How sustainable cashmere is reversing land degradation in Mongolia

June 15, 2021

International demand for cashmere has risen in recent years, throwing off the traditional grazing ratios of sheep to goats and contributing to the declining quality of pastures in Mongolia.

UNDP Mongolia

We often forget that a lot of the clothes we wear come from nature. Natural fibers such as cotton, linen, wool and cashmere are sourced from plants and animals, and rely on land and water resources. Sustainable sourcing of raw materials is essential so that we do not overstress land or overuse water, this is especially important in the context of climate change. For World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought, we looked at the impact of fashion on land and water resources, using cashmere in Mongolia as an example.

The word cashmere immediately makes us think of softness. By passing a cashmere scarf through a ring, it is said one can assess the fibre’s fineness. Cashmere comes from the soft coat produced by goats during the winter. “Due to the extreme climate, Mongolian cashmere is the thinnest and highest quality cashmere,” explains O. Misheel, Deputy Director of GOBI, a company that promotes sustainability in the industry.

GOBI has been working in cashmere for almost 40 years.  As a member of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance and through its Sustainable Cashmere project, GOBI works across three interconnected areas: promoting sustainable animal husbandry, improving cashmere quality and strengthening community management.  It buys cashmere directly from herders and provides training to ensure quality standards can be met. Through investments in processing, it creates jobs and helps Mongolians benefit from the full value addition of finished products.

Per O. Misheel, “Sustainability is among our core promises to our customer. And we have started communicating our traceability, to make it transparent how we procure our cashmere, as well as manufacture our cashmere.” 

Sustainability is indeed necessary. The demand for cashmere has increased and meeting it has resulted in more goats. It is a reliable income for the 30 percent of the population that rely on nomadic herding as a livelihood. But goats are particularly harsh on the land, they pull grass out by the root when grazing, keeping it from regenerating. Traditional grazing methods took this into account and allowed three sheep to one goat to avoid overstressing pastures. However, goats and sheep now graze in about equal ratio.

The overall herd size has also grown, doubling to about 70 million animals since 2000 and exceeding the land’s carrying capacity in some areas. Overgrazing and climate change are both contributing to land degradation and desertification in Mongolia. Higher temperatures and less rain have resulted in a drying trend, affecting pastures and water sources.  

“Pasture resources and water supply, pasture conditions, full nourishing of livestock and proper conducting of animal husbandry and breeding should all go hand in hand. That will allow for sustainable cashmere production,” says herder G. Oyunchimeg.

About 70 percent of pastureland in Mongolia is degraded to some extent. However, through climate-informed planning, protection of land and water sources and sustainable livestock management, most of it can be restored.

With increasing livestock and supply of raw cashmere, can also come price competition and decreasing quality. There is a value to high quality and sustainably sourced products if the means of verification are there – they can reduce herd size, reverse land degradation and lessen pressure on water resources, without an adverse impact on herder income. 

But verifying sustainability, or even defining it, is not straightforward. “The fashion and textile industry needs more clarity on what is meant by sustainability, furthermore the validation of information and data needs to be available for the private sector. The infrastructure and ecosystem to provide validity and accountability to the information, on which herders are applying sustainable practices or not, are lacking,” says O. Misheel.

For herders, change can present risks. As B. Batkhishig, co-founder and Country Director of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance explains, “Knowledge gaps and willingness to take confident action can be challenges for herders to take on new standards or certification requirements. Establishing trustful and effective communication across multiple actors involved in the cashmere supply chain is the most critical factor to give realistic and common understanding about the benefits and processes related to sustainability standards certification.” 

UNDP is supporting the Government of Mongolia through a number of complementary initiatives, including the Improving Adaptive Capacity and Risk Management of Rural Communities in Mongolia project. It brings together climate-informed natural resources management and sustainable livestock planning, building on traditional cooperative approaches among herders while also introducing innovative technologies for traceability and verification of sustainably sourced livestock products. UNDP has also launched the Sustainable Cashmere Platform, which engages brands, local processors, herder groups, development partners, civil society organizations and public authorities for common agreement on sustainability in cashmere and establishes partnerships and coordinated investments to advance sustainability in production and processing.

Income from cashmere is primarily from the raw product, little of the value addition that comes from processing is done in the country. About 80 percent of Mongolian cashmere is exported, while only 20 percent is further processed locally. Investment in local processing, such as spinning and knitting, could yield significant economic and social gains, including job opportunities. Small businesses, however, can struggle to access finance for value chain investments. The government’s Cashmere Programme aims to increase the level of local processing and UNDP is exploring ways to attract impact investment to improve both domestic and export opportunities for sustainably sourced cashmere.         

Reversing land degradation in Mongolia requires collaborative efforts, to both contribute to the sustainable development ambitions of the country and benefit from the growing consumer demand for sustainability. As consumers, we can support this by asking brands about how they are ensuring that their cashmere is being sustainably sourced – placing greater accountability on brands and providing assurance of the economic viability of sustainability.