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Rampant demand for cheap cashmere is threatening the grasslands of Mongolia, where many of the world’s cashmere goats reside. But one pioneering organisation which is working with brands is offering a more sustainable way forward.

Mongolia’s wonderful grasslands are disappearing. The culprits, millions of cashmere goats, are innocently grazing their way through these vast swathes of land at an alarming rate of knots. The goats have sharp hooves which slice through the surface of the soil, while their eating habits, which see them rip up plants by their roots, make it impossible for grass to survive. Mongolia Plateau grasslands are in danger of desertification.

Cashmere goats make up more than 60 per cent of all livestock in Mongolia today – up from around 20 per cent 30 years ago – and their numbers have swelled considerably as demand for cashmere by brands and retailers continues to soar. Cashmere, once a byword for luxury, is becoming commoditised.

There is a paradox here: cashmere goats are, if you will, a cash-cow for Mongolian herders, yet these same goats could be unwittingly destroying a centuries-old way of life

While the issue of overgrazing by goats in Mongolia is nothing particularly new, genuine solutions to the problem have been somewhat thin on the ground. Apparel Insider, however, recently came across an initiative which, although still in its embryonic stages, offers huge promise.

NOYA Fibres is working alongside NGO, the Nature Conservancy, in the development of a comprehensive grasslands management programme and associated animal welfare and social programmes which, between them, aim to produc the world’s finest cashmere while preserving Mongolia’s grasslands and maintaining the livelihood of herders and their families. At the same time, NOYA is raising awareness about the importance of sustainable grazing and developing quality standards and supply chain traceability.

The initiative is currently working in three natural grassland areas totalling an area of around four million acres which is segmented into five sectors, each to better achieve grassland management and cashmere goat herding practices. The end resulting certified, sustainable cashmere fibre – is something we at Apparel Insider believe the whole apparel industry should be aiming for to preserve Mongolia’s cashmere industry long- term. However, this is a far from simple issue.

Greg Goble is the founder and CEO of NOYA Fibres. Asked about the demand for sustainable cashmere by brands, he tells us: “Demand
for sustainable fibre is growing in the market, however, the supply
for certified sustainable fibre is limited. NOYA is adamant about only releasing the highest quality, truly responsible fibre to the market, so until a reserve has demonstrated adequate compliance with grazing standards on all metrics, NOYA will not market such fibre as sustainably sourced.”

Goble is reluctant to reveal too much about clients sourcing such fibre, although he does point out that Patagonia – who else? – has been instrumental in helping raise awareness of his company’s work, which was profiled in the US outdoor retailer’s ‘Truth to Materials’ catalogue. “Patagonia has provided invaluable insight to NOYA’s supply chain,” he tells us.

Conducting our own research on Mongolian desertification was a sobering experience. There are suggestions the country is entering a point of no return on this issue, with the next few years critical.

Asked for his own experience, Goble tells us: “Desertification is a serious issue, but the effects of desertification are much more prevalent in the southern region of Mongolia and in Inner Mongolia than in the north. NOYA is fully implementing its grazing model to the northeastern region of the country today, but has intention to expand its grazing model into the Gobi region of Mongolia soon to address overgrazing down there.”

But what about the cashmere itself? It is clear even to the layperson that when one can purchase a 100 per cent cashmere sweater for just US$90-100, then quality must vary somewhat … and in some cases is negligible.

Asked about factors which affect quality, Goble told us: “Cashmere from goats is essentially the longer hair that grows on the chest and underside of a goat during the winter months, with 2-5 the ideal age for obtaining high quality cashmere.

“The value in cashmere all comes down to the quality of the fibre,
and quality is measured in mainly three ways: the length of the fibre, the diameter of the fibre, and the colour of the fibre. Older or younger goats typically produce shorter fibre. Colour is less of an important quality here, although white cashmere is the most valuable as it is easily dyed.

“The length and the width are really where the true value of cashmere comes from. In essence, the thinner and longer the fibre, the higher the quality of that fibre. A different price typically corresponds with the length and diameter of the fibre. High quality cashmere is typically under 16 microns, but cashmere traditionally runs from 15 microns to 19 microns in diameter and 26-45mm in length. Outside of those parameters a fibre is not considered cashmere.”

Goble suggests that a lack of selective breeding means many undesirable traits in cashmere goats are being passed on from generation to generation. As such, more cashmere fibre is produced which yields herders more money, but the quality of the fibre is not profiled any longer as the fibre is purchased for lower quality, commoditised products.

“There are companies that still focus heavily on the quality of the cashmere fibre, but when looking at the percentage of the market served by lower cost, cashmere products, you will see a much higher growing percentage of lower quality fibre consumed,” he adds.

The issue of cashmere goats and desertification is complex. On the face of it, it is tempting to blame western consumerism and the demand for cheap, commoditised cashmere. Yet it isn’t that simple. Herders in Mongolia have simply been responding to international market signals for more cashmere; it is hard to argue a case that they have or are being exploited.

Rather, this is a textbook example of market failure: producers oversupplying a product – in this case, cheap cashmere – because they fail to take into account the negative externalities associated with that product. There are no easy solutions here, but NOYA Fibres offers an interesting blueprint which could surely be scaled and replicated across other parts of Mongolia.

Brands and retailers are ideally placed to help with such a process. Over to them.

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