If the environmentalist wore a signature sweater, it could be made of cashmere.
Also known in Asia as ‘soft gold’ or the ‘diamond fibre’ because of its incomparable quality and rarity, this natural goat fibre produces a long-lasting garment that doesn’t pill and keeps its form.
As a bonus, it can even become softer over time.
It can be hand washed, eliminating the need for harmful dry-cleaning.
It is eight times warmer than wool, stores without wrinkles and modulates its insulating capacity based on humidity so you are never too warm, but always warm enough.
And the goats get to graze in large meadows until harvest time, when they are sheared or combed.
The perfect sweater does have a major snag, however.
Described by treehugger.com as a classic case of “Tragedy in the commons,” cashmere’s story is what happens when the world produces too much of a good thing — or rather, when we get too greedy for a good thing.
The millions of goats reared for cashmere in China is destroying the landscape, “eating the grasslands bare and piercing protective topsoils with their hooves,” says treehugger.com.
The result is mass desertification that is leading to brutal sand storms that are received across oceans and which carry China’s pollution with them.
Huge areas of inner Mongolia have been shut down because of goat grazing.
It has been said that goats have ‘stiletto heels’ and are ill-suited for China’s landscape.
Their hooves easily break the crust of the soil rather than travel on top of it like the pads of camels’ feet.
In once-uninhabited northwest China, vast meadows, like the ones the Three Billy Goats Gruff yearned to graze upon, have been rendered barren.
Film footage and photographs of grazing goat herds in China depict a sea of white furry mammals traversing a moonscape.
This is just another one of China’s “low-cost factories,” according to journalist Evan Osnos who exposed the devastation of the cashmere industry on China in a special report for the Chicago Tribune in December, 2006, and the United States is its “best customer.”
“Every minute of every day last year, America gobbled up $463,200 worth of Chinese goods — including millions of cashmere sweaters…,” writes Osnos.
Of the world’s 16,000 tons of annual raw cashmere output, 12,000, or 75 per cent, comes from China, according to China Daily.
The US big-box Costco bought and sold 15 per cent of the world’s 16,000-ton-supply in 2001, according to Forbes Magazine, when it democratized the cashmere sweater by selling it for just $49.
Once a luxury item that sold only to the wealthy in boutiques for $300 or more, the Chinese cashmere sweater now sells for as little as $20 at Wal-Mart.
China’s Alashan Plateau, along the Mongolian border, produces the world’s most expensive cashmere — that downy underlayer of goat’s hair that is worth more than six times an ordinary sheep’s wool.
But the prairie there is running out of grass to feed the herds and the goats are starving.
Goats that usually live 20 years will only survive 10 — if they are lucky.
It takes two or three animals to produce a sweater after a spring’s shearing.
Until recently, the tradition of breeding cashmere goats remained unchanged.
In the 16th Century, Kashmiri craftsmen spun shawls out of material delivered to India by Silk Road caravans from China, Afghanistan and northern Persia.
By the early 19th Century, French Empress Eugenie created an icon by wearing shawls delicate enough to be drawn through a ring—the ring shawl.
The processing was mechanized in Scotland in the 1870s, and Europe continued to buy most of China and Mongolia’s cashmere and produce the sweaters and shawls at home.
Now China exports an estimated 20 billion finished garments a year, according to Osnos — “more than three pieces of clothing for every person on Earth.”
The drive to produce more and cheaper cashmere in China began in the 1980s.
And in just 20 years, the West’s consumption of cheap cashmere has created an ever-growing desert — the Alashan desert is said to expand by 645 square kilometres a year.
The number of goats in this area is said to be about 25.8 million.
The glut of production is fast changing the face of cashmere from something luxurious and revered to something ordinary.
Cheap processing in China, as well as blending cashmere with cheap fibres and producing fakes could even ruin cashmere’s natural reputation as one of the warmest, most durable natural fibres on Earth.
Unless something changes dramatically, cashmere will probably be the environmentalist’s anti-sweater and everyman’s rag.
Juliann Fraser is a writer living in Whitehorse.