Wednesday 4 January 2012

Guest Post: The Planetary Cost of Cashmere

Today's post is something a little different. I'm very pleased to be publishing a guest blog post written by Grace from Bad Mom, Good Mom. In fact, she is also posting this content on her own blog, so if you already follow both our blogs and are getting a sense of déjà vu, then that is why! Grace is a very clever and knowledgeable lady with qualifications in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics, and when she's not sewing and looking after her daughter, she finds time to work for the goverment within the field of space and environmental science.

As you may be aware, as someone who sews and works in textiles, I am deeply concerned about the damage fabric and clothing production has on our planet. Yet I find it frustrating that much of what is known by governments regarding this damage has, to date, had little effect on those governments' policies and neither has that information been disseminated successfully so that consumers are suitably informed before making their choices. Grace has taken the time to educate us on a topic that I admit I previously knew nothing about: the cashmere industry.

So Zo asked her readers what bullshit they had uncovered recently. I emailed that I have a whole blog series about bullshit and that I felt a rising rant about cashmere bullshit. I promised to write this post and cross-post it on her blog.

So why was I so upset?

Last month, I had toured the giant Macy's in Union Square (San Francisco), which contained racks and racks of cashmere. They represented a lot of goats! 20-30 years ago, cashmere was a rare luxury, not an ubiquitous gift sold for $49.

Where did they all come from? How could there be enough goats in central Asia to make so many sweaters in so many outlets?

The media was full of stories about
how to be a discerning consumer of quality cashmere or how to avoid being fleeced by adulterated cashmere. Newspapers need to write upbeat stories that draw many readers and teach them how to consume (products from their advertisers). But fearless bloggers like Zoe question whether this consumption is even necessary.

I was in San Francisco for the
American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting and had met Ryan Boller from NASA Goddard, who was showing an improved algorithm for the detection of aerosols from space.

The global dust belt has not received as much press as the global fashion weeks so you might not be familiar with this story. (Aerosols can be dust, clouds--both liquid water and ice, pollution, sea spray and volcanic ash). Occasionally, dust can be injected into the jet stream, a fast-moving river of air that circles the globe. Asian dust ends up in north America, American dust ends up in Europe, European dust ends up in Asia and so on.

The Sahara desert used to be THE major source for dust, but there are other smaller seasonal sources, such as glaciers grinding rocks in Alaska. The amount of dust is rising, and global dust season is lengthening due to both growth in dust sources (industrialization and desertification) and lengthening of local dust seasons.

In recent years, Mongolia has become a major source of dust.
The Gobi desert is spreading up into the Mongolia Steppes and the goats did it. Or rather, we did it, with our shared lust for cashmere.

Pastoralism Unraveling in Mongolia explains

Sukhtseren Sharav has a herd of 150 goats and 100 sheep, and as they chew their way through everything else, and the sharilj spreads, he must shepherd them ever higher into the mountains to find fresh grazing land.

The lack of foraging terrain is not Mr. Sharav’s only worry. The price for cashmere, the wool made from the fleece of his goats, has plunged 50 percent from last year. The price of flour, his most essential food staple, has more doubled.

These are hard times for Mongolia’s cashmere industry, which provides jobs and income for a third of the country’s population of 2.6 million and supplies about 20 percent of the world’s market for the fluffy, feather-light fiber, prized for its warmth, delicate feel and long wear.

To compensate for low prices, herders have been increasing supply by breeding more goats — a classic vicious circle. Mongolia’s goat population is now approaching 20 million, the highest ever recorded.

Environmentalists and social scientists say this is destroying biodiversity and pastureland, and undermining herding livelihoods. But goats are hardier than other livestock, breed faster and can survive on sparser resources: so, the more the land is degraded, the more herders are driven to switch from cows, camels or other less destructive herds — another vicious circle.

This is a tragedy for the herders with global consequences. Aerosols are a strong feedback to the global radiative budget. In plain English, this means that dust traps heat. This can have both local and global consequences as the trapped heat changes the global air circulation, impacting storm patterns, heat waves, etc.

Ryan shared some examples. You can find more in the
NASA Earth Observatory Dust, Smoke and Haze page. Take a look at the dust traveling from Mongolia toward China in April 2011.

The sparsely vegetated grasslands of the Gobi frequently give rise to dust storms, especially in springtime.

Here's another example, from May 2008.

According to a May 27 report from the Agence France-Presse news agency, dust from this storm pushed Beijing’s pollution levels to the highest level, prompting the Beijing Environmental Protection Bureau to warn sensitive individuals to stay indoors.
Seeing the global-scale devastation caused by the cashmere industry, and learning of the suffering it has caused Mongolian herders has taken the luster off cashmere for me. I didn't purchase any this year (though I did knit a cotton/cashmere blend sweater this year with yarn purchased and stashed previously).

If you already have cashmere, don't sweat it.
Take good care of it so it lasts. I have cashmere sweaters that are 25+ years old (one bought new, two bought at thrift shops).

I hope that, after reading this, you will consume more carefully, and in smaller quantities. I further hope that your natural curiosity and bullshit detector will lead you to delve deeper.

I recommend:

Many thanks to Grace for writing this post and for allowing me to cross-post it so that it receives a bit more of the attention is so greatly deserves. I don't know about you, but the more I learn about the production, transportation and disposal of clothing and textiles, the more resolved I am to cut out all unnecessary consumption and only use existing/pre-loved textiles to clothe myself and sew with.


Clare said...

Ouf, that makes me feel bad. Seeing what's supposed to be a luxury yarn sold for £25 in Tesco has made me wonder how they're managing to do it so cheaply. Now I know. It is indeed bullshit.

Heather Lou said...

Thank you for this Zoe (really digging the info you've been providing on the eco cost of new clothing). I've stopped buying new clothes but will occasionally go on the J. Crew site and pant over their cashmere sweaters - no more of that now that I know this. Thankfully I discovered a great vintage store in Toronto that sells used cashmere sweaters for $30 each - that shall sate me from now on. I'm a cashmere junkie since it's the only knit that doesn't make me sweat or itch. Acrylic is the worst and wool can be too scratchy and bulky, but buying it new is obviously no longer an option. Thank you!

molly said...

This post is really deja vu for me. My university is doing research to help the government of Mongolia minimize dust pollution by using natural bacteria mixed into the soil to make it stronger and grow vegetation faster. A group in my department (civil engineering) takes hands-on-research trips to Mongolia about every other year even. I'm not working directly on that project so I didn't know that cashmere was such a major contributor to the dust problem!
Most of my everyday bullshit comes in the form of civil engineering issues like water being contaminated by natural gas "fracking" and such.

Corrine said...

Well, isn't this interesting? The market has been gutted with cheap cashmere for several years now. Quality cashmere is still available, for a price. I think that the only way to impact this trend is to not buy the cheap cashmere. Now, skip on down to Macy's and tell all those after Christmas shoppers with their 15% off sale priced cashmere your story, see what happens. FYI, clear the path to the cash register, you will be trampled! Getting the word out is the beginning, good luck!

Alexandra said...

I had no idea about the effects the market for cashmere was having on the environment, although now you've highlighted it, I'm not surprised in the least!

Leah Franqui said...

I've never bought new cashmere, I've only ever thrifted it or nuzzled up to my grandmother's giveaways, and now I'm so glad! The more I learn about textiles and the clothing industry, the less I want to be involved with any of it. Sewing my own clothing was a big step, and now I'm trying to buy less new fabric and find other ways to get thrifted fabric. I envy the UK it's charity shops, it's hard to find fabric in thrift stores here in Philadelphia.

Steph F. said...

Thank you for writing so detailed and poignant on this topic!

It is important to know the impact we're having, and it's so nice to have more sustainable options when we make the clothes ourselves.

Norma said...

Than you for posting this. I needed to know - I will be buying second hand only after this.

Lavender said...

Great post! The only cashmere I own is a vintage sweater that needs a bit of mending so that I can actually wear it. I'd love to sew a cashmere coat, but will have to wait until the upcycling gods answer.

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