Cashmere, the wool layer under the hair of a certain type of goat, is considered to be a luxurious material. Cashmere is also often thought of as an ‘ethical’ fashion choice, because goats are ‘free range’ and their hair is ‘combed’ not shorn from them. While this is technically correct, the gentle image which comes to mind is far from the cruel reality. 

Further, the farming of goats for cashmere in Mongolia, one of the largest producers of the fibre, is decimating native grasslands. This environmental destruction has the potential to cause enormous economic grief for local farmers and their way of life. 

Fortunately, there are plenty of ethical fashion alternatives, which are also better for the environment, that we can wear to help create a kinder world.

Cashmere goats.

‘Combing’ is not so kind

When we hear the term ‘combing’ in relation to farming and collecting woolly hair from goats, we might picture a wooden comb being gently pulled over the goats. Many people are told too, that cashmere is only taken from goats when they are naturally shedding, so this process is completely pain-free. 

Unfortunately, this is far from the reality. Exposés have shown extremely fine metal-toothed combs are ripped through goats’ fleeces, while they are pinned or even tied down. 

A goat being combed for cashmere. Undercover footage on cashmere farms has shown these combs being ripped through goats’ coats as they scream. 

Goats are prey animals, which means that their brains are hard-wired to flee danger from predator animals and other dangers. Being unable to escape their pain and fear while pinned and tied down to tables by their legs is terrifying for goats.

A tied down goat being combed as he screams. Image: PETA

Slaughter industry

Just like the wool industry, cashmere is a slaughter industry. As goats get older their hair begins to degrade in quality. With coarser hair, these goats are no longer profitable to the industry, so are sent to be slaughtered.

Goats generally live up to twelve years old, but some live far longer. All cashmere goats are slaughtered; in most cases, including in Australia’s growing cashmere industry, this occurs only halfway through their average natural lifespan, if not earlier.

In the two top cashmere producing countries, China and Mongolia, there are very limited laws protecting goats from protection. They are not stunned, but slaughtered while fully conscious, crying as they bleed out. 


Cashmere goats deserve kindness.

Environmental Exploitation

Degraded land under the feet of goats.

Goats are notoriously unfussy eaters, eating practically all vegetation, and ripping plants up from the roots. Goats also have sharp hooves that degrade the earth.

A study in Mongolia’s grasslands found that 80% of degradation was due to an increase in livestock population. Another contributing factor is climate change, in part due to increased methane emissions from the intense breeding of goats and other farmed animals. Goat herders in the area say that they ‘watch their grasslands disappear’ due to the industry’s growth.

Bulgamaa Densambuu, a researcher for the Green-Gold project said that ‘ninety percent of this total degraded rangelands can be recovered naturally within 10 years if we can change existing management. But if we can’t change the existing management today, it will be too late after 5 to 10 years.’

Human Exploitation

A young cashmere goat and a young girl in Mongolia.
Image: Christian Moser

Cashmere farmers living in low socio-economic situations know that their practices are harming the land they live on, but feel they have little choice. Cashmere used to be a very expensive material, but now is becoming increasingly affordable and widely available in high street fashion.

This massive demand for the material means farmers are forced into a position in which they can make ends meet by farming animals for slaughter, while ultimately causing the destruction of their natural resources and land. If alternative farming methods and products were financially supported by responsible consumers, a sustainable community for these people would be more possible. 

Another concern that comes from the rise in demand for the material relates to working conditions of goat herders. These herders are constantly raising more goats. With more people buying cashmere for cheaper prices, the overworking and underpaying of these people in supply chains that are far from transparent can result in further socio-economic struggle. 

Violence against animals is not something that is innate in most people, but learned. Often, it is learned out of necessity due to poor personal circumstances which demand someone desensitize themselves to the sentience of animals and the incredible violence inflicted upon them. Both goat and human communities deserve to live in harmony, in systems that are not built upon their exploitation.

Alternatives

There are so many lovely, kind and sustainable materials we can produce soft knitwear from, that don’t come from exploited animals and communities. 

While synthetic materials have actually been found to be less environmentally impactful to produce than animal and even plant fibres, there are still some materials that are most ideal for sustaining our natural environment, and not harming people or farmed animals.

Some of these materials include:

Australian cotton

Australian cotton farmers are innovative and the crop has become more sustainable in the last decade. 80% of farmers volunteer to be a part of the best practice management program, which ensures ethical treatment for workers, even farther than Australian law already does. The industry has also seen a 97% reduction in insecticide use. 

Australian cotton is also very land efficient, requiring 337 times less land to be cleared per bale than wool. Less land cleared and degraded for agriculture means more land available for carbon sequestering and rewilding. 

While cotton is water-intensive, as with much of agriculture, Australian cotton is less so than many plantations globally, and has significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions compared to farming ruminant animals like sheep and goats.

Image: A traceable Australian cotton knit jumper from Country Road (rated ‘good’ ethics by Good On You). Please note this brand is not vegan, so read labels to ensure kind choices.

Organic, fair trade cotton

Fair trade certified cotton ensures that farm workers are being treated and paid ethically. Without certifications like these, the globalisation of our materials makes for incredibly murky supply chains where it is very difficult to know how farmers are treated. 

Organic cotton also has a significantly reduced environmental footprint compared to animal fibres, and to conventional cotton. 

Image: A fair trade, ethically produced, organic cotton knit from Kowtow, via vegan retailer Nois

Recycled materials

Recycled materials mean there is no need to produce any new materials – so there are no more resources extracted from the earth. Recycled materials can include materials otherwise discarded by producers and consumers of fashion – cotton, acrylic, polyester. Excitingly, there are also materials made from plastics which would otherwise be destined for landfill, or which are collected from the ocean. 

These ocean plastics can include plastic bottles, but are largely made up of ghost nets from the fishing industry.

Image: a recycled cotton beanie made ethically in the USA, by Coal. Please note this brand is not vegan, so read labels to ensure kind choices. 

Tencel

Tencel is a material made from sustainably sourced eucalyptus trees. The wood pulp is made into a cellulose fibre in a closed-loop system, so almost all the water and solvents used in this process are recycled and used again. 

Tencel is a kind of Lyocell fabric; there is also Lyocell made from bamboo. 

Tencel is soft, breathable and thermo-regulating.

Image: A tencel cardigan from fairly made brand, Armed Angel. This is not a vegan brand, but vegan items are labelled with the PETA certification.

Hemp

Hemp is, like any other plant, natural, biodegradable and renewable. Hemp takes as little as 90 days to cultivate, doesn’t require the use of any pesticides, and can benefit soil health. It’s also in many instances more water efficient than cotton. 

Image: An Afends knit jumper made from hemp and organic cotton. This brand is not vegan, so check the labels and stick to their hemp collection.

Shopping vintage and pre-loved

Of course, there are also plenty of great knitwear products made from plant-based and synthetic materials available second-hand and vintage! Buying pre-loved clothes is a great way to reduce your potentially harmful impact on the world around you. The Depop app is a great place to start, and you can ask to know what materials are made of and see composition tags.