Textile industry and water pollution – brought to you by some of your favorite retailers.

14 11 2012

In 2011 Greenpeace published two reports: one investigating the discharge of hazardous substances from textiles manufacturing in China linked to major clothing and sportswear companies (Dirty Laundry), and another detailing the presence of NPEs in clothing and footwear of 15 leading brands (Dirty Laundry 2: Hung Out to Dry). With the publication of these reports Greenpeace challenged global brands to eliminate all releases of hazardous chemicals from their supply chains and products by 2020.

The Detox Campaign, as it is now known,  is especially targeting Chinese manufacturers.  With nearly 50,000 textile factories, the “factory of the world” is in fact the first victim of textile water pollution, prompting even the government to face up to the problem. “China is moving toward legislation where each company is responsible for its wastewater,” said Ulrike Kallee. “Awareness is now very high.”

The man-made chemical by-products of the textile industry are shown to have long-term effects on the environment and potentially devastating impacts on human and animal life. Furthermore, when testing clothing from 15 corporate brands, Greenpeace found that the chemicals used in the textile production process continue to be released when contaminated clothing is purchased and washed by consumers across the world.  These tests demonstrate the truly global danger posed by these toxic chemicals as they are released into rivers and water sources from the point of production to the consumer.

I don’t know why there is not an outcry about the clothing which is continuing to contaminate washwater – doesn’t it occur to people that  clothing contains chemicals which are being absorbed by our skin and causing us harm?  For that matter, think about the fabrics we subject ourselves to intimately every day, like sheets and towels.  Where is the disconnect here?

Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign is helping create a greener economy by challenging major global brands to rid their textile production processes of hazardous chemicals. The Detox Campaign has already successfully demonstrated the power of grassroots activism and social media in pressuring corporations to clean up their production practices.  Only months into the Detox Campaign, major retailers H&M, Puma, Adidas and Nike committed to eliminating discharges of hazardous chemicals across their supply chains by 202; most recently Marks & Spencer joined the group. In addition to pressuring corporations to adopt greener production practices, Greenpeace is pursuing legislative changes within the textile industries in several Asian countries and the European Union in order to protect rivers and the communities and ecosystems they support.

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How to buy a quality sofa – part 4: natural fibers

10 10 2012

Since the 1960s, the use of synthetic fibers has increased dramatically,  causing the natural fiber industry to lose much of its market share. In December 2006, the United Nations General Assembly declared 2009 the International Year of Natural Fibres (IYNF); a year-long initiative focused on raising global awareness about natural fibers with specific focus on increasing market demand to help ensure the long-term sustainability for farmers who rely heavily on their production.

                       International Forum for Cotton Promotion

Natural fibers  have a history of being considered the fibers that are easiest to live with, valued for their comfort, soft hand and versatility.  They also carry a certain cachet:  cashmere, silk taffeta and 100% pure Sea Island cotton convey different images than does 100% rayon,  pure polyester or even Ultrasuede, don’t they?  And natural fibers, being a bit of an artisan product, are highly prized especially in light of campaigns by various trade associations to brand fiber:    “the fabric of our lives” from Cotton, Inc. and merino wool with the pure wool label are two examples.                                                              

Preferences for natural fibers seem to be correlated with income; in one study, people with higher incomes preferred natural fibers by a greater percentage than did those in lower income brackets.   Cotton Incorporated funded a study that demonstrated that  66% of all women with household incomes over $75,000 prefer natural fibers to synthetic.

What are the reasons, according to the United Nations, that make natural fibers so important?  The UN website, Discover Natural Fibers lists the following reasons why natural fibers are a good choice.  Please remember that this list does not include organic natural fibers, which provide even more benefits (but that’s another post):

  1. Natural fibers are a healthy choice.
    1. Natural fiber textiles absorb perspiration and release it into the air, a process called “wicking” that creates natural ventilation. Because of their more compact molecular structure, synthetic fibers cannot capture air and “breathe” in the same way. That is why a cotton T-shirt is so comfortable to wear on a hot summer’s day, and why polyester and acrylic garments feel hot and clammy under the same conditions. (It also explains why sweat-suits used for weight reduction are made from 100% synthetic material.) The bends, or crimp, in wool fibers trap pockets of air which act as insulators against both cold and heat – Bedouins wear thin wool to keep them cool. Since wool can absorb liquids up to 35% of its own weight, woollen blankets efficiently absorb and disperse the cup of water lost through perspiration during sleep, leaving sheets dry and guaranteeing a much sounder slumber than synthetic blankets.
    2. The “breathability” of natural fiber textiles makes their wearers less prone to skin rashes, itching and allergies often caused by synthetics. Garments, sheets and pillowcases of organic cotton or silk are the best choice for children with sensitive skins or allergies, while hemp fabric has both a high rate of moisture dispersion and natural anti-bacterial properties.   Studies by Poland’s Institute of Natural Fibers have shown that 100% knitted linen is the most hygienic textile for bed sheets – in clinical tests, bedridden aged or ill patients did not develop bedsores. The institute is developing underwear knitted from flax which, it says, is significantly more hygienic than nylon and polyester. Chinese scientists also recommend hemp fiber for household textiles, saying it has a high capacity for absorption of toxic gases.
  2. Natural fibers are a responsible choice.
    1. Natural fibers production, processing and export are vital to the economies of many developing countries and the livelihoods of millions of small-scale farmers and low-wage workers. Today, many of those economies and livelihoods are under threat: the global financial crisis has reduced demand for natural fibers as processors, manufacturers and consumers suspend purchasing decisions or look to cheaper synthetic alternatives.
    2. Almost all natural fibers are produced by agriculture, and the major part is harvested in the developing world.
      1. For example, more than 60% of the world’s cotton is grown in China, India and Pakistan. In Asia, cotton is cultivated mainly by small farmers and the sale of cotton provides the primary source of income for some 100 million rural households.
      2. In India and Bangladesh, an estimated 4 million marginal farmers earn their living – and support 20 million dependents – from the cultivation of jute, used in sacks, carpets, rugs and curtains. Competition from synthetic fibers has eroded demand for jute over recent decades and, in the wake of recession, reduced orders from Europe and the Middle East could cut jute exports even further.
      3. Silk is another important industry in Asia. Raising silkworms generates income for some 700 000 farm households in India, while silk processing provide jobs for 20 000 weaving families in Thailand and about 1 million textile workers in China.
      4. Each year, developing countries produce around 500 000 tonnes of coconut fiber – or coir – mainly for export to developed countries for use in rope, nets, brushes, doormats, mattresses and insulation panels. In Sri Lanka, the single largest supplier of brown coir fiber to the world market, coir goods account for 6% of agricultural exports, while 500 000 people are employed in small-scale coir factories in southern India.
      5. Across the globe in Tanzania, government and private industry have been working to revive once-booming demand for sisal fiber, extracted from the sisal agave and used in twine, paper, bricks and reinforced plastic panels in automobiles. Sisal cultivation and processing in Tanzania directly employs 120 000 people and the sisal industry benefits an estimated 2.1 million people.
  3. Natural fibers are a sustainable choice.
    1. Natural fibers will play a key role in the emerging “green” economy based on energy efficiency, the use of renewable feed stocks in bio-based polymer products, industrial processes that reduce carbon emissions and recyclable materials that minimize waste.  Natural fibers are a renewable resource, par excellence – they have been renewed by nature and human ingenuity for millennia. During processing, they generate mainly organic wastes and leave residues that can be used to generate electricity or make ecological housing material. And, at the end of their life cycle, they are 100% biodegradable.
    2. An FAO study estimated that production of one ton of jute fiber requires just 10% of the energy used for the production of one ton of synthetic fibers (since jute is cultivated mainly by small-scale farmers in traditional farming systems, the main energy input is human labor, not fossil fuels).
    3. Processing of some natural fibers can lead to high levels of water pollutants, but they consist mostly of biodegradable compounds, in contrast to the persistent chemicals, including heavy metals, released in the effluent from synthetic fiber processing. More recent studies have shown that producing one ton of polypropylene – widely used in packaging, containers and cordage – emits into the atmosphere more than 3 ton of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas responsible for global warming. In contrast, jute absorbs as much as 2.4 tonnes of carbon per tonne of dry fiber.
    4. The environmental benefits of natural fiber products accrue well beyond the production phase. For example, fibers such as hemp, flax and sisal are being used increasingly as reinforcing in place of glass fibers in thermoplastic panels in automobiles. Since the fibers are lighter in weight, they reduce fuel consumption and with it carbon dioxide emissions and air pollution.
    5. But where natural fibers really excel is in the disposal stage of their life cycle. Since they absorb water, natural fibers decay through the action of fungi and bacteria – this releases the fixed CO2 in the fibers and closes the cycle; it also improves soil structure.  Synthetics present society with a range of disposal problems. In land fills they release heavy metals and other additives into soil and groundwater. Recycling requires costly separation, while incineration produces pollutants and, in the case of high-density polyethylene, 3 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions for every tonne of material burnt. Left in the environment, synthetic fibers contribute, for example, to the estimated 640 000 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets and gear in the world’s oceans.
  4. Natural fibers are a high-tech choice.
    1. Natural fibers have intrinsic properties – mechanical strength, low weight and low cost – that have made them particularly attractive to the automobile industry.
      1. In Europe, car makers are using mats made from abaca, flax and hemp in press-molded      thermoplastic panels for door liners, parcel shelves, seat backs, engine shields and headrests.
        1. For consumers, natural fiber composites in automobiles provide better thermal and acoustic insulation than fiberglass, and reduce irritation of the skin and respiratory system. The low density of plant fibers also reduces vehicle weight, which cuts fuel consumption.
        2. For car manufacturers, the moulding process consumes less energy than that of fibreglass and produces less wear and tear on machinery, cutting production costs by up to 30%. The use of natural fibres by Europe’s car industry is projected to reach 100 000 tonnes by 2010. German companies lead the way. Daimler-Chrysler has developed a flax-reinforced polyester composite, and in 2005 produced an award-winning spare wheel well cover that incorporated abaca yarn from the Philippines. Vehicles in some BMW series contain up to 24 kg of flax and sisal. Released in July 2008, the Lotus Eco Elise (pictured above) features body panels made with hemp, along with sisal carpets and seats upholstered with hemp fabric. Japan’s carmakers, too, are “going green”. In Indonesia, Toyota manufactures door trims made from kenaf and polypropylene, and Mazda is using a bioplastic made with kenaf for car interiors.
    1. Worldwide, the construction industry is moving to natural fibres for a range of products, including light structural walls, insulation materials, floor and wall coverings, and roofing. Among recent innovations are cement blocks reinforced with sisal fibre, now being manufactured in Tanzania and Brazil. In India, a growing shortage of timber for the construction industry has spurred development of composite board made from jute veneer and coir ply – studies show that coir’s high lignin content makes it both stronger and more resistant to rotting than teak. In Europe, hemp hurd and fibres are being used in cement and to make particle boards half the weight of wood-based boards. Geotextiles are another promising new outlet for natural fibre producers. Originally developed in the Netherlands for the construction of dykes, geotextile nets made from hard natural fibres strengthen earthworks and encourage the growth of plants and trees, which provide further reinforcement. Unlike plastic textiles used for the same purpose, natural fibre nets – particularly those made from coir – decay over time as the earthworks stabilize.
  1. Natural fibers are a fashionable choice.
    John Patrick Organic Fall/Winter 2010
    1. Natural fibers are at the heart of a fashion movement that goes by various names: sustainable, green, uncycled, ethical, eco-, even eco-environmental. It focuses fashion on concern for the environment, the well-being of fiber producers and consumers, and the conditions of workers in the textile industry. Young designers now offer “100% carbon neutral” collections that strive for sustainability at every stage of their garments’ life cycle – from production, processing and packaging to transportation, retailing and ultimate disposal. Preferred raw materials include age-old fibres such as flax and hemp, which can be grown without agrochemicals and produce garments that are durable, recyclable and biodegradable. Fashion collections also feature organic wool, produced by sheep that have not been exposed to pesticide dips, and “cruelty-free” wild silk, which is harvested – unlike most silk – after the moths have left their cocoons.
    2. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)   sets strict standards on chemicals permitted in processing, on waste water treatment, packaging material and technical quality parameters, on factory working conditions and on residue testing.
    3. Sustainable fashion intersects with the “fair trade” movement, which offers producers in developing countries higher prices for their natural fibres and promotes social and environmental standards in fibre processing. Fair trade fashion pioneers are working with organic cotton producers’ cooperatives in Mali, hand-weavers groups in Bangladesh and Nepal, and alpaca producers in Peru. A major UK chain store launched in 2007 a fair trade range of clothing that uses cotton “ethically sourced” from farmers in the Gujarat region of India. It has since sold almost 5 million garments and doubled sales in the first six months of 2008.
    4. Another dimension of sustainable fashion is concern for the working conditions of employees in textile and garment factories, which are often associated with long working hours, exposure to hazardous chemicals used in bleaching and dyeing, and the scourge of child labor. The  Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), widely accepted by manufacturers, retailers and brand dealers, includes a series of “minimum social criteria” for textile processing, including a prohibition on the use of child labor, workers’ freedom of association and right to collective bargaining, safe and hygienic working conditions, and “living wages”.




The High Cost of Low Prices

8 12 2010

It’s the holiday season – and that usually means gifts.  I have begun the annual frenzy  and I’m watching my budget – yet I wince each time I hear an ad for an even cheaper price.  I’m especially worried by the Old Navy ads for really cheap cashmere sweater.  (Click here to read our blog post on cashmere and how it’s affecting our environment.)  My gifts are often jeans or clothing for my three boys, and so the Greenpeace report which was just published on November 30 really hit home.

Greenpeace  investigations found widespread pollution, including high concentrations of heavy metals, in Xintang and Gurao, two textile factory towns in Guangdong province that make blue jeans and bras, respectively.

As the Greenpeace web site   http://www.greenpeace.org/eastasia/press/release/textile-industrial-pollution tells it:

“Xintang is better known as the “Blue Jeans Capital of the World” – over 40% of its jeans are exported to the US, the EU, Russia and many other countries. It produces 260 million pairs of jeans annually, or more than 60% of China’s total jeans production and equivalent to 40% of all the jeans sold in the US each year.

Sewing Jeans These workers are sewing jeans in a makeshift shed that serves as a workshop in Xintang 2010 08/12/2010 © Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

Students on Street These students on their way to school try to block out the fumes from trash incineration Gurao, 06/08/2010 © Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

Meanwhile, 80% of Gurao’s economy is related to the underwear and lingerie industry. Each year, the “Capital of Sexy” produces 200 million bras, enough for one for every third woman in China.

“Xintang and Gurao are symbols of success in China’s export-model economy, yet we were horrified by the environmental degradation we saw during our fieldwork visits from April to September,” said Greenpeace Toxics campaigner Mariah Zhao. “Though we cannot pinpoint the pollution sources definitively at this stage, it’s worth noting that textile is the dominant industry in both towns by a long run.”

Testing by an independent laboratory revealed heavy metals such as copper, cadmium, and lead in 17 out of 21 samples of water and sediment from Xintang and Gurao. One sediment sample from Xintang contained cadmium at concentrations 128 times in excess of national environmental standards. “Dyeing, washing, bleaching, and printing are some of the dirtiest processes in the textile industry, requiring high volumes of water as well as heavy metals and other chemicals,” explained Zhao. “And Xintang is home to the complete blue jean manufacturing process, including dyeing, bleaching, and washing.”

Workers in the industry also testified to Greenpeace. “The water is discharged from the dyeing factories upstream. Sometimes it smells really awful. And every time the color of the water is different,” said Ren Shan (pseudonym), a migrant worker who moved to Gurao for a job in a textile factory.

Worker in GuangDong Every morning, workers at a denim washing factory must search through wastewater to scoop out stones that are washed with the fabric in industrial washing machines to make stonewash denim. Xintang, 08/14/2010 © Qiu Bo / Greenpeace

 

“With China nicknamed ‘the Factory of the World,’ it’s important to remember that Xintang and Gurao are emblematic of the larger problem of dirty textile manufacturing – they are just two of 133 textile industrial clusters in the country,” Zhao pointed out. “The responsibility of wastewater regulation and phasing out hazardous chemicals in textile manufacturing must be faced by not only Xintang and Gurao’s industries and government, but also throughout China.”

“Jeans and bras are synonymous with a modern, sexy lifestyle, yet we need to think about what these fashion icons mean for our environment. With many people demanding new jeans and clothing every year, it is imperative that the textile industry implements clean production methods, starting by phasing out the use and release of hazardous chemicals. At the same time, the government must adopt and enforce strict hazardous chemical management policies,” said Zhao. “We also hope that consumers will join us in pushing for change from the government and their favorite clothing companies. It would be tragic if fashion and economics comes at the cost of China’s clean water resources.” “

While you all ohh and ahhh about the terrible conditions in these Chinese cities– and of the chemicals being dumped into our groundwater – remember what motivates this behavior.  As we (you and I) push for ever lower prices, the factories have no recourse but to cut costs – by paying lower wages, (if wages are paid at all) and ignoring pollution control measures (which are expensive and force the cost up).

It is a simple equation that, if retailers want cheap prices and fast delivery times, they cannot expect high wages and comfortable working hours for the people on the production line, nor can they put in place expensive pollution control measures such as water treatment.

Somewhere there has to be a compromise.  In fact,  Ellen Ruppel Shell, in her book, “Cheap, The High Cost of Discount Culture”, asks: “What are we really buying when we insist on getting stuff as cheaply as possible?”  Her answer:  a low-quality food supply, a ruined economy, a polluted environment, low wages, a shoddy educational system, deserted town centers, ballooning personal debt, and the loss of craftsmanship.

Contact information for Greenpeace:

Shelley Jiang, Greenpeace Media Officer,   +86 1352 089 3941, +86 (10) 6554 6931 ext 149

Mariah Zhao, Greenpeace Toxics Campaigner
+86 1391 009 8563, +86 (10) 6554 6931 ext 107





Cotton and China

24 03 2010

Chris Wood – an independent journalist living on Vancouver Island, Canada,  wrote an article in Miller-McCune about China’s cotton problem.   Most of the information here is taken from his article.  You can read the complete article here.

Clients often ask us where our fabrics and/or fibers come from because, they tell us,  they don’t want to buy something if it was made in China because they don’t want to support China’s horrible environmental reputation.

Well, first we’d like to say that China is a big place, and to say anything pertains to all of China is really stretching it.  And our experience has been quite the opposite – our contacts in China are among the most caring and environmentally sensitive, and now there’s evidence that the Chinese government is making efforts to support sustainability in this area also.  China’s Development Research Center (DRC) Deputy Director Long Guoqiang has said that  “sustainable trade means economic, social and environmental sustainabilities. In the past, China [judged] the former two more important than the latter one. In recent years the environmental target has become more and more important. We think the three targets are equally important to China at this stage.”

China,  cotton, and the United States  is a complicated threesome.  Not only does China provide the U.S.  more than $30 billion worth of textiles and clothing, China is the #1 foreign customer for American-grown cotton. And to further complicate this relationship, cotton is one of the world’s major agricultural commodities:  if we take into consideration all stages of  the cotton life cycle, cotton is the economic support for one-sixth of humanity.  It’s also implicated in a wide array of environmental issues, from falling aquifer levels in regions growing irrigated cotton to fertilizer runoff that nourishes fish-killing algae blooms in lakes and oceans and to pesticide contamination of groundwater.

In China, it costs money to treat textile effluent just as it does in other parts of the world.  It’s not costless.   The search for lower prices – an effort to stay profitable –  has led to cost cutting.   The Miller McCune story published the claim that almost one third of the dye effluent in China is discharged without any attempt to treat it – in some areas, the water is dangerously toxic to the touch.   This is one of the major factors in the unavailability of clean drinking water for large sections of Chinese society.  One official in China said that in 2006, the cumulative cost of environmental damage and pollution-related health care was effectively offsetting the country 10% annual economic growth.

And the Chinese government is not blind to this environmental degredation, nor to the scale of the pollution drag on the Chinese economy.  So the State Council directed its research arm, the Development Research Center (DRC), to seek advice on bringing the trade vital to China’s prosperity into balance with its ecological resources.  The DRC, in turn, commissioned a Canadian research center to oversee an international network of experts, to look into these problems and to help them envision a sustainable trade strategy.  The Chinese government was looking for pragmatic solutions.

But what it all boils down to is that despite China’s authoritarian government (which some say can get things done quickly once they’ve identified the path),  despite its efforts to bring the industries which are the engine for its prosperity into ecological balance, and despite the government’s efforts to identify the textile industry’s full-spectrum impact, cradle to grave, the bald truth is this:   textile products and clothing in particular are horribly undervalued.   The prices consumers are prepared to pay – or more accurately, the prices the high volume brands are willing to pay for product inputs – encourage producers to do simply what they can afford, rather than what is right.   The global cotton-textile value chain is “buyer driven”, dominated by a relatively small number of increasingly global participants.  In the U.S. market just two large discount chains – Wal-Mart and Kmart – account for 1/4 of all the clothing sold.  I wince every time I see Old Navy’s advertisements with their unbelieveably low prices for clothing – because I know what those prices mean to me in the long run.   “[I]f the true environmental costs can be included in the price of products and services,” the researchers argued, “the pricing system can give market signals that ensure the efficient allocation of environmental resource use.”

Taxes on such things as wastewater discharge, on cotton clothing to fund recycling, and tax incentives to motivate adoption of wastewater recycling have all be suggested.  But there is only so much the government can do.  Local authorities can’t afford for local businesses to close down –  and so we have a problem the the world can’t afford to ignore.

Another significant impediment, according to Chris Wood’s article,  to greater sustainability for China’s cotton trade lies in the difference between  “cotton production in the nominally communist state and its production in supposedly capitalist America. While U.S. production is dominated by heavily mechanized, industrial-scale farms, and China’s cotton is overwhelmingly grown on much smaller parcels tended by hand, it’s the large American cotton farms that are arguably the more socialized. China’s millions of small cotton farmers are highly exposed to the vagaries of the market; the United States subsidizes its growers by amounts that in some years exceed the harvested value of their crops. Such subsidies in the U.S. and countries in Europe and elsewhere (including China itself) depress the price of globally traded cotton, leaving small producers with little profit to invest in better growing techniques.”

But turn the American subsidies on it’s head, and look at the situation from another angle:  American taxpayers’ willingness to pick up much of the cost of its water- and chemical-intensive cotton crop keeps the price of U.S. cotton  irresistibly low to Chinese buyer, encouraging more of the same.  And American taxpayers will pay the piper when the water runs dry and the health concerns blossom into realities.





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.