Cashmere, once a rare emblem of luxury, now lines the shelves of the fast fashion giants. Demand for the fabric has skyrocketed over the past few decades, and it’s no surprise. A tenth of the width of human hair and reportedly eight times as warm as sheep wool, cashmere is renowned for its sleek softness and warmth. It takes a single goat four years to produce enough cashmere for a jumper. However, the cost of this premium fibre goes far beyond its price tag. Unbeknown to most shoppers, increasing demand for the fabric has wreaked environmental devastation in the countries that produce it. This is most apparent in Mongolia, which produces around 40% of the world’s cashmere.
Herding livestock semi-nomadically is the traditional way of life in Mongolia. A third of the population rely on cashmere for their main source of income. The country’s extreme environment is key, as the goats grow thick fleeces to survive temperatures as low as -40°C. Mongolian herders traditionally grazed sheep and goats in a 3:1 ratio to protect the land from the goats’ over-enthusiastic grazing habits. However, the high demand for cashmere has prompted a dramatic increase in the number of goats. With numbers of sheep and goats now almost equal, the land’s ability to regenerate is impaired.
Until the 1990s, Mongolian heads of state moderated goat numbers. The fall of the communist government saw the removal of these restrictions, and the number of goats skyrocketed from 5 million in 1990 to 27 million today. Around 70% Mongolia’s grasslands are now severely degraded, turning the land into desert and increasing dust storms in the region.
Decades of overgrazing means there’s now less grass to eat, and an undernourished goat is a vulnerable one. This is especially true when compounded by the impacts of climate change. Mongolia is heating faster than the rest of the world – the average temperature has risen 2.1% since 1940 – and their increasingly extreme and unstable weather is bringing more droughts and harsher winters. Mongolian livestock has evolved to survive extreme environments, but this goes beyond what they can handle and goats are dying in huge numbers. The particularly harsh 2009/2010 winter took 22% of Mongolia’s livestock, with severe social and economic impacts — extreme winters can result in losses of up to 12% of Mongolia’s GDP. Many herders have been forced to leave their traditional way of life, moving to cities or slums to find other work.
Herders face a catch-22. They can increase herd size as a precautionary measure, but this makes it harder to feed their animals. It also affects the product: undernourished goats produce lower-quality cashmere, which is shorter, less fine, and less valuable. These goats in turn give birth to goats that produce less cashmere.
Of course, people and livestock aren’t the only ones that depend on Mongolia’s landscape. Wild animals, such as elk, camels, and ibex, need to eat too. As these wild species decline, the impacts ripple across the food chain. Starving snow leopards are more frequently forced to attack domestic animals to survive, creating conflict with herders who may kill them to protect their herd.
What will the future hold for Mongolia’s cashmere industry? The Mongolian government, fashion companies, and we as consumers each have a part to play in solving the crisis.
Mongolia’s government is unlikely to regulate herd sizes any time soon. It would be a highly contentious issue amongst herders, whose votes rural politicians depend on. The government hopes to reduce overgrazing by processing more cashmere in-country so it can be sold at a higher price. Currently, Mongolia sells around 90% of its cashmere to Chinese companies, who process it and mix it with Chinese cashmere. In late 2023, the Mongolian cashmere producer Gobi received a US$30 million loan from the Asian Development Bank to up its processing capacity.
Shifting towards less environmentally damaging materials is vital to undo the impact our shopping habits are having in places like Mongolia. Some companies are now only using cashmere certified by the Good Cashmere Standard (GCS) or the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), which require certain herding or farming practices with the aim to reduce negative impacts. Using recycled cashmere, or forgoing cashmere altogether, reduces the demand for the virgin fibre and its associated production impact. Replacing cashmere with the wool of less destructive creatures, such as yaks, would be a win for Mongolia’s grasslands. Another traditional member of Mongolian herds, yaks also shed warm, soft fibres, but they produce more of them while leaving grass roots unharmed.
The future of Mongolia’s land will likely depend upon a holistic approach taken by the government, fashion companies, and consumers alike. If we can shift market demand towards options with lower environmental price-tags, Mongolia’s land may be allowed to breathe again.