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Is cashmere sustainable?

We’d like to think that everyone takes care to check up on the environmental and ethical considerations of their fashion purchases nowadays, and that producers and retailers do the hard work of supplying sustainable clothing. 

Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case. Certain manufacturers, carriers and retailers don’t exactly tick all the ethical boxes, and that’s usually the true price to be paid for “cheap” fashion. Added to that is the fact that throwaway fashion is just that – something to be worn just a few times then discarded into landfill as the fabrics are barely good enough to be recycled.

So it’s largely up to the consumer to check if the clothing they are buying is sustainable and meets their expected standards. And that brings us to cashmere – can it be sustainable?

Is cashmere sustainable?

Cashmere – natural and sustainable, when done properly

The cashmere goat has a special place in the history of clothing and high-quality fashion. It has evolved to live in the mountains of the Kashmir region (the wool’s name is spelt cashmere just to differentiate the two), where there can be incredibly harsh winters but relatively mild summers. It therefore grows a soft, downy hair next to its skin, beneath the coarse goat hair that you see when you look at the goat. 

Because it has such fantastic insulating properties, that layer is all it needs to get it through the icy blasts up in the mountains, and as it would be too much for the summer months, it sheds the down as soon as spring arrives. And that’s when humans can harvest it.

If cashmere wool was solely gathered from the ground after it had been shed by herds of goats, there could be no question about its sustainability. But it would also be so widespread and thin on the ground that today’s premium prices for cashmere would look very cheap in comparison – it would be incredibly rare. 

However, if the goats are shepherded properly, they can have their down sheared away just at the moment they are about to shed it anyway. It’s just as sustainable as collecting wild cashmere off the ground, and this is how it was traditionally harvested. And don’t worry – they grow their summer coat back quickly enough.

So those traditional methods get the thumbs up for sustainability, but what about modern methods? 

Modern cashmere

Well, that’s where it can get muddy. With absolutely any product, from flour to cars, there are ways of growing, harvesting, mining, transporting and manufacturing that show the industry is doing all it can to remain as sustainable as possible. But that doesn’t mean there are some players who will cut corners or simply ignore the best practices altogether. It’s exactly the same with cashmere wool.

You see, the cashmere you get in your 21st-century sweater or scarf probably didn’t start its journey in the hillsides of northern India. 

It has probably been farmed with imported breeds, elsewhere in Asia or in Europe, the Americas, Africa or Oceania. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that – most farmed breeds of plants and animals are not native to the places they are grown. 

Of course, care must be taken to ensure the impact on the local ecosystem is not adversely affected, with insects, plants and other wildlife as minimally affected as possible. So responsible cashmere farmers will already have consulted with scientific, environmental and governmental bodies to ensure they are not breaking any laws or guidelines.

At Luella, we are committed to ensuring our cashmere products are sustainably sourced. If you are interested in learning more about how we’re ensuring sustainability in our range, please read Our Journey to Sustainability for complete peace of mind.

Unfortunately, in the modern world, you have to be on the lookout for less than ideal sustainability practices in the fashion industry, and cashmere is no exception. From feedstock to transportation, and from chemical treatments to packaging, there are dozens of ways a garment can lose its sustainability credentials from field to wardrobe. And that doesn’t even take into account the prospect of poor employment conditions and pay, which is not only unethical but it too is unsustainable.

What you can do to ensure your clothing is sustainably and ethically sourced is to ask questions of your retailers, suppliers, manufacturers and farmers. You can look on your local government’s websites to see how standards are enforced and which businesses have not been living up to their commitments in the past.

Purchaser power is very influential on business practices, so those companies that have demonstrably made efforts towards sustainability usually talk about it on their promotional materials. Of course, you need a skeptical mind when dealing with companies’ claims, but it’s probably true that companies whose claim to be green and are disproven hit the ground harder than those that never made such claims. Keep tabs on organisations like Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace, too – there’s always news about sustainability in fashion.

End of life

The ultimate end for most clothing is that it is discarded one way or another. Cashmere has a very long life as it’s a naturally tough fibre despite being silky soft, and it’s not unusual for cashmere sweaters to be passed down through the generations, especially if it has been cared for. Read up on how to make your cashmere clothing last longer.

When the end does eventually come, you can of course have it recycled – your local council probably collects it, and there are private companies that process waste fabrics. The twine might be respun or it could go into stuffing, building insulation or any number of other uses.

So in summary, cashmere is indeed a sustainable fabric because it’s natural. As long as you avoid companies that use unethical farming and manufacturing methods, you will know that you are wearing sustainable fashion that could well last more than a generation.