also causes the deaths of large swaths of the goats. Mongolian herders have been increasing the size of their herds, which in turn degrades the land even further.

Cashmere production can also have a social impact. There’s a growing concern regarding the working conditions of cashmere goat herders, who have to increase herd sizes to maintain their income as prices are driven down. Plus, we know that the fashion supply chain lacks transparency, and the cashmere industry is no exception. With the lowing costs of the material, farmers also face the risk of being underpaid, a common issue in fashion.

Some improvements

Ethical and sustainable fashion pioneers Stella McCartney and Patagonia, both rated ‘Good’ by us, have stopped using virgin cashmere fibre and now only working with recycled cashmere.

What can we do?

All a woman needs to be chic is a raincoat, two suits, a pair of trousers and a cashmere sweater.

Hubert de Givenchy

But not any kind of cashmere. Unethical and unsustainable is not chic.

At Good On You, we always recommend checking a brand before you buy from it. Look for transparency and if the brand is giving information about where the fabric is sourced from and how it’s handled.

Cashmere is a natural fabric, meaning its biodegradable, which is better than most synthetic fabrics, but we now know the environmental and social impacts it can have. So, our recommendation is to buy recycled or reused cashmere.

Final words of advice, buying second hand is always the best option as you’re not generating more waste. So next time you’re in your favourite vintage store, have a look for cashmere and who knows, you might be surprised.

Learn more about sustainable and ethical materials.

Editor's note

Feature image via Unsplash. Good On You publishes the world’s most comprehensive ratings of fashion brands’ impact on people, the planet and animals. Use our Directory to search more than 3,000 brands. We may earn a commission on sales made using our offer codes or affiliate links.

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