Former CBS News producer
The True Cost of Cheap Cashmere
For the past few weeks, my conscience and my business sense have been
locked in mortal combat. Most days I think my conscience is winning,
but then a trip to the mailbox or a phone call from my accountant
comes in and my business sense rallies.
See, there is a product that my customers are clamoring for, begging
me, emailing me by the hour to get. It's something I can easily get my
hands on and the mark-up is fantastic.
The product? Inexpensive cashmere yarn. I know far too much about the
way it is made to feel good about profiting from it.
In the yarn business, softness is the key to sales. Knitters are
constantly searching for the softest, most luxurious yarns they can
lay their hands on and are willing to pay a premium for it -- no
surprise given all of the hours they will invest in crafting that yarn
into a scarf or sweater. Cashmere combines luxury with cache. In the
past, the price of cashmere meant it was reserved for only the most
special knitting projects. But in the last ten years, inexpensive
Chinese cashmere has flooded the market -- making this former luxury
available to the masses.
This may sound like a good thing, but there was a reason cashmere
fiber was so expensive to begin with. Cashmere is the soft undercoat
of the Cashmere goat. The fiber can be sheared but it puts less stress
on the animals when it is combed out, a labor-intensive process. It
takes two or three goats to produce a sweater's worth of material, and
processing the fiber into yarn isn't easy or cheap either.
According to an exhaustively reported piece by Evan Osnos for The
Chicago Tribune, the Chinese have drastically brought the cost of
cashmere down by grazing far too many animals on far too little land.
The result? The desertification of hundreds of thousands of acres of
pasture and severe dust storms that may affect the air quality as far
away as the U.S.
As if that weren't enough, once the goats have stripped the land,
there is nothing for them to eat. A starving goat will actually eat
the fleece off its companions. Under-nourished goats produce less
fleece, leading their herders to add even more animals to the already
stripped land to keep up with production.
And while there are 53 million knitters in America who may be enjoying
the influx of cheap cashmere, the real impact is at a mass retail
level. Big box stores -- even Walmart -- will be stocked-up with
cashmere sweaters in the fall, priced as low as $19.99. Now, everyone
will have cashmere on their backs, but at what cost to their
At a yarn show I recently attended, I saw knitters lined up four and
five deep to buy inexpensive cashmere blend yarn. And while I could
definitely use the cash infusion that cashmere would bring, my
conscience has won over my business sense.
I won't be stocking cheap cashmere and I'll be doing everything I can
to make sure people know how they can knit responsibly. I will be
scouting for sources of sustainable, humane cashmere from the U.S. and Mongolia. The price will be higher, but the costs -- to the animal,
the land, and the earth -- will be easier on the conscience.