By Louisa Rohde

Mongolia’s cashmere industry accounts for almost 10 percent of Mongolia’s exports and for up to 20 percent of the global cashmere supply. Unfortunately, the industry is not only causing the country to prosper, but may also be responsible for its decline. Mongolia’s nature is vulnerable and under threat due to the ever progressing land degradation.

There are numerous factors playing in endangering the intact grasslands and endless steppes. The mining industry and the thirst for natural resources will sooner or later take its toll on “the land of the eternal blue sky”. Transformations caused by climate change and global warming will eventually be also felt here just as much as in other parts of the world.

Therefore, it would be too easy to blame cashmere goats alone for the hazards facing Mongolia’s landscape. It cannot be denied, however, that overgrazing is also in part responsible for the desertification and degradation affecting approximately 77 percent of the Mongolian territory.

High prices in cashmere, the luxurious fiber produced by goats, and the adoption of a free market system after the fall of the communist regime have led to a massive increase in livestock as the herds were privatized.

There are reportedly thrice as many herders as there were before the decollectivization and the number of produced raw cashmere went up by 450 percent between 1990 and 2009. Mongolia dominates, behind China, the cashmere market, and exported 7,400 tons in hair in 2014. To make this number more relatable, one cashmere goat annually produces only three to four ounces of cashmere, that one could make a sweater with. Global demand, prices and the market pressure have therefore pushed most herders to financially rely on the quantity not the quality they produce, making large herds essential for survival.

Consumers seem to be more unlikely to try to get to the bottom of the cashmere industry, as there are far less people involved in its production than in, for example, other parts of the clothing industry. Cashmere is also still considered a luxury good. 70 EUR for a sweater in high-street shops like Zara and H&M is viewed as an impressive bargain and therefore does not necessarily make consumers question their splurge.

Moreover, goats graze in comparison to other cattle more aggressively. Their preferred plants are widely-ranged and are eaten wholly, including the roots, which leads after some time to the degradation of grassland and in return to the expansion of the desert.

Needless to say, that this is an ominous prospect as deserts are amongst most hostile environments to live in, harboring severe consequences for Mongolia’s unique nomadic culture. Although Mongolia would probably offer enough wide space to feed all livestock, current herding practices seem to concentrate herds on a level that far outstrips the amount of animals the grasslands can sustain.

So is Mongolia at the crossroads? Is it either leaving the industry unchecked until the inconceivable consequences are eventually put a halt to it, or is it drastically reducing herding, but endangering the country’s world market standing, and in turn thousands of jobs? The cashmere industry is in desperate need of some sustainable solutions.

When dealing with sustainable cashmere, however, one question will naturally arise: What does sustainability, this little term that seems to gain more and more importance each year, mean?

Sustainability is the concept of economizing resources in a way that will safeguard them for future generations as well. It is basically a long-term cause and commitment that clashes with the capitalist notion of making as much money in the shortest time possible without thinking of the consequences it might entail for all parties involved. Men have more or less exploited nature since the beginning of civilization. Now that we are able to gain the insight of how severe consequences are, why do we not listen?

NOYA Fibers, an organization founded by Greg Goble as part of his curriculum at the Colorado State University’s Global, Social, and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program, is among those attending to the issue. They partnered with the Nature Conservancy in order to develop and enforce sustainable grazing practices throughout Mongolia.

“NOYA then purchases the raw cashmere fiber that the herders produce, processes the fiber into yarns, then sells the yarns to luxury brand textile manufacturers as a source of responsible cashmere. A percentage of the proceeds on the sale of the cashmere is used to support the nomadic herding lifestyle,” explained Greg Goble to The UB Post via e-mail.

What started out as a research program in 2012, soon became a company, when the potential and demand in the marketplace was realized. From then on, NOYA Fibers’ efforts have not only been recognized by many, but also honored by a partnership with the global outdoor clothing and gear brand Patagonia, Inc. in their “Truth to Materials” collection.

Currently, the universal NOYA standard is underdevelopment and to be finalized and implemented in a number of reserves in 2017 and 2018. It aims to guarantee costumers the highest quality in responsibly sourced and procured cashmere without neglecting the issues of ethical treatment of herders and livestock, and transparency throughout the supply chain.

Could this be the start of a rethinking in the cashmere industry?

There does not necessarily have to be a rethinking, according to NOYA Fibers CEO Greg Goble. Nothing has to be undone and redone. It is more about optimizing the herding techniques that already exist. This can only be achieved by cooperation with herd-
ers as they know their grassland and animals best, but often lack the necessary support and resources. That is what NOYA Fibers intends to provide them with in order to battle land degradation and desertification and thereby give grasslands a chance to recover. Patronizingly dictating herders how to manage their own grasslands would not have been half as successful, according to the NOYA Fibers founder.

NOYA Fibers also aims to promote the issues facing the industry and will focus on doing so once the standard is developed. In fact, raising awareness is critically important for Mongolia’s perilous situation in order to act before it is too late. Decades seem to be an unimaginable time span away, but in fact, 50 or 60 years are nothing in comparison to the time Mongolia’s grasslands have existed. Consumers and costumers therefore need to be informed as only they can make conscious decisions in regard to the cash-
mere products they buy as they are the ones influencing the market with the demand they generate.