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Is Cashmere Ever Sustainable or Ethical?

Written by Lauren Spirk, a World Changer Co. intern based in Columbus, Ohio.



*DISCLAIMER: article may cause distress as its material and material on certain links provided, include graphic information and images*


During the winter months, one of our favorite things to do is get cozy in our favorite warm sweater, right?


Usually, that sweater is made from a material called cashmere, once a high-priced commodity fibre, that is now used more often than not. It’s soft, durable, and makes us feel good when we’re getting ready for the change of seasons.


But would we still feel good, warm, and cozy knowing that the sweater we’re wearing came at the expense of another life?


The cashmere goat, who originally comes from Kashmir, India, is the life at which I’m talking about.


 

Where Does Cashmere Come From?


Cashmere goats are mostly raised on farms in Mongolia, China, and Afghanistan. These places have dry, arid environments, and can reach sub-zero temperatures. All of which contribute to a cashmere goat producing their undercoat.


This undercoat is where cashmere fibers come from. Its natural warming properties, soft feel, and durability is what makes this fibre highly sought after.



 

The Process


Historically, fibres were collected from cashmere goats as a byproduct of their natural shedding process. This would not be harmful, as it would be the same as picking up your dog’s hair off the carpet.


As trading practices emerged, and as more people heard about cashmere and its benefits, the demand for this fibre gravely increased.


Due to modern day high demands, especially within the Western region, cashmere goat farmers no longer go about collecting these fibres in that way. Instead, the undercoats are retrieved by either of two processes called live plucking and combing.


Screenshot of PETA's Asia Investigation video


Live plucking is when farmers physically hand pluck the undercoats out of cashmere goats. During this process, the goats are forcibly held down and restrained, all while being awake and alive.


Combing is when farmers use a metal brush or comb-like tool to rake out the undercoats of cashmere goats. During this process, goats are tied up by all four of their legs and roughly combed. Hairs are being pulled out of their skin by the masses, causing goats to scream and cry through the process. Afterwards, the goats are left with bruises, scratches, and open wounds on their bodies.


These processes not only cause detrimental physical harm, but they also cause mental trauma to these animals. They are in complete pain and distress without any way of receiving help.


 

No Longer of Good Use


Because of the high demand of cashmere, these undercoat harvesting practices are happening at premature growth stages.


Instead of waiting for cashmere goats to naturally shed their undercoats, which produces the highest quality of cashmere fibres, undercoats are being removed before properly developing.


This leaves cashmere goats susceptible to their environment, as their undercoats are a natural form of insulation during the winter months, in which temperatures reach below zero.


Once their undercoats are harvested, cashmere goats are no longer seen as useful and are often killed in traumatic and unethical ways. 


Naturally, cashmere goats have an average lifespan of 12 years, but with them being primarily raised solely for their undercoat fur, these animals are not seeing life past a year or two of age.



 

It Doesn't Matter the Cost


It doesn’t matter if you’re buying a cashmere sweater from Target or Louis Vuitton, the way in which cashmere fibres are obtained is going to be very similar, if not the exact same.


In a recent investigation by PETA, they found that well-known cashmere suppliers of high-end fashion brands like Burberry, Chanel, Dior, Gucci, Prada, and yes, Louis Vuitton, were using harmful and abusive handling practices of cashmere goats.


These companies fall into the category of “green washing,” as they claim to be turning new leaves and using “sustainable” and “ethical” practices.


In PETA’s investigation, they found that these suppliers were certified by and following the standards of Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), an international non-profit organization claiming to promote sustainable and ethical efforts within the cashmere industry supply chain.



 

SFA Standards


As per SFA’s “Statement of Intent”, their standards cover the biggest market share for certified cashmere. This means they set the standards for most of the “sustainably sourced” cashmere within the industry.


In this same statement, they reveal that their standards are under revision, as there have been multiple stakeholders who have raised concerns over SFA’s animal welfare requirements, or lack thereof.


“Some stakeholders have since raised concerns that the animal welfare requirements may not meet evolving consumer expectations” (sustainablefibre.org, 2023).


Their new standards were supposed to be published and effective as of January 2024, but instead, SFA decided to push back the deadline for revising their standards, as they claim that further development and research needs to be done.


In the meantime, producers are to keep following the old standard guidelines, to which their disclaimer states, “No guarantee, warranty or representation is made as to the accuracy or completeness of the SFA Cashmere Standard and other documents, or information sources referenced in it” (sustainablefibre.org, 2023).


This means that SFA does not have a formal process of recording or documenting, if any of their producers are following their already disingenuous standards.


It also states, “Compliance with the standard is not intended to, nor does it, replace, contravene or otherwise alter the requirements of any applicable global, national, state or local governmental statutes, laws, regulations, ordinances or other requirements” (sustainablefibre.org, 2023).


This means that, if any of SFA’s cashmere producers are in countries or other places with no animal welfare or environmental regulations, these producers can abide by those laws, or lack thereof, instead of SFA’s, because they do not override them.


Lastly, their disclaimer states, “Compliance with the SFA Cashmere Standard is voluntary for non-members and is neither intended to, nor does it, create, establish or recognize any legally enforceable obligations or rights against the SFA and/or its members or stakeholders. Users shall have no legal cause of action against the SFA and/or its members or stakeholders for failing to comply with the standard” (sustainablefibre.org, 2023).


All of which ultimately means, none of SFA’s producers are legally bound or obligated to follow any of their rules or standards, nor will they face any consequences for failing to do so.



 

Other Consequences


Aside from employing animal abuse practices, the process of raising cashmere goats for a demanding industry has environmental impacts.


One of the major risks is soil degradation. This is when a soils’ fertilizing properties decrease, making it incapable of reproducing what it once did.


This can then lead to desertification, which is essentially when a land that contained rich and healthy soil, is now turned into a desert, with dry-like sand.


This happens because of the goats grazing. With high demands for mass amounts of cashmere, comes the farming of mass amounts of cashmere goats. The land cannot handle this, as the constant grazing leaves no time for the land to naturally heal and regenerate itself – no time for grass to grow back after it’s been eaten.



 


The Verdict


First, I want to say thank you to everyone who stuck with reading this article, as it contains information about some harsh realities.


Second, I must ask the question again ... is cashmere ever sustainable or ethical?

I’d have to say, it’s a no for me.


If you love cashmere, which I’m sure a lot of you do, I think the best way to sustainably and ethically acquire these products is to buy them secondhand.


Another way to stick up for these innocent animals and help the environment, is to buy products made from plant-based and eco-friendly materials, such as cork, hemp, cellulose, and organic cotton.


Wool can also be a great alternative to cashmere. The Textile Exchange's Responsible Wool Standard program helps promote traceability of wool that is produced with ethical environmental, social, and animal welfare practices. You can read more about the RSW program here.


To shop brands that already utilize these materials and truly commit to implementing sustainable and ethical practices, check out our directory! You can also read our other blog to learn more about different fabrics and their impacts.

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