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The uncomfortable hidden truths about cheap cashmere

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As I am speaking to you right now, I am sitting here wearing a cozy, cashmere sweater, which is actually relevant to our next interview because apparently a lot of us are wearing cozy, cashmere sweaters. Today, you can buy this luscious piece of luxury for a lot less money than in past. A cashmere sweater can run you less than a hundred bucks depending on the retailer. So why not indulge? It turns out, though, that cheap cashmere has hidden costs to the fragile ecosystems where it is produced. That is according to Ginger Allington. She's a landscape ecologist and assistant professor at Cornell, and she just wrote about this in an op-ed for The New York Times, which was headlined "This Holiday Consider The True Cost Of Cheap Cashmere." Professor Allington, welcome.

GINGER ALLINGTON: Thank you for having me.

KELLY: Well, let's do the basics. You write, every cashmere sweater begins with a goat. Explain. How is it made? Where does it come from?

ALLINGTON: Sure. Well, the cashmere that we wear starts out as the underhair that grows on cashmere goats. And then that is sold and processed and spun into the fiber that we use for our sweaters.

KELLY: And these goats - this is Central Asia that we're talking - China, Mongolia.

ALLINGTON: Yes. The majority of the cashmere that is produced today is produced in northern China, in inner Mongolia and in Mongolia.

KELLY: OK, so how has it gotten to be so much more affordable than it was even - I don't know - a decade or two ago? It used to run you a few hundred dollars to buy a good cashmere sweater.

ALLINGTON: Yes, that's a great question. There's been such a huge increase in the number of cashmere goats because the demand is so high that there's actually some degradation of the habitats that they grow in. And that ends up producing lower-quality fiber in the long run. And that produces a lower-quality sweater, which then you can buy for a lot less money.

KELLY: Yeah. So I want to dig in on this, the reasons that the way that we're doing it today is not sustainable. You've actually been there - right? - and seen how this plays out on the Central Asian Steppes. What do you see?

ALLINGTON: We see a big change in the grasslands of that region. There's a lot less vegetation, a lot more exposed soils, particularly in areas where there is a huge increase in the number of livestock. And to be clear, goats have been raised in this area for a long time as well, but there are just many, many more of them than there used to be. And goats are much more efficient browsers and grazers than some of the other livestock that are traditionally grown in this region. They can really remove a lot more of the vegetation down to the roots. And so that just further degrades the system.

KELLY: Yeah. So what are ideas out there to produce cashmere in a way that doesn't wreck these grasslands for future generations of goats but that, if we want to, we can continue to wear cashmere?

ALLINGTON: Well, honestly, I don't know that there is a way to sustainably produce cashmere at the scale at which we're consuming it today. I think demand needs to go down for that particular fiber such that herders can produce less of it at a higher quality. And then that needs to be then balanced out by increased demand for other fibers as well. You can produce great products from camels and yaks and sheep.

KELLY: OK, so the answer for those of us who want to do the right thing for the environment and also don't want to freeze all winter is consider other fibers, other types of sweaters.

ALLINGTON: Consider other fibers. Buy vintage cashmere. A lot of the used, older cashmere that you can buy on eBay and from thrift stores - that's much likely a much higher-quality sweater that's going to last a lot longer. If you pay $50 for a sweater, you're going to get what you pay for, and you'll end up needing to buy another one next year. And that just perpetuates the cycle.

KELLY: Ginger Allington, landscape ecologist and assistant professor at Cornell. Thank you so much.

ALLINGTON: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.