Do You Want Cashmere or Snow Leopards? Because You Can’t Have Both.

cashmere snow leopards
Image courtesy Frida Bredesen on Unsplash

Demand for cheap cashmere is putting pressure on snow leopards already facing a number of threats across Mongolia.

Snow leopards have always been elusive. They make their homes high up in the mountains spanning across southern Russia to the Tibetan plateau—a fragmented territory that runs across 12 countries and more than 2 million kilometers. But the booming cashmere trade—a fiber once nearly as rare as the snow leopard itself—is now one of the key threats to the vulnerable species, a new report finds.

Since the 1980s, the globalization of cashmere—the wool of Hircus cashmere goats—has more than doubled in production, commodifying the fiber and making it cheaper and in higher demand than ever. The cashmere market value will exceed $3.5 billion by 2025. Mongolia is the world’s second-largest cashmere producer after China.

Now, according to wild cat conservation organization Panthera, new data suggests this cashmere market is disrupting Mongolia’s ecosystem, putting greater pressure on the snow leopard than ever before. The research was published in the journal Biological Conservation.

Cashmere cashed in

Cashmere has long been synonymous with luxury. For decades, the soft, cozy “diamond fiber” brought a hefty price tag. But in recent years, prices have dropped tremendously for cashmere, with fast fashion outlets selling “pure” cashmere sweaters and scarves for a tenth of the price they would have fetched just a few decades ago; H&M now sells cashmere sweaters for less than $100. Cashmere is so in demand that it now makes up roughly seven percent of the total luxury fashion market.

This demand has spiked production. Herd sizes have grown five times the size of what they were in 1990; there are an estimated 30 million cashmere goats across Mongolia and 100 million in China. Just like Asia has adopted a preference for more expensive Western food (namely beef), the U.S. especially wants China’s more expensive cashmere wool.

“There’s been an absolute avalanche of people wanting more and more cashmere, and pushing the price, pushing the supply chain,” James Sugden OBE, a director of luxury cashmere clothing label, Brora, and former managing director of Scottish woollen mill, Johnstons of Elgin, told Business of Fashion. “It has created a problem, insomuch as in some areas, some growers, tempted by higher volumes have gone for volume rather than quality.”

Image courtesy Johnstons of Elgin on Unsplash

There are programs underway to encourage responsible production and livable wages for the region’s farmers. Efforts like the UK-based Sustainable Fibre Alliance and the South Gobi Cashmere Project, which works with Gucci parent brand Kering (it also owns Balenciaga and YSL, among others) are notable, even if flawed. Kering is active in its sustainability efforts, most recently partnering with Cartier on a new initiative for watches and jewelry. (Ethos just named Gucci one of the most sustainable luxury brands of 2021.) But the challenges of cashmere production make it difficult to apply sustainable or ethical benchmarks to an industry that’s growing so fast and expected to continue to see demand grow.

Cashmere’s spike also comes as other animal products are falling out of fashion. Ganni recently likened leather to cigarettes, and fur production has declined so drastically that the animal rights organization PETA, long known for its anti-fur stance, killed its popular I’d Rather Go Naked Than Wear Fur campaign that ran for decades.

Still, brands continue to make the case for the cashmere industry under the banner of “sustainability” initiatives. But as demand increases, as is the case with cashmere, integrity is more often than not, the first casualty, especially when dealing with animal products.

“Lately what has really worried us as a potential risk for the whole industry is the quantity approach,” Pier Luigi Loro Piana, deputy chairman of Italian fashion house Loro Piana, told Business of Fashion. “Quantity seems to be overtaking quality.”

Climate change vs. cashmere

Adding to the challenges of the cashmere industry is the very real threat of climate change. Mongolia has seen temperatures rise by 4 degrees since 1940—more than double the average global temperature rise in that same period.

Climate change is also taking a toll on the snow leopard. A 2015 WWF report warned that more than a third of the cat’s territory could become uninhabitable because of climate change.

Image courtesy Sukant Sharma on Unsplash

“The Himalayas region will face a major crisis if we choose to ignore climate change. Not only do we risk losing majestic species such as the snow leopard, but hundreds of millions of people who rely on water flowing from these mountains may be affected,” WWF-UK’s Snow Leopard Programme Lead Rebecca May said.

And the added complications from the cashmere industry underscore the threats to the region.

Cashmere or snow leopards

According to the most recent study’s lead author, Marco Salvatori, PhD student at the University of Florence and MUSE (Museum of Sciences of Trento), the goal of the research was to understand if the increase in goatherds impacted the two large carnivores of the area, the snow leopard and the wolf, “and if they inhibited the presence of the Siberian ibex, the main prey of the snow leopard in these areas.”

More than 30 percent of China’s land is now pasture, and livestock farming specifically makes up 40 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Livestock farming also attracts wolves. The researchers found that as goatherders attacked wolves to protect their herds, the wolves began to prey on ibex instead—the main source of food for snow leopards. This is pushing snow leopards to widen their hunting zones, which puts them at further risk of human-wildlife conflict, among other threats.

“Our results speak for themselves,” says coordinator Francesco Rovero, “widespread herding disturbs the snow leopard, an elusive feline adapted to prey on wild animals in steep terrain, pushing it to avoid the areas used by large herds of cattle, which are however increasingly widespread even within protected areas. On the contrary, the wolf seems to be attracted to pets and this generates the risk of conflicts with the shepherds.”

Snow leopards are the least understood of the big cats; their fragmented territories make it difficult to assess population numbers. Expert estimates are wide—some say it’s 4,500, but there could be 10,000 or more snow leopards left in the wild.

But without fully understanding the threats the animals face, it’s difficult to make predictions about their survival or best recommendations to help protect the cats. According to Panthera, the Chinese government has made no effort to penalize herders from encroaching on the protected snow leopard habitat areas.

“For the future, in order not to risk compromising the fragile biological equilibrium, it will be important to favor breeding practices that are more compatible with the long-term survival of the large mammals of the mountains of Central Asia,” says Rovero.

The report isn’t the first to sound the alarm about cashmere’s threat to snow leopards.

In 2013, research published in the journal Conservation Biology found snow leopards were already “on the margins.”

“In the absence of commitment across global and local scales, this iconic wildlife will cease to persist as they have for millennia,” the researchers noted nearly a decade ago. “Rather than serving as symbols of success, these species will become victims of fashion.”

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