The sustainability of cashmere

Image: courtesy of Todd & Duncan

Cashmere is made from the fibres found on the underbelly of particular breeds of goats that are predominantly located in China and Mongolia. It’s a soft, warm and luxurious fibre that was once very expensive to purchase. In the 20th century it was a relatively rare purchase; a unique piece in your wardrobe that would be handed down through generations. Over the past thirty years or so, cashmere has seen a surge in popularity and accessibility. What was once a rare and sought-after fibre has now been adopted by the fast fashion industry. Cashmere garments and accessories can now be easily obtained both online and on the high street at prices never thought possible before.

This surge in popularity and demand comes at a cost – it translated into immense pressure on the farmers who herd the goats, negatively impacting the goats themselves, the farmers and the landscape.

In the last thirty years, many farmers have had to increase their herds to keep up with demand. It takes the fleece of approximately four goats to create a sweater, leading to a significant increase in the farmers' herds. The goats graze by pulling out the entire root of the grass, rather than just taking grass from above the ground. This means the grass needs to regrow after they have grazed in a particular area and, of course, the more goats there are, the more grass is being uprooted. Regions that were once green and lush are rapidly becoming deserts. The immense pressure to produce larger and larger quantities of cashmere not only impacted the environment substantially, but over time, also caused a lot of poorer quality cashmere to be produced.

Today, concerns about climate change, sustainability and welfare are at the forefront of everyone’s minds, consumers and brands alike. It’s clear that such effects on our planet are simply unacceptable and that we must make significant changes to the way we consume and produce.

To combat this, central to our belief is in returning to an older philosophy of rearing and enjoying cashmere – produce less, produce only the very highest quality, like cashmere once was and should be, so that a garment lasts much longer in a family, reducing the need to replace several times in one’s lifetime. This in turn reduces the unsustainably high demand on this precious fibre and the communities that produce it.

We therefore work with partners who are aligned with our values and are taking active steps to help reduce the environmental impact.

Our yarn supplier, Todd and Duncan for example, take these issues very seriously. Having spent 150 years producing yarn, they have witnessed this change in the cashmere industry first hand. As a result, they have made their own changes to the way they work and have been able to use their reputation in the industry to influence changes along their supply chain.

The vast majority of cashmere yarn produced by Todd and Duncan is made using fibres from China (including regions such as Inner Mongolia). Here, our suppliers and the local government have taken several steps to move towards more sustainable production of cashmere.

Protecting the Environment

Several policies have been introduced to combat overgrazing and desertification. Farmers now have free access to both grassland and irrigated land and they are required to move the goats around the area, allowing the land to replenish when needed. The goat’s diet mainly consists of grass which is taken from the pastures, the irrigated land is used to grow additional grass and maize which is a food supplement for the goats during the winter period. There is a limit to the number of goats each farmer can keep. Currently, this is one goat per 10 acres. This limit not only helps to protect the land but also results in a high level of care for the animals too.

Image: courtesy of Todd & Duncan

Each farmer tends to keep around 200 animals, but this will be a mix of both cashmere goats and other animals such as cows and sheep. This is a very small number and the animals are treated more like pets which provide an income for the farmers, encouraging a high level of care to the animals as they provide the means for the farmer’s family to survive and prosper.

Welfare of farmers and animals

When it comes to taking the fibres off the goats, rather than combing the goats, the traditional process used to obtain the fibres, most of the goats are shorn. This is much less stressful for the goats and is, therefore, the preferable option. In the regions where we source our cashmere fibres, the climate is warmer compared to other cashmere producing areas and so shearing would not negatively impact the goats as much – in colder climates, combing is preferable so that the goats retain some of the protection from their outer hair.

Image: courtesy of Todd & Duncan

Not only that, with government support, the farmers have built shelters to protect the goats after shearing. Education on best practice for keeping goats as well as free health monitoring and medicine is also provided free of charge.

One of our most important principles at Colhay's is ensuring that everyone in our supply chain is well looked after, right back to the farmers who herd the goats that the cashmere fibres come from. The farmers have access to the land mentioned above, free of charge, plus subsidies towards building a home. The government also improves infrastructure to provide electricity and better roads to the houses, meaning children from farming families have access to education in the surrounding communities.

When Colhay’s began, we had a vision of bringing back slow fashion, hoping for a return to the days when garments were worn over and over then passed down, rather than being disposed of after a few wears and contributing to the planet’s enormous waste problem. We wanted to create the highest quality pieces to allow this to happen and working with suppliers, such as Todd and Duncan, who share our values and outlook helps us move towards this goal.

Read more about how to care for your knitwear in our step by step guide here.