The Unsustainability of Cashmere: Cashmere versus Alpaca

In the past couple of decades, the "democratisation" of the fashion market has caught up with cashmere. Once a commodity that was highly expensive, available to a private few; the products have become widely available, but not at the quality that one may expect.

Cashmere is under threat. Some luxury brands are more selective in their sourcing, utilizing the Mongolian cashmere that tends to have thinner and longer fibres. Although some brands do that, most do not, and in fact most source their cashmere from Chinese goats that were bred to produce quantity over quality. This means a cashmere garment from 50 years ago would have been made of a much finer material than it is now. The current practices are unsustainable and it can take as many as four cashmere goats to create a single sweater. As a comparison, a single alpaca can make up to four of our men's handmade alpaca sweaters, a stark contrast to the usability of cashmere.

While alpaca have minimal environmental impact and graze on open and sparsely populated land in the Andes, Cashmere production relies heavily on grasslands in certain geographies; these are increasingly becoming stressed and overpopulated. As a result, Cashmere is particularly vulnerable to environmental change.

As pointed out by the United Nations Development Programme, 90 percent of Mongolia is dry-land that is fragile and under escalating threat of desertification. In 2010, the combined impact of a drought that the previous summer along with an extremely intense winter, lead to the death of more than nine million livestock, of which most were cashmere goats.

Pier Luigi, the chairman of Italian fashion house Loro Piana, which specialises in Cashmere products has noted that in Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, where they source their cashmere, have suffered recent shortages. "You learn over the years how to balance these potential shortages," he says. "Regrettably, they continue to have an influence on the shepherds and their communities, on the animals, the environment."

However, the environmental obstacles facing cashmere have worsened. Many manufacturers increased the size of the herds, for example in only 16 years, from 1993 to 2009, Mongolia's livestock population doubled to 44 million. This puts intense pressure on land which in turn, leads to degradation of the grasslands used by the goats. The outcome is undernourished goats with coarser and thicker hairs, causing the supply of cashmere to shrink. To make up the lost revenue, herders breed bigger herds, setting the cycle off again.

"There's been a complete avalanche of people needing more and more cashmere, and pushing the price tag, pushing the supply chain," said James Sugden, a manager of luxury cashmere clothing tag, Brora, and former managing director of Scottish woollen mill, Johnstons of Elgin. "It has made a problem, insomuch as in some areas, some growers, tempted by higher amounts have gone for quantity rather than quality."

It is clear that this level of growth is not going to be possible into the future. Cashmere quality is suffering because of vast overdemand and shrinking supply. We have the solution, and that is to use alpaca. A far more sustainable and environmentally friendly fiber.

To find out more about sustainability, please visit our page located here.