The True Cost of Cashmere

December 21, 2020

With a population of 3.17 million people and more than 80 million livestock animals, Mongolia is the world’s second largest producer of cashmere wool. 

This ancient fiber has long been associated to luxury, with earliest documented usage dating back to the 18th century, when Cashmere shawls were being exported to the western world, particularly France and Britain. Legend also says that in the 13th century, during his travels along the Silk Road, Marco Polo discovered in several caves in Mongolia representations of wild goats domesticated by man. It is very likely that even in earlier centuries, cashmere goats were raised by herders not only for their meat but also for their warm wool. 

Today, the global demand for cashmere has been growing steadily across all sectors of the market, especially in Europe, where Italy and the UK are the main importers from China and Mongolia. The cashmere sector is contributing to 5% of the Mongolian GDP and about 100 textile industries (95 Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises) are providing more than 20,000 jobs to people, mostly in the capital city.  

The increase in consumers’ spending on luxury goods has however brought significant negative social, environmental and economic impact on both the environment, herders, producers, and buyers. 

Still in transition towards a free market, Mongolian herders face difficulties to adjust their productive systems to create value, preserve their natural resources and altogether secure their livelihoods and resilience. Loss of traditional know-how on collective rangeland management, collapsing extension services, lack of market opportunities and dysfunctional value chains have contributed to an under-performing livestock sector. 

To cope with economic uncertainties, herders have adopted a quantitative strategy, increasing their herds size as a safety net for food and livelihoods. As of 2020, herd size is estimated at 80+ million while carrying capacity is estimated at about 45 million. These factors have set off a destructive cycle which is intensifying. 

Oversized herds are damaging rangeland and water sources as they compete for dwindling quantities of falling quality forage. In turn, quality of livestock product is decreasing, resulting in lower incomes for herders who are compensating by increasing their herds. Due to overgrazing, around 65% of country’s rangeland is degraded (out of which 25% severely degraded) and the soils fertility is depleting at an alarming rate. 

While the demand for sustainably produced and traceable products on the global textile market is increasing, there is still a strong need for clear standards to help guide herders, producers, traders, buyers or brands on the the social, environmental or economic impacts of cashmere production. In 2019, a UNDP Market Assessment on Sustainable Cashmerereported that the sector still lacks a harmonized vision of what sustainable cashmere production should be and how to achieve it.

The European Union is committed to tackle these challenges together with Agronomes et Vétérinaires Sans Frontieres (AVSF) and Mongolian key partners. The EU SWITCH-Asia Sustainable Textile production and Eco Labeling (STeP EcoLab) project responds to the challenges and difficulties faced by Mongolian herders and strengthens the capacities of the country’s processing industries to meet international buyers’ expectations (both in terms of quality management and sustainability). 

"Rangeland are the bedrock of Mongolian traditional herding systems but are severely threatened by overgrazing and climate change, putting pastoral communities at risk of losing their livelihoods. Relying on herders’ organisations, robust certification scheme and fair trade principles, STeP EcoLab supports broad dissemination of collective and sustainable practices among herders, which are in turn awarded with extra environmental premium," explains Guillaume Touati, Country Representative, AVSF Mongolia and Project Manager.

An integrated approach encompassing all steps of sustainable cashmere value chain development is being promoted through this project, from production to consumption, as the only way to bring about a long-lasting change, as also explained by Mr. Traian Laurentiu Hristea, Ambassador of the European Union to Mongolia.

Rear more... A Goat Herder’s Story (Source:AVSF Sustainable Cashmere Mongolia, Switch Asia Grant Programme Funded by the European Union)