But it’s equally important to think about how the products we’re more used to seeing are produced and supplied—with proper attention paid to welfare, waste and the natural environment.
This is particularly important for cashmere, the ultra-soft goats’ wool that continues to command a position at the heart of the luxury fashion market.
A child hugs a cashmere goat. Photo on SFA Twitter
SFA and sustainable cashmere
Luckily, the Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) has been tirelessly fighting for sustainability along the entire cashmere supply chain—with a particular focus on herders, goats and the natural environment.
Set up in 2015 by Una Jones and Dr Batkhishig Baival, the SFA is composed of teams in Mongolia and the UK with a background in social ecology and anthropology.
The “market-led and grassroots” organisation has developed an evidence-based cashmere standard, which is applied to herders and processors to prove the wool is produced sustainably, with due attention to human and animal welfare, and in which there are appropriate economic returns for herders.
“We believe that for cashmere production to be truly sustainable, we must look at the whole system,” the SFA writes on its website. “This includes environmental impact, herder well-being and animal welfare.”
Part of the commitment includes taking measures to restore degraded grasslands, which is one of the biggest challenges in the country. An estimated 70 percent of Mongolian grasslands have been damaged due to warmer temperatures and overgrazing—challenges that are at risk of increasing as herders strive to meet increased demands from fast fashion, or to cover shortfalls in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
The wide-ranging SFA membership brings together the whole cashmere supply chain, from farmers and herders to processors, manufacturers, brands and retailers. Current members include major market leaders such as Johnstons of Elgin, Burberry, Marks and Spencer, and Gobi Cashmere.
One of the most interesting parts of the SFA approach is the ‘Nutag Framework’, developed by organisation co-founder and SFA Mongolia Country Director, Dr Batkhishig Baival.
In Mongolian, ‘Nutag’ means ‘homeplace’. The framework of action builds on traditional knowledge and nomadic culture, combining local, traditional and scientific knowledge and best practice “to promote resilience for herders and the environment.”
This is perhaps best seen in an ongoing project in partnership with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Mongolian government to launch the first cashmere blockchain pilot.
The blockchain is used to track the cashmere herds in order to limit production from overgrazed areas. Herders use a mobile phone app created by Convergence.Tech, paired with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) tag in individual goats.
“Technology doesn’t create sustainability by itself, but it can be a great catalyst for change,” Chami Akmeemana, Convergence.Tech’s chief executive, told Reuters. The pilot managed to register about five tonnes of cashmere in its first year.
The SFA’s push for sustainability does seem to be filtering into other parts of member behaviour: Johnstons of Elgin—also one of the three founding members of the SFA—recently developed a range of scarves and blankets using leftover yarn from the main cashmere collections. This yarn is used to make “stunning, limited edition products that benefit the environment and eliminate waste.”
Sheikh Nawaf al-Saud al-Nasser al Sabah