Air pollution and your cashmere sweater

4 11 2009

We’ll be at Greenbuild next week, booth 910, with our good friends from LIVE Textiles.  Please stop by to see us if you’re there.

We are introducing a new organic wool upholstery fabric at Greenbuild  (we’re hoping it will be GOTS certified, though it is touch and go as to whether the certificate will be in place by then – there are so many hoops!).    So for the past six months or so we’ve been learning lots about wool – and wool is a complicated subject!  It’s a gorgeous fiber, but it has, as we say, issues.  Not unsolvable, but like everything you have to know your suppliers and what questions are important to ask.  We talked about wool and animal husbandry in two previous posts (“What does organic wool mean?” 8.11.09 and “Why does wool get such high embodied energy ratings?” 8.4.09);  some of the issues surrounding wool are enumerated in those posts.

I’m always a sucker for soft and luxurious, so naturally when talking about wool I began hinting I’d like a cashmere fabric – or wool/cashmere blend.  But we looked into cashmere, and what we found is startling and unexpected: a story of how your cashmere sweater pollutes the air you breathe.    There is an improbable connection, according to Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune, “between cheap sweaters, Asia’s prairies and America’s air, (which) captures how the most ordinary shifts in the global economy are triggering extraordinary change.”  Please read Mr. Osnos’ article, “China’s Great Grab”, from which most of the information in this blog is taken.   He won the Asia Society’s Osborn Elliott Prize for distinguished journalism for this series.

Cashmere has recently become ubiquitous –  cashmere sweaters, for example, once so very high priced that the very word “cashmere” became synonymous with luxury,  are suddenly “affordable”.  Coincidentally, Saks Fifth Avenue ran a full page ad in Sunday’s  New York Times touting their low priced cashmere goods – and telling you to “Shop Smart”.   We’ll help you to shop smart – please read this post!

What happened to bring down the price of cashmere?  Behind this new affordable price tag is something the consumer rarely sees or thinks about: the cascade of consequences around the world when the might of Chinese production and western consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.

Cashmere comes from the downy underhair of special goats, the majority of which live in the coldest regions of China and Mongolia.  In fact, the world’s best and most expensive cashmere comes from the Alashan Plateau, an area in China’s north straddling the Mongolian border,  boiling hot in summer and way below zero in winter.  This area is part of China’s mythic grasslands, where Genghis Khan and his horde rode the limitless horizon.  The fiber itself, known as “diamond fiber” in China,  sells for 6 times the cost of ordinary wool.

This rare and wonderful fiber is remarkably soft, silky and warm.  Side by side under a microscope a single cashmere strand makes a human hair look like a rope.  And it was also synonymous with high price.  European spinning mills have sourced the best cashmere yarns from this region for years.

The combination of demand and high prices led to China’s rapid increase in production to meet that demand,  and  conditions were in place to create an almost perfect storm – with money to be earned from “diamond fiber”, herders rapidly increased their goat populations and caused severe overgrazing.  In  Inner Mongolia, for example, the livestock population increased from 2 million in 1949 to 28.5 million in 2004.(1)

20080318-desertification Julie Chaol

The goats are eating the grasslands bare:  Goats consume over 10% of their body weight daily in roughage, eating not just the grass but also their roots and stripping bark from seedlings, preventing the regrowth of trees.  The land is so barren that herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to keep their animals alive.  Overgrazing is so severe that the health of the goats is at risk: their birthrate is sinking and even the cashmere has begun to suffer from these stressed goats, with shorter, coarser, less valuable fiber.

In addition to stripping the land of all vegetation, the feet of these goats have been compared to stiletto heels, vs. the big soft pads of camel’s feet, which have a far lesser impact on the ground.  These “stiletto heel” hooves  pierce the crust formed on the land, and the fine sand beneath it takes flight.  So the animals remove the vegetation, and the winds finish the job by blowing away the top soil, transforming the grasslands into desert.

In this perfect storm, the rapid increase in the number of goats has occurred at the same time the area is undergoing a severe drought due to climate change.  The goats require water, which also leads to overuse of that resource.  So many cashmere plants and other industries have opened in Alashan that authorities must ration water, forcing each factory to close for days at a time. (2)

And without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, the deserts in Alashan are expanding by nearly 400 square miles each year. The World Bank warned of grave consequences for the environment and for farmers.

Already desertification is causing millions of rural Chinese to migrate from their villages –  a migration on the scale of the Dust Bowl in the United States is taking place in China today. A study by the Asian Development Bank found 4,000 villages at risk of being swallowed by drifting sand (3)

Exhib_001031

But the environmental degredation doesn’t stop in Alashan.  Eroding grasslands means that silt is deposited into the headwaters of rivers that flow all across Asia: to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Southeast Asia.  And the dust storms, which have been a fact of life in this area of the world since before Genghis Kahn, are becoming increasingly common:  in the 1950s, China suffered an average of five dust and sand storms per year; in the 1990s storms struck 23 times each year.  (4)  These storms do a lot of damage:  A storm in 2002 forced 1.8 million South Koreans to seek medical help and cost the country $7.8 billion in damage to industries such as airlines and semiconductors, said the state-run Korea Environment Institute. (5)

And added to the damage the storms cause in China, they also act as a high altitude conveyor belt for pollution.  Think of it like this:  the dust and sand generated in Alashan  is sent east by the winds, where China’s coal powered industry adds pollution.  Together the noxious brew reaches the U.S. within five days, where it can combine with local pollution to exceed the limits of healthy air, according to Rudolf Husar, an atmospheric chemist at Washington University in St. Louis.(6)

According to Eric Osnos’ article, “Of most concern are ultra tiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. One storm that began in China and Mongolia in spring 1998 caused a spike in air pollution that prompted health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue warnings to the public.”

The situation has become so bad that herders are moving off the land to try their hand at trades in the cities, and the government is putting many new programs into place to help stem the damage which has been done (including banning grazing on some lands).  The price of cashmere has begun to climb.  But with ads such as the one from Saks, promoting yet another cheap product, these problems will continue to persist.

(1)  Osnos, Evan;  “China’s Great Grab: Your cheap sweather’s real cost”, The Chicago Tribune, December 16, 2006.

(2) Ibid.

(3) http://factsanddetails.com/china.php?itemid=389&catid=10&subcatid=66#07)

(4) Osnos, op cit.

(5) Ibid.

(6) Ibid.


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