How Sustainable Are Cashmere Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

How Sustainable Are Cashmere Fabrics? A Life-Cycle Analysis

By
Quynh Nguyen

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Cashmere is the soft and fine fibers used to be reserved for the few most luxurious items in one’s wardrobe. Fast fashion has changed that by bringing cheaper cashmere sweaters, gloves, and scarves to department stores. The falling price of cashmere happens almost simultaneously with the intensified animal cruelty and ecological crisis in places where these wonderful and unmatchable fibers originate. So, we had to ask: How sustainable are cashmere fabrics?

Cashmere is generally not a sustainable fabric. The growing demand for cashmere has led to oversized cashmere goat herds that are associated with grassland degradation, loss of biodiversity, and elevated GHG emissions. Too, the collection of cashmere fibers could lead to goats’ ill health or death.

In this article, we’ll walk you through the life-cycle of cashmere fabrics used for clothes and accessories. Then, we evaluate its sustainability, potential, and shortfalls. And in the end, we’ll show you tips for buying sustainable products made with cashmere fabrics.

Here’s How We Assessed the Sustainability of Cashmere Fabrics

Nowadays, cashmere is generally considered an unsustainable textile material. The growing demand for this luxurious material leads to unsustainable and unethical practices in goat herding and cashmere processing. Animal cruelty is widespread in the industry while the ecological crisis looms. 

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To understand the sustainability of cashmere fabrics, we must assess their life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of cashmere fabrics!

In this article, we’ll use the cradle-to-grave perspective of the LCA, examining the five stages of the life-cycle of clothing items and accessories made with cashmere fabrics. When applicable, we also look at cradle-to-gate assessments

The life-cycle stages of cashmere fabricsEach stage’s sustainability
Sourcing of cashmere fabricsThe raw material for cashmere fabrics is the inner coat of hair collected from a specific species of goats, mostly found in Central Asia and the Gobi desert. The environmental impacts of raising goats are intensified in the case of cashmere goats because of the rapid increases in the number of goats grazing in relatively restricted areas to meet the ever-growing global cashmere demand. 
Manufacturing of cashmere fabricsManufacturing cashmere fabrics starts with collecting fine fibers from the goat undercoat. In many cases, obtaining these fibers is painful and stressful for the animal and could lead to ill health or even death. Animal cruelty in cashmere production is widespread, largely because of the push for a higher yield to meet the increasing demand for this material. 
However, it is possible to collect cashmere down (undercoat hair) ethically and sustainably. Cashmere goats naturally shed their inner coat of hair when this layer is no longer needed in the warmer spring weather. Herders gently comb the hair for cashmere fabrics and do not hurt the animals. 
Transporting of cashmere fabricsTransporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with cashmere fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Cashmere fabrics typically travel from grasslands, where undercoat hair or down is collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. 
Usage of cashmere fabricsThe usage of cashmere is generally sustainable. Cashmere requires less frequent washes because it is a breathable, odor-resistant material with excellent moisture-wicking abilities. 
End-of-life of cashmere fabricsThe end-of-life stage for cashmere is generally sustainable because untreated cashmere is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

Overall, we can say cashmere is not a sustainable material. However, the actual environmental impact of a particular product, like a sweater or a pair of gloves, depends on more specific factors, including the sourcing of the raw material (the undercoat hair from cashmere goats), the manufacturing process, the transportation distance, and vehicles used during transport. 

Let’s dive deeper into each life-cycle stage and find out how you can buy cashmere fabrics more sustainably. 

How Sustainable Is the Sourcing of Raw Materials for Cashmere Fabrics

The raw material for cashmere fabrics is the inner coat of hair collected from a specific species of goats, mostly found in Central Asia and the Gobi desert. The environmental impacts of raising goats are intensified in the case of cashmere goats because of the rapid increases in the number of goats grazing in relatively restricted areas to meet the ever-growing global cashmere demand. 

What Raw Materials Are Used for Cashmere Fabrics

Just as wool comes from the hairy coat of sheep, cashmere comes from goats – but only from cashmere goats

The raw materials for cashmere fabrics are the extremely fine hair from the undercoat of a specific breed of goat originating in Kashmir, India

This undercoat, sometimes known as down, is the soft layer under the rougher, weather-repellant outer coats that allows these goats to survive several months of severe cold conditions in the region. The goats naturally shed this undercoat when the temperatures increase in spring. And the molted hair is the beginning of cashmere fabrics. 

The amount of undercoat fibers depends on the winter conditions where the cashmere goats are kept. The lower the temperature, the more hair there is, and, thus, a higher yield. With the current climate crisis and rising temperatures year after year and the geological confinement of this goat species, cashmere fibers are becoming less and less renewable.

How Do the Raw Materials Sourced for Cashmere Fabrics Impact the Environment

Cashmere fabrics are made with the fine hair of cashmere goats. This raw material bears the environmental impacts of raising cashmere goats, which are made worse by overgrazing and uncontrolled sizes of goat herds. 

The three main environmental impacts of cashmere goat herding are as follows: 

  • Land degradation and biodiversity loss 
  • Global warming 
  • Ground and waterway contamination 
Goat Farming Causes Degradation of Grasslands and Their Biodiversity Loss

Cashmere goats could turn grasslands into deserts, especially in more fragile areas. As grasslands degrade, wild animals native to these specific habitats also suffer. 

This transformation caused by cashmere goats is due to their physics and eating habits:

So, cashmere goats are bad news for the thriving grasslands, especially when many are farmed to keep up the growing demand for cashmere fabrics. It is four goats for one sweater, after all. 

Goat Farming Intensify The Climate Crisis 

Ruminant animals, goats included, burp enteric methane (CH4) as they digest their food. 

Methane is the second most significant contributor to the climate crisis, following carbon dioxide. It traps more heat than carbon dioxide, so it is considered a more potent greenhouse gas, especially in the immediate future. 

Specifically, methane is 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a period of 20 years. On a 100-year timescale, methane has 28 times greater global warming potential than carbon dioxide.

In comparison to other ruminant animals like cows or sheep (whose hairy coats are used for wool), goats emit the least enteric methane per body weight

Goat Farming Contaminates The Grounds and Waterways

With the increasingly large goat herds, excessive amounts of manure and other toxins enter the ground, degrading soil quality and contaminating waterways. This contributes to problems like eutrophication.

Where Are the Raw Materials for Cashmere Fabrics Usually Sourced From 

Cashmere goats originate from the Himalayan part of the Kashmir region. Traditionally, this goat species has been raised in northern Asia countries like Nepal and Tibet, but the largest herds are now found in China and Mongolia

Many herds of cashmere goats are raised nomadically in the Gobi desert, which stretches over both Chinese and Mongolian territories. The impact of these large cashmere goat populations can be seen clearly in these two countries. 

Wildlife also suffered from desiccation and expanded goat herds. Endangered species like snow leopard, wild yak, chiru, saiga, Bactrian camel, and gazelles lose their grassland habitats, injured or killed in clashes with pastoralists and their herding dogs. 

How Sustainable Is the Manufacturing of Cashmere Fabrics

Manufacturing cashmere fabrics starts with collecting fine fibers from the goat undercoat. In many cases, obtaining these fibers is painful and stressful for the animal and could lead to ill health or even death. Animal cruelty in cashmere production is widespread, largely because of the push for a higher yield to meet the increasing demand for this material. 

However, it is possible to collect cashmere down (undercoat hair) ethically and sustainably. Cashmere goats naturally shed their inner coat of hair when this layer is no longer needed in the warmer spring weather. Herders gently comb the hair for cashmere fabrics and do not hurt the animals. 

How Sustainably Is Cashmere Fabrics Generally Manufactured

Here are the standard steps in manufacturing cashmere fabrics

  1. Collecting the undercoat hair of the cashmere goats. This can be done in a few ways, as followings:
    • Hand-combing: The fibers for cashmere can be gently combed out during molting time (when the goats naturally shed their extra winter undercoats). Hand combing has been modified by many to save time, yet not for the well-being of the animals
    • Shearing: Herders use a machine or scissors to remove the goats’ entire fleece in various spring months. This method can be done consciously for the animal’s well-being, but it is more often not the case
  2. Sourcing: The raw fibers (wool) are cleaned to remove any dirt, impurities and other natural residues. 
  3. Carding: Individual wool fibers are combed into straight lines. 
  4. Spinning: The carded fibers are fed into a spinning machine, which twists the wool fibers to form yarn. 
  5. Finishing: The yarn is cleaned again and dyed (in some cases)
  6. Weaving or knitting: The finished cashmere yarn is woven or knitted into a textile product. 

The manufacturing process of cashmere fabrics is relatively standard for textiles made with natural fibers. It is mainly mechanical and, in some cases, can go without toxic synthetic chemicals. However, the main concern about cashmere production is the widespread cruel treatment of the goats. 

Collecting Fibers for Cashmere Fabrics Often Induces Animal Cruelty And Sometimes Lead to Animal Deaths 

It is possible to collect the undercoat from a cashmere goat without hurting the animal by gentle combing at the correct shedding time. These molted fibers can even be collected from the ground and bushes. 

However, herders also use other collecting methods, pressured by increased numbers of goats, to meet the demand for more and more cashmere fabrics. Some of these practices are especially cruel to the goats, which are known as intelligent sentient beings

Here are some examples of the cruel treatment of goats in cashmere production: 

  • Goats undergo combing in a position where their four legs are tied together. They are scratched, bruised, and injured by sharp-toothed metal combs used by their owners. 
  • Goats are combed or sheared outside molting time, which causes them more pain. 
  • The whole fleece of the goat (outer and undercoats) is sheared off too early in the spring or even late winter, posing serious threats to the goat’s health and even killing it because the temperature is not yet warm enough for the goat to go without the coats. 
  • As soon as the undercoat hair is deemed not good enough anymore, many goats are killed, far sooner than their natural lifespan. Some are even killed at birth because their hair coat is “not the right color.” 
Cashmere Manufacturing Causes Wastewater Pollution 

Scouring, dyeing and finishing are the key processes causing larger wastewater pollution (as well as freshwater consumption and carbon emission). According to a life-cycle assessment, the wastewater footprint of cashmere fabrics varies from 1000 to 1600 m3 per ton of textile. 

Where Are Cashmere Fabrics Usually Manufactured

Cashmere production is exclusive to a few areas because of the restricting geology of raising this goat species:

  • China is the world’s leading cashmere producer, representing about 70% of global cashmere. 
  • Mongolia is the second largest cashmere exporter. 
  • Apart from these two countries where the Gobi desert is located, there are some significant cashmere goat herds and cashmere fabric production in Afghanistan, Iran, New Zealand, and Australia. 

Many social and ethical problems are associated with the industry in these large cashmere-producing countries. 

For example, in China and Mongolia, animal cruelty during hand-combing is common, largely because there are minimal or no laws protecting goats from cruelty. Goats are reported screaming in pain during the long hour when their undercoat is collected using sharp-toothed metal combs. Fiber collections are also done at various months, even if a herd is not molting. 

Goats are commonly sheared in Afghanistan, Iran, New Zealand, and Australia (rather than hand-combed). When goat keepers remove the whole fleece of the goats too early in the winter, it could result in pneumonia or even death for the goats

In Australia, it is reported that goats are killed some years before reaching even half their natural lifespan. Some goats are even killed at birth because their hair color is supposedly wrong or the hair quality is not up to standard. 

According to a life-cycle assessment, the carbon footprint of cashmere fabrics, cradle-to-factory gate, varies from 12,000 to 16,000 kg CO2 per ton of textile. The results also show that knitted cashmere fabrics have higher carbon footprints than woven varieties. 

In comparison, one ton of wool fabrics has a carbon footprint of 24,600 kg CO2-eq, according to a life-cycle assessment of wool produced in Australia. This indicates cashmere’s relatively low carbon footprint: about half as much as the carbon footprint of wool fabrics

The differences among the carbon footprints of these two fabrics echo the point we mentioned earlier in the sourcing stage: goats emit less GHG in the form of methane than sheep (or any other ruminant animals). 

How Sustainable Is the Transportation of Cashmere Fabrics

Transporting can be a carbon-intensive stage in the life-cycle of clothing items made with cashmere fabrics due to the distances covered and emissions associated with transporting vehicles. Cashmere fabrics typically travel from grasslands, where undercoat hair or down is collected, to processing and finishing factories, sorting centers, shops, and consumer’s houses before going to recycling centers or landfills. 

In the life-cycle of cashmere clothing items, transportation typically occurs as below: 

  • From grasslands, where undercoat hair or down is collected, to yarn factories 
  • From yarn factories to textile manufacturers 
  • From textile manufacturers to sorting centers/physical shops 
  • From sorting centers/physical shops to the consumer’s house 
  • From the consumer’s house to the centers for recycling/ disposing of
Traveling Distances of Cashmere Fabrics Vary Depending on the Supply Chain

It is not uncommon for cashmere fabrics to have their supply chain spreading globally, meaning that animal farming, yarn processing, and finishing might happen in various towns, countries, or even continents. 

Here are some scenarios for transporting cashmere fabrics: 

  • Cashmere manufacturers can source cashmere fibers from grasslands in Mongolia, process these fibers into cashmere clothing products in factories in China, and sell cashmere products to US consumers.
  • The undercoat hair is collected from cashmere goat herds in New Zealand and processed locally before selling to consumers worldwide. 
  • Cashmere manufacturers source fibers from pastoralists in Iran and turn them into woolen products in Italy, which are sold mainly in Europe. 

You can reduce the transporting carbon footprint by choosing cashmere fabrics that travel shorter distances.

The Carbon Footprint of Transporting Cashmere Fabrics Depends Largely on the Vehicle of Transportation 

During its life-cycle, a piece of cashmere clothing can be transported using various types of vehicles, including: 

  • Large container ships 
  • Planes 
  • Freight trains 
  • Long-distance trucks 
  • Short-distance delivering vans 

And these various types of transportation vehicles have different carbon footprint impacts: 

For example, as a consumer, you can choose not to pick the fast delivery option when ordering cashmere clothing items and accessories to reduce the carbon footprint of your order. 

How Sustainable Is the Usage of Cashmere Fabrics

The usage of cashmere is generally sustainable. Cashmere requires less frequent washes because it is a breathable, odor-resistant material with excellent moisture-wicking abilities. 

An environmentally favorable property of cashmere, similar to wool from sheep and alpaca, is odor-resistance. Thus, it requires fewer washes than many other textile materials. 

Also, cashmere products are washed cold and dried on the line (rather than in a tumble drier). Considering that washing during the usage phase is one of the main sources of energy consumption in the life cycle of clothing, using cashmere is sustainable. 

Besides, cashmere fabrics are considered durable and resilient, though somewhat prone to pilling. With proper handling, such as using a soft brush to remove pills and washing in cold water, cashmere clothes and accessories can last up to 30 years

Using long-lasting clothing items is generally more sustainable because you don’t need to replace them too frequently (thus, no need for more resources to make the new one). 

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of Cashmere Fabrics

The end-of-life stage for cashmere is generally sustainable because untreated cashmere is fully biodegradable and compostable. 

As a natural fabric, cashmere can be left to degrade naturally in a landfill or be composted. Decomposing time depends on many environmental factors and if the fabrics are treated and blended. It takes one to five years to decompose textiles made with animal hairs (wool and wool-like materials). 

How Circular Are Products Made of Cashmere Fabrics

In the textile industry, a circular economy is designed to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, especially through reusing and recycling. It also covers regenerating natural systems that support the industry and reducing polluted waste released into such systems.

“The circular economy is a systems solution framework that tackles global challenges like climate change, biodiversity loss, waste, and pollution.”

Ellen MacArthur Foundation

As a whole, the textile industry is almost linear: 97% of the input is new resource.

Because of the challenges and environmental impacts of producing virgin cashmere fibers, there is a big push for recycling cashmere from conscious manufacturers and consumers. Re.VerSo, for example, is a supply chain platform that turns post-consumer cashmere (and wool) into new textiles. Companies like Patagonia and Stella McCartney also use exclusively recycled cashmere in their clothes. 

How Can You Buy Cashmere Fabrics More Sustainably

The key to sustainably buying cashmere products is to check on relevant environmental and original certifications. 

  • Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS): A globally-recognized certification system that ensures a certain threshold of organic content has been met. It covers manufacturing, packaging, labeling, transportation, and distribution (but not what happens in the grasslands where goats are raised). 
  • Recycled Claim Standard (RCS): The Textile Exchange RCS was originally developed as an international, voluntary standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled input and chain of custody. (For recycled cashmere fabrics) 
  • The Global Recycled Standard (GRS): The Global Recycled Standard (GRS) is an international, voluntary, full product standard that sets requirements for third-party certification of Recycled Content, chain of custody, social and environmental practices, and chemical restrictions. It can be used for any product with more than 20% recycled material.(For recycled cashmere fabrics) 
  • The Good Cashmere Standard: This standard was developed by the Aid by Trade Foundation (AbTF) and launched in early 2020 to help improve the welfare of the goats, the communities that raise them, and the environment in which they live. 
  • The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA): SFA is a multi-stakeholder initiative dedicated to the long-term sustainability of the cashmere sector. This initiative sets out criteria about environmental impact, grassland management, animal welfare, and herder livelihoods for cashmere producers. Cashmere producers who comply with the SFA Codes of Practice (CoP)- Rangeland Stewardship and Animal Welfare are certified with the ‘SFA Assured’ logo. 

Some certifications are signaling brands’ efforts toward lowered environmental impacts and a circular economy are: 

  • B Corp Certification: The label B Corp is a certification reserved for for-profit companies. Certified holders are assessed on their social and environmental impacts. 
  • Cradle2Cradle certification: Cradle2Cradle provides a standardized approach to material circularity. It assesses whether products have been suitably designed and made with the circular economy in mind covering five critical categories: material health, material reuse, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.

Where to Buy Sustainable Cashmere Fabrics 

We have established throughout the life-cycle assessment that cashmere fabrics are generally unsustainable. It is largely because of overgrazing, climate change, and unethical and unsustainable practices in harvesting cashmere fibers. 

However, some cashmere producers and clothing manufacturers address the above challenges in their sourcing and production and/or opt for recycling materials instead of strain on natural resources. Here, we compile for you a list of such sustainable brands selling (recycled) cashmere fabrics (in alphabetic order)

Why Is It Important to Buy Products Made of More Sustainable Fabrics

It is important to buy products made of more sustainable fabrics because a sustainable textile industry has a lower carbon footprint, helps save natural resources, and is better for forests, animals, and humans. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Your Carbon Footprint 

The production of clothing and footwear is estimated to contribute 10% of global greenhouse gas emissions – more than all international flights and shipping combined. If the fashion industry were a country, it would be the fourth largest emitter of carbon dioxide

One way to reduce the carbon footprint of the clothes you buy is to opt for sustainable fabrics. Sustainable fabrics, which are often made with natural or recycled fibers, have relatively low carbon footprints compared to petroleum-based fabrics. For example, organic cotton made in the US has a carbon footprint of 2.35 kg CO2 (per ton of spun fiber) – a quarter of polyester’s carbon footprint.

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Reduces Demand For Natural Resources and Waste Management

The textile industry uses water and land to grow cotton and other fibers. It is estimated that 79 billion cubic meters of water were used for the sector worldwide in 2015. For example, producing a single cotton t-shirt requires as much water as one person drinks for 2.5 years (2,700 liters of fresh water).

Worse yet, the textile economy is vastly more linear than circular: the largest amount of resources used in clothes ended up in landfill (instead of being recycled to remake clothes). According to a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation,

  • Less than 3% of materials used in the textile economy in 2015 came from recycled sources.
  • In other words, more than 97% of resources used in making clothes are newly extracted. 

When clothing items are disposed of within a short period of time – under a year in the case of half of the fast fashion clothes – the natural systems that provide raw materials for fabrics don’t have enough time to recover and regenerate, which could lead to ecological breakdown. 

Sustainable fabrics are made with less water and emissions while lasting longer:

  • Because they are durable, you don’t need to buy new clothes too often. 
  • Thus, you help reduce the pressure to extract more resources for making new items. 

Similarly, making and consuming sustainable fabrics made with recycled materials reduces the demand for virgin materials while helping tackle waste management. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Sustainable Management of Forests

Sustainable plant-based fabrics are made with raw materials from forests and plantations that are sustainably managed, such as complying with FSC standards

When you buy sustainable plant-based fabrics, you discourage unsustainable forestry practices like illegal logging. You can help reduce deforestation, biodiversity loss, and the effect of climate change. 

Buying Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Animals 

The fashion industry is rife with animal mistreatment when it comes to making animal-based fabrics like cashmere or cashmere. Every year, billions of animals suffer and die for clothing and accessories.

Buying sustainable vegan alternatives can help to reduce the pressure on raising more and more animals to meet the demand for animal-based fabrics while sacrificing their well-being and lives. 

Suppose you have to buy fabrics made with, for example, cashmere or wool; make sure you only choose brands committed to cruelty-free products. In that case, you help advocate better treatments for animals raised within the textile industry. 

Using Sustainable Fabrics Encourages Fairer Treatment of Textile Workers 

Recent statistics from UNICEF estimated as many as 170 million child laborers worldwide, many of whom were engaged in some form of work in the textile industry. They don’t get paid minimum wages and often work long hours. 

When you buy sustainable fabrics from brands transparent about the working conditions at their factories, you discourage the use of child labor and help promote better working conditions for textile workers.

Final Thoughts

Cashmere fabrics are currently considered unsustainable. High demand for this luxurious material has led to grasslands being overpopulated with goat herds. Overgrazing in the few geological territories suitable for this species results in grasslands degrading into deserts, extreme weather events, and raised temperatures. Also, domestic animals are subject to cruelty, while wildlife animals are at risk of losing their natural habitats. 

However, it is possible to produce cashmere sustainably and ethically, especially with controlled grazing and considerations for animal wellbeing. 

Nevertheless, it’s best to avoid buying cashmere clothes and accessories. If you have to buy this material, limit your purchase to items sustainably made, ideally with recycled content, to reduce pressure on virgin resources. 

To make it even more sustainable, buy second-hand, recycled, or upcycled cashmere clothing items and accessories, use cashmere products for as long as possible, upcycle the material to extend its usage, and arrange for it to be recycled or properly disposed of.

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