How conscious is cashmere? The ethical options to wear this winter

Karen Dacre

It’s officially cashmere season, spelling chin nuzzling (where better to hide from modern life than in the peripheries of your favourite rollneck) and an uncontrollable urge to fling yourself at any item of clothing that feels like it might have come within touching distance of inner Mongolia.

But before you march, shivering, into your favourite high-street store with the pursuit of affordable cashmere on your mind, it may be time to pause and flex your cerebral nerve. Certainly, in the final stages of a year in which images of oceans populated with more plastic than fish kickstarted a global conversation about plastic usage, and Asos banned fashion containing mohair and cashmere from its site, it may be time we gave the consumption of the world’s most precious wool the same consideration as we do our coffee cups.

Cashmere was once considered a luxurious commodity: it takes four goats to produce enough fibre to make a single cashmere sweater and just one sheep to create enough wool to make five (you do the maths), but the industry has undergone significant disruption.

These days, with £60 cashmere crewnecks commonplace in supermarkets and the high street churning out beanies at pace, the grasslands of Mongolia are paying the price with overpopulation causing a catastrophic impact. There is also an increasingly concerning social impact with overworked and underpaid farmers and a murky supply chain all providing cause for concern.

Recycled cashmere sweater from £290 by Stella McCartney (Stella McCartney )

This has an impact on cashmere quality, which in turn drives down the prices of raw material and forces farmers to increase herd sizes to maintain their income. And so a perpetuating cycle is created that degrades cashmere quality. When prices drop, farmers often start to sell cattle for meat instead of fleece. It’s a lose-lose.

For environmentally engaged companies such as Patagonia and Stella McCartney, the increased demand for cashmere has incited much soul searching. Both brands now work solely with a recycled version of the fibre — which involves working with post factory waste — with Stella McCartney recently commiting to banning all “virgin” cashmere from its collection. On its site Stella McCartney states that “cashmere is one of the most valuable natural materials in fashion — we are helping to protect the future of this incredible material by redefining ‘waste’. With one decision, we reduce our environmental impact related to cashmere use by an incredible 92 per cent.”

Recycled cashmere sweater, £150 from Arket (Arket)

The Swedish retailer Arket has also gone to lengths to decrease its contribution to the demise of the Gobi. Of course, the end goal is not to obliterate the production of virgin cashmere but to instil the idea that its production must be handled more responsibly. It’s with this in mind that traditional knitwear companies — and a host of informed luxury labels — are working hard to safeguard high-quality cashmere.

Among them is Loro Piana, an Italian knitwear supplier that has branched out with its own designs. Aided by research from agricultural bodies and a host of economic development experts, the Loro Piana Method spans a host of practices devised to protect the communities working the land as well as the landscape itself, among them decreased herds and rationalised shearing.

Boxy sweater, £130 from Reformation (Reformation )

Its UK equivalent is the Scottish cashmere supplier Johnstons of Elgin which, along with Burberry and the retail juggernaut Kering, has partnered with the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA). The SFA works with cashmere farmers in Mongolia to protect quality by maintaining raw material costs as well as working on an education programme around animal welfare and environmental awareness to ensure best-practice farming and build a sustainable supply chain. The aim of the SFA is that it will lead to the creation of a fully accredited cashmere supply chain.

This sort of attention to detail, however, doesn’t come at rock-bottom prices. Accordingly, when & Daughter, a London-based label which produces an immeasurably lovely range of sweaters and cardigans in mills in Scotland and Ireland, launches on Net-a-Porter this week it will do so with sweaters priced at a reassuring £315. The bottom line is that conscious consumers should expect to pay a high price for cashmere.