The Hidden Cost Of Cashmere

Gobi desert goats of herders (Photo credit: Joel Berger/WCS)

[Originally published at www.forbes.com on February 16, 2017.]

By Debby Ng and Joel Berger
February 16, 2017

Cashmere is conceived at the roof of the world, where bitter wind and winter temperatures inspire the growth of one of the world’s finest fibers. For the people of central Asia and the Mongolian steppes, cashmere is both heritage and lifeblood.

In these places, landscapes that are still home to falcon hunters, horseback archers and throat singers are being split apart by roads and rail. People are pushed into urban centers where they live in gers alongside the choking fumes of city traffic. To a nomadic horseman resting with his herd of goats, optimism resides on the other side of the fence.

A thriving cashmere industry gives the government incentive to keep the steppe grasslands rolling. In a world where everything can be made somewhere else, cashmere truly is a product of a land. China and Mongolia know this, as do their steppe dwellers. The two countries produce 90% of the world’s cashmere, and growing global affluence means more people can afford the fabric.

Yet as cashmere becomes abundant, its quality has diminished. Why?

Cashmere remains a product that is naturally scarce — its quality and quantity limited by climate and geography. Landscapes marked by the cold winters and nutritious fodder that produce the cashmere desired by luxury labels are limited. As herd sizes increase, inevitably the environment is degraded and the quality of cashmere follows suit.

More grazing goats compounds pressures on iconic and endangered wildlife. Multinational governments working to save snow leopards, saiga, ibex, wild yak, gazelles, wild camels and Argali strive also to maintain herder livelihoods and to achieve balance for use of the land by livestock and wildlife.

Is it naïve to think that a billion-dollar industry can be maintained while wildlife is protected?Maybe not.

Conservation organizations have stepped in and are facilitating science-based solutions that are creating profitable and sustainable business models for cashmere producers while safeguarding the future for the region’s iconic animals.

These relationships are leading to incentives such as access to veterinary services and insurance that help herders overcome loss of livestock due to extreme weather events. They facilitate the establishment of cooperatives to help manage grazing regimes between herders so that goats can sustainably access the best pastureland, maximizing productivity. In turn, members of the cooperative keep livestock outside of protected areas so that native wildlife can continue to thrive.

Additionally, the cooperatives connect herders with purchasers that compensate them for quality of cashmere rather than weight. This means that herders selling quality cashmere (which is lighter) do not have to increase herd size to make the same profit as those selling lower quality, but heavier cashmere variants. The consumer may pay a little more today, but ultimately it is for a sustainable, quality product that will benefit people and wildlife into the future.

Goats and other livestock now occupy 95% of the limited foraging area on the Tibetan Plateau, leaving just 5% for wild animals. (Photo credit: Joel Berger/WCS)

The ecological impacts of these collaborations can be profound. Reduced grazing pressure has increased the birth weights of the gorgeous Argali, the world’s largest wild sheep, by some 18%. Larger Argali lambs have a much greater chance of surviving to adulthood. While it may not seem intuitive, more Argali means more grass because Argali are gardeners of the steppe, dispersing seeds and enabling grasses to flourish over sedges. More grass means more herbivores, more native food for snow leopards and less predation on domestic stock, and human-wildlife conflict.

Management, husbandry and fair compensation can improve the quality of human communities and the environment on the steppes. When goats have access to nutritious pasture, clean water and a favorable climate, the result is fine quality cashmere yields.

Ensuring that herders are appropriately compensated creates sustainable livelihoods and nurtures capacity to fuel this delicate industry. But the problem is far from resolved. Cashmere’s current ubiquity in fast fashion and big box merchants means it will be necessary for bulk producers to weigh in on the responsibility too.

And of course, there are those of us who ultimately wear the product.

The price of cashmere needs to account for its future supply. We can either pay a fair price for it today and enjoy one of nature’s finest products for the long term, or consign producers and aficionados of cashmere to a fading existence and waning wildlife legacy. Surely “fashion sense” dictates the former.

Ms. Ng is a visiting scholar at Colorado State University. Mr. Berger is a senior scientist at the Wildlife Conservation Society and a professor of conservation biology at Colorado State University.

Originally published at www.forbes.com on February 16, 2017.

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