Cashmere oozes luxury and as festive shopping season kicks off, it’s on many gift lists. But what price are we really paying for it?

Winter came has come early and hard to the Tongliao region of Inner Mongolia, smothering the grasslands in record-breaking snow up to 59cm deep and triggering warnings to farmers and herders to be aware of the risks to their stock.

The chill wind is also being felt across the border in Mongolia. There, memories of a particularly harsh winter of 2017-18 are still fresh, when 700,000 animals died, temperatures plunged to -58 degrees, and nomad families who graze their herds of cashmere goats on the country’s fragile grasslands were thrown into jeopardy.

Once lush and fertile, the Mongolia steppe is nudging closer to crisis: blisteringly hot in summer, with wild, dramatic winters – known as dzud – the area is a climate change hot spot with increasingly extreme and severe weather.

For shoppers who this weekend will be trawling racks and online shops for cashmere Christmas gifts or updating their winter wardrobes, the challenges facing Mongolia’s herdsmen and women may be of less consequence than the price tag.

Why, after all, pay several hundred pounds for a cashmere sweater from the likes of Johnstons of Elgin, when supermarket cashmere costs little more than dinner for two?

But while cashmere is cheaper than ever, concerns over its true price are growing.

Soaring demand from consumers, a 2.2 degree rise in temperatures in Mongolia, plunging prices for raw materials, politics and, in the middle of it all, a traditional way of life under threat, have combined to raise questions over our craving for cashmere luxury.

“As consumers, we need to educate ourselves,” says Edinburgh-based Belinda Dickson, founder of the Belinda Robertson cashmere label and now involved with Cashmere Circle, which helps owners extend the life of cashmere products through better care, repairing and, when it’s irreparable, recycling into new products.

“Cashmere is over-farmed just now, which is purely a reaction to demand and the fact we’ve taken cashmere to a lower level in the food chain.

“Now it’s quantity over quality. We have devalued cashmere, so it is no longer the aspirational product it used to be. What was once a handcrafted product now almost feels like battery farming.”

There are many conscientious cashmere brands working hard to raise awareness and who strive to ensure an ethical approach, she adds.

But the figures surrounding cashmere are concerning; it forms nearly 7% of the $93 billion global luxury industry, with 90% of it originating in Mongolia and China.

To meet demand, the number of goats have soared. In Mongolia, where there were five million in 1990, there are now more than 27 million, leading to overgrazing and degradation of grasslands already under stress due to climate change.

As well as the damage to their ability to capture carbon, are fears for wildlife and biodiversity.

Last week a new study published in the journal Conservation Biology warned that the rising numbers of goats in Mongolia have taken over land where snow leopards hunt, affecting their prey and endangering the future of the 6,000 that remain in the wild.

There are also concerns that mass production raises the potential for fraud, and the pressures on small families of herders faced with caring for large numbers of goats, leading to animal husbandry and social concerns.

All of which raises issues for consumers whose love of fast, disposable fashion is fuelling demand, and Scotland’s own cashmere specialists and producers.

Una Jones, founder and SEO of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance, set up to help address the issues surrounding cashmere, grew up in Mongolia and has witnessed the impact of soaring demand.

“There are global supply and demand issues, ever-increasing pressure on herders to produce, and the only way for them to survive is bring the number of goats up,” she says.

“That effects grassland vegetation; 70% of land is degraded, yet this trend continues to grow.”

The issues are more complex than just cutting goat numbers, she warns.

“It’s immoral to tell people you have to bring your number of goats down because the land is degraded. This is their livelihood. And we can’t tell a commercial company that they should downgrade their profit.

“We need to add value for herders so they can either increase the quality or work with others to bring collective resilience in difficult winters.

“We need to encourage good quality cashmere.”

Launched in 2015, SFA recently met the Mongolian delegation during COP26, touring cashmere mill Alex Begg in Ayr. Talks focused on climate and land restoration, and of how to create an economy in sustainable cashmere.

One SFA initiative is its Cashmere Standard quality mark which indicates brands’ commitment to sustainability and ethical production.

The first SFA labels arrived on products last year, while cashmere brands, producers and retailers have pledged support: earlier this year John Lewis announced it would fund a three-year SFA programme to expand the organisation’s standards from Mongolia to the Inner Mongolia region.

And Johnstons of Elgin has collaborated on the first SFA course in Sustainable Pasture Management, teaching traditional herding practices to children of nomadic herders which so far has involved more than 600 young people.

The SFA hope is to encourage production of better quality fibre from fewer goats, while building resilience for the challenges of climate change, says its Operations Manager, Zara Morris-Trainor.

“Mongolia is a country of climatic extremes, very hot in summer and very cold in winter. Storms were once every ten years but are now every couple of years. There is also severe drought, rainfall has reduced - so there is real time severe impact of climate change.

“Severe winters are becoming more frequent, there’s not enough vegetation to sustain the livestock, numbers collapse and then shoot back up.

“We need to reduce the number of goats, but herders are reliant on cashmere for 90% of their income.”

Rebooting an entire sector may mean higher prices and the demise of the cheap cashmere sweater.

“It’s hard for consumers,” she adds, “there are not many options out there in terms of purchasing sustainable cashmere that they can feel confident about.

“There has been a massive increase in awareness about sustainability, but there is a lot of greenwashing in the industry.

“We want a long-term solution on a global scale.”

Closer to home, efforts are being made to address cashmere’s sustainability issues and reverse its growing image as a ‘fast fashion’ garment to be worn and thrown away.

Lotti Blades-Barrett recently launched Second Cashmere, which sources cashmere from textile recyclers, saving garments from being shredded, and carefully restoring them.

Those that can’t be repaired are carefully unpicked to be made into new items. Shrunken cashmere, where the fibre has taken a felt-like appearance, becomes luxury hot water bottle covers.

“There has been a real drop in communication with respect to the amount of resources, time and skill that goes into producing cashmere, and a disconnect with the consumer,” she says.

“It’s been mind-blowing to see what ends up at textile recyclers,” she says. “There are beautiful quality items that look like they’ve been worn a handful of times. It’s shocking.”

At Cashmere Circle, artisan cashmere menders repair cashmere which has seen better days to be returned to its owners.

Moth damage is a particular and preventable problem: moths travel through floorboards from neighbour to neighbour, their larvae chewing through precious cashmere that’s not been probably stored.

“There’s a lot of talk about sustainability in the fashion industry but most is focused on promoting consumption and getting people to buy more,” says founder and CEO Ross Powell.

“We need to remember that the most sustainable garment is the one we already own.

“But we are up against the endorphin rush people get when they buy something new,” he adds.

“Good cashmere can last almost forever if it’s properly cared for – so it’s a really sustainable fibre. But we have to care for it.”