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The uncomfortable hidden costs behind the rise in cheap cashmere

A goat that provides cashmere fibers grazes on foliage.
Finnbarr Webster
Getty Images
A goat that provides cashmere fibers grazes on foliage.

The coveted material known for its luxurious softness has become much more accessible and affordable in recent years. But at what cost?

Who are they? Well, the fellers providing the goods are cashmere goats, many of whom live in parts of Central Asia, like northern China and Mongolia.

  • Cashmere goats graze, hang out and live life, and their underhair is sheared and harvested, sold and processed, and then spun into the fibers that make cashmere sweaters.

  • These sweaters are then bought by everyday consumers who want to partake in sporting the notoriously soft fabric.

What's the big deal? Like many other trends in fashion and accessibility,acquiring cashmere used to require more of an investment. Nowadays, you can get it much cheaper. But there are hidden costs elsewhere, says Ginger Allington, a landscape ecologist and assistant professor at Cornell.

  • Allington's research has shown that in recent years, the sheer number of goats used for cashmere sweaters has increased significantly, in part because of increased demand.
  • As a result, there has been degradation to the habitats that they live and graze in, which yields lower quality fibers from the goats that fetch less money at market.
  • To compensate, Allington says some herders have increased their herd sizes to produce more to make up for the lower cost, and the vicious cycle repeats.
  • The result is environmental degradation and poorer-quality clothes, but all most consumers see is a lower price tag.

Want more on consumer reporting? Listen to Consider This reflect on how much Americans are spending.

What are people saying? Allington wrote an op-ed for The New York Times about the true cost of cashmere. She spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly to explain what consumers may not be aware of when purchasing cashmere goods.

On habitat degradation she's witnessed firsthand:

We see a big change in the grasslands of [the Central Asian steppes]. There's a lot less vegetation, a lot more exposed soils, particularly in areas where there is a huge increase in the number of livestock.

And to be clear, goats have been raised in this area for a long time as well, but there are just many, many more of them than there used to be. And goats are much more efficient browsers and grazers than some of the other livestock that are traditionally grown in this region. They can really remove a lot more of the vegetation down to the roots. And so that just further degrades the system.

On whether the current rate of cashmere consumption is sustainable:

Honestly, I don't know that there is a way to sustainably produce cashmere at the scale at which we're consuming it today.

I think demand needs to go down for that particular fiber such that herders can produce less of it at a higher quality. And that needs to be then balanced out by increased demand for other fibers as well. You can produce great products from camels and yaks and sheep.

So, what now?

  • Allington says there are ways to do your part, like wearing other fibers, or to go the vintage route.
  • "A lot of the used, older cashmere that you can buy on eBay and from thrift stores — that's much likely a much higher-quality sweater that's going to last a lot longer. If you pay $50 for a sweater, you're going to get what you pay for, and you'll end up needing to buy another one next year. And that just perpetuates the cycle."

Learn more:

Michael Levitt, Justine Kenin and Mary Louise Kelly contributed to this report. contributed to this story

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Manuela López Restrepo
Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.