Friday 12 August 2016

The End Of Cashmere?

Cashmere. It's one of the world's most luxurious fibres. Its softness is legendary, and clothes woven from the fine fleece of the Mongolian Hircus goat have been worn by the well-to-do for thousands of years. But now, as the Business Of Fashion warns, that legacy is under threat.

Part of the draw of cashmere is its rarity. Drawn from the winter undercoat of the Hircus goat, the fibre is hard to get at and only available for a short period. In a good year, the global cashmere yield will be around six and a half thousand tonnes. But that supply is dependant on a finely balanced array of environmental factors. As climate change bites, those factors are shifting.

The Hircus goat lives and feeds on remote grasslands in China and the Mongolian steppes, which are suffering from brutal degradation. Harsh winters and summer droughts have decimated the herds, with some estimates putting the total at 9 million head lost over the last year.

At the same time, brands like Uniqlo are selling cashmere at bargain prices, which bumps up demand. In response, farmers are increasing the size of their herds–which of course puts further pressure on the spare pickings on the grasslands. An unexpected side effect is that the goats that do survive are becoming tougher, the essential fine winter under-coat becoming coarser and less attractive to buyers. With rising temperatures further affecting that insulating layer, some industry experts are gloomily predicting a major fall-off in the supplies of good-quality cashmere.

This is a concern throughout the fashion industry, and in part explains the stance that it is taking on climate change. You can control the look, the marketing, the way the shops sell your goods. But a threat to the raw materials on which everything is based is a business-ending crisis.

So there's something of a fight-back on the cards. The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) was launched last year to protect the animals, pastors and the environment on which they depend. The Chinese government has applied embargoes on herd size. Meanwhile, a selective breeding programme backed by money from luxury brand behemoth LVMH aims to boost the quality of that all important undercoat–leading to smaller herds but a higher yield of gold-standard cashmere per animal.

There's a possibility, of course, that this could be too little, too late. If so, then the luxury brands will no doubt have a strategy in place for the shrinking supply as cashmere becomes ever rarer and more desirable. But the impression I get is that no-one wants that, and in fact the big names are working hard to protect the herds. It's a good sign that the fashion industry is starting to realise they have a duty of care to the environment, and that responsible stewardship could mean that we can all enjoy the softness of cashmere in the future.



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