Should I worry about cheap cashmere?


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Should I worry about cheap cashmere?” was written by Lucy Siegle, for theguardian.com on Sunday 7th December 2014 06.00 UTC

Cashmere is a beautiful example of an ugly word: “masstige”, when the forces of the global economy take a prestige product to the mass market.

The epicentre of cashmere growing, inner Mongolia, is built on a tradition of nomadic herding that goes back to Genghis Khan. Between 1949 and 2004 the size of its herd rose from 2.4m to 25.8m goats. Many experts hold this herd responsible for the desertification of the Gobi.

Climate change ups the stakes: since 1940 the annual average temperature has risen by 2.1C, coupled with a 30% decline in surface water. Then there are dzuds – extreme winter weather episodes. A 2010 dzud killed 8.8m animals across Mongolia. The French NGO AVSF.org recently began a sustainable cashmere programme, working with herdsmen to try to make the supply chain more sustainable.

Dr Carol Kerven counts the human cost: goat herders in Inner Mongolia are shortchanged, selling their goat hair for as little as .30 a kilo. By the time it reaches the international market it can fetch up to a kilo. No longer are coats always combed to release the best-quality cashmere hair, but the animals are sheared, mixing the soft with the coarse. These changes conspire to change cashmere. It’s growing coarser, losing its USP. It takes the combed hair of five goats and a year of growing to make a top-quality cashmere sweater. That’s not the sort of time frame that suits a global commodity (which cashmere has become). Consequently some bargain cashmere is fake – bulked with yak hair or synthetics and even, in one example, rat hair.

But you also get genuine 100% cashmere sweaters in 25 colours from giant operators like Uniqlo for £60. How do they do it? Partly because they leverage huge buying power, as they point out. Other than that it’s difficult to add much detail because, unlike Johnston’s of Elgin, which still process cashmere in Scotland and follows its supply chain direct to herdsmen in Inner Mongolia, Uniqlo’s business model distances the producer from the product. Its cashmere story, which after all has fuelled the brand’s global expansion, omits goats and desertification and doesn’t explain how this extraordinary raw fibre will be protected in the future.

And that’s my beef with pretty much all the affordable cashmere lines. They’re excellent at promoting a cosy Christmas fashion story and rubbish about the rest. When a supply chain is this vulnerable, I don’t think that’s cool.

Parts of the Bamboo Bee build-it-yourself bicycle laid out on the floor
The Bamboo Bee, which its inventor has called the world’s ‘first tech-based handcrafted bicycle’

Green crush: Bamboo Bee, a build-your-own bamboo bike

The Bamboo Bee build-your-own bicycle is a Kickstarter sensation, exceeding its initial funding goal of ,000 by 200% in a week. The inventor, Sunny Chuah, refined the design when he took his own handmade bamboo bicycle on a 6,123km trip, which is quite some test ride. He then spent two years redesigning it until he had something that he says brings back “the simplicity and happiness of cycling” with modern technologies and natural bamboo. He calls it the first “tech-based handcrafted bicycle”. The wood is harvested in China and treated with an eco-friendly process that infuses the bamboo walls with honey to prevent it from cracking. The resulting frame is stronger than steel and can be assembled in between 10 and 30 hours. From £125 (bamboobee.net)

Greenspeak: Caddy carriers {‘kædi ‘kærÎs} noun

The Co-op’s take on carrier bags with a useful afterlife: 6p buys you a biodegradable bag that carries your shopping home and can then be used in a compost bin. Sold in 600 shops.

If you have an ethical dilemma, email Lucy at lucy.siegle@observer.co.uk

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