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Producing cashmere has become increasingly difficult

Some have stopped selling products made from this fiber, while others are looking for alternative ways

Producing cashmere has become increasingly difficult Some have stopped selling products made from this fiber, while others are looking for alternative ways

While until not so long ago cashmere was considered rare and luxury, accessible to a few high-fashion brands, it has entered the fast-fashion circuit in the last decade, which has made this textile fiber cheaper and more in demand. Low prices have further boosted demand for cashmere in the market, but the increased production that has resulted has had major impacts on the environment and animals. Therefore, many brands are looking for alternatives, while others have decided to give up cashmere altogether because, at these commercial rates, its production has become increasingly less sustainable. In an industry with consumers demanding environmental and social responsibility, cashmere has gone from being coveted to becoming a problem for brands.

Thin and soft, this textile fiber is made from the winter hair of Hircus goats, typical of some of the mountainous regions of Asia, including in Iran and Afghanistan, but especially in China and Mongolia-which together supply 90% of the world cashmere market; while the wool's name comes from Kashmir, a region from where it was exported to Europe beginning in the 19th century. The special climatic conditions of these areas, and the sharp temperature changes between day and night, favor the development of the so-called "duvet" - from which cashmere is derived -, a type of hair that is meant to thermo-regulate the goats' bodies, protecting them from both high and low temperatures. The textile fiber is obtained by combing the animals by hand and once a year (in a practice that has ancient origins), when they change their hair in the spring, and is considered valuable because although it is thin it offers a warm feel. Each Hircus goat, however, yields only 100 to 200 grams of textile fiber: about four goats are needed to make up a cashmere sweater.

The cashmere market also and especially involves Italy. Locally harvested wool is shipped to special factories in China, where it is made into clothing or brought, in its raw state, to Europe and, particularly to Italy (the Prato district is excellent in this): here the textile fiber is processed, then marketed throughout the West. Cashmere products correspond to about 4% of all Italian clothing exports. Problems arise from the fact that to keep up with the increasing demand for cashmere, it has been necessary to increase the number of goats per herd in pastures in Asia. This increase is clearly seen in cashmere exports from Italy, which have risen from 171 million in 2008 to 305 million in 2018. Today, hundreds of thousands cross the steppes of China and Mongolia: for the material to be excellent, the animal must be exposed to certain temperatures and follow a certain diet, so breeders move almost continuously. The consequence is overexploitation of the land: according to data released by the Mongolian government, more than 50 percent of pastures have dried up. In 2016 more than 20 percent of pastures had been severely damaged, which is 13 percent more than just two years earlier; over the same period the extent of land that will need at least 10 years to recover, or may never do so, has increased by at least 5 percentage points.

Another problem is that the ever-increasing demand for cashmere has led to the emergence of intensive livestock farms, in which the mixing of livestock that is essential for regenerating the soil is lost: a certain number of Hircus goats should in fact be matched by a precise number of sheep in order to keep the soil fertile, because the former rip out the grass root, while the sheep do not. The environmental NGO Peta went on to expose the mistreatment of livestock on intensive farms in China and Mongolia, with an investigation that has resonated internationally, so much so that it prompted H&M to decide to stop selling cashmere products. Brands such as Stella McCartney and Patagonia, in order to address cashmere's sustainability issues, have chosen to stop using "virgin" wool fiber for their garments, but only regenerated and obtained from scraps or cuttings - Gucci is also going in the same direction. In Italy, Re.Verso, a collection of Tuscan textile companies that recover materials such as cashmere and turn them into reusable yarns, is working in this way. Meanwhile, Italian brands have also sprung up that use only regenerated wool, such as Ri-fò and Mate Cashmere.

Certain fashion houses have tried to intervene directly in the cashmere production chain. Kering, for example, through the South Gobi Cashmere Project has created a partnership with the Wildlife Conservation Society foundation to reduce over-exploitation of land and to organize new models of sustainable breeding of Hircus goats. Today, the luxury brand group buys cashmere only from local businesses that follow strict environmental sustainability guidelines. Even the Sustainable Fibre Alliance, an association of which Zara is a member, for example, has drawn up a code of conduct for local communities, with the aim of preserving pastures and ensuring animal welfare.

However, this approach brings with it not a few difficulties, because the number of intermediaries between the Western market and local producers, in the mountainous regions of Asia, are evidently quite a few, and it becomes complicated to verify that the required guidelines are actually respected. Certain brands thus choose to intervene themselves and independently in the local area. Loro Piana, which bases its approach on the excellence of textile fibers, has already 2009 launched a sustainable breeding program of 24 thousand of Hircus goats in China, recounted ten years later in a series of documentaries curated by director Luc Jacquet. In conclusion, in a future of fashion that is increasingly on the side of the environment, adopting sustainable practices for cashmere production seems to have become the only possible way forward for brands that want to maintain their market positioning.