A shepherd drives sheep and goats grazing in Murun, Khovsgol Province, Mongolia, on March 10, 2017. … [+]
© 2017 Bloomberg Finance LP
The love for cashmere, the coziest of winter fabrics, is challenging the natural ecosystem in Mongolia. As more brands sell cashmere sweaters, using virgin fibers, the incentive to herd goats in cashmere’s second-largest producing nation, Mongolia, increases, putting pressure on the grasslands that have historically canvassed this vast landscape.
Cashmere, once a luxury, is now everywhere: from fast fashion brands to premium luxury labels. It can be a $30 sweater (with less than 10 percent cashmere) or $700. In 2018, it was estimated to be a $2.6 billion market and growing steadily. But that yearning for a cashmere hoodie or jumpsuit is actually doing harm halfway across the globe. The United Nations Development Programme notes that 90 percent of Mongolia is drylands that could become deserts, if not preserved. Due to droughts and harsh winters, many of the animals, including cashmere goats, have suffered, and during extreme weather periods, died.
Yet more than 300,000 herders use the open grasslands to graze their animals, according to the World Conservation Society in Mongolia. If those numbers continue to rise, with more herders opting to partake in the lucrative cashmere business, that landscape could be altered permanently.
Brands such as Cuyana and Patagonia are focusing on recycled cashmere. Their sweaters, respectively, are made with 95 percent recycled cashmere, and five percent wool, meaning they’re opting out of that supply chain altogether and choosing a recycled product instead.
“By upcycling sweaters from existing fibers and using no extra dyes, our production process eliminates excess usage of water and energy,” says Shilpa Shah, co-founder of Cuyana, the San Francisco brand whose tagline reads, “Fewer, Better Things.”
Cuyana’s mock neck cashmere sweater is made from 95 percent recycled cashmere.
“The more recycled fibers we use, the less waste we’re producing, which is why we aimed for 95 percent recycled cashmere,” she says. “Our fibers are made from pre-loved sweaters that are broken down to the fiber level, and then each fiber is sorted by color and respun into new yarn. Because of this process, our recycled cashmere is durable and gets softer with each wear.”
Recycled cashmere turtleneck by Patagonia.
Cuyana and Patagonia are part of a small group of companies (if not the only two) that are introducing sweaters with 95 percent recycled content. Other brands do indeed market their sweaters containing recycled cashmere; but upon closer inspection, the recycled content is 50 percent or less.
Shah explains that’s due to two factors: cost and ease of production.
“Having a smaller percentage of recycled cashmere is an easier production process, because producing from new virgin fibers is a standard way of making sweaters. There is also cost component, which is that it is more expensive to produce a sweater with a higher percentage of recycled cashmere as opposed to a lower percentage. Additionally, recycled cashmere fibers are shorter than virgin fibers, and typically you want a longer fiber in order to achieve that soft cashmere feeling,” she clarifies.
Cuyana’s cashmere comes from a mill in Bologna, Italy where old cashmere sweaters are turned into new yarn. Patagonia’s recycled cashmere scraps sent from Europe to China where they are sewn into sweaters and beanies in China. For the Ventura-based outdoor retailer, it’s part of their broader strategy to move to 100 percent recycled and renewable materials. In fact, Patagonia stopped using virgin cashmere when it found out the effects on topsoil and grasslands in Mongolia. In 2017, they added it back to their catalog, but this time in the form of recycled cashmere.
“With each recycled sweater you purchase you are conserving water, electricity, and energy, along with decreasing the amount of old sweaters that would ultimately end up in a landfill,” Shah says.
It’s in the details: customers have to read the label to see what exactly they’re buying into.