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Mills Respond to Mongolia’s Cashmere Crisis with Sustainable Yarn

Benjamin Fitzgerald
Cashmere products make up €4 billion of the €60 billion global luxury apparel market today. But, the heavy presence of cashmere in luxury fashion – a point of difference from merino wool or mohair – is putting cashmere under a strain and supplies are competitive.
Mills Respond to Mongolia’s Cashmere Crisis with Sustainable Yarn

Maiyet is a luxury brand making headlines this season. Helmed in New York, the manufacturing ethics of the fashion label don't dull its focus on luxury. Nor do they exclude the brand from having a hefty style presence.

Launched in 2011, Maiyet has seen great success. The brand partnered with the Made In NY initiative bowing last February, and dressed the deputy mayor for Housing and Economic Development, Alicia Glen – the public figure sported an embroidered Maiyet frock at the $5 million Made in NY marketing campaign launch at Moynihan Station just this last September.

In Dallas, Maiyet’s creative director Declan Kearney was featured in Stanley Korshak’s annual Tutu Chic fashion show, showcasing spring looks made from worldly textiles, purposefully and sustainably sourced from exotic parts of the globe.

The achievements riff on the new Maiyet philosophy: creating urban fashion for women via modernist variations of traditional crafts. This looks like sourcing embroidery from India, knits from Bolivia and cashmere from Mongolia.

It’s the zeitgeist to brand as ‘fair’, especially when you consider what’s happening to global cashmere supplies.

According to a recent report by the Bain & Company, cashmere products make up €4 billion of the €60 billion global luxury apparel market today. But, the heavy presence of cashmere in luxury fashion – a point of difference from merino wool or mohair – is putting cashmere under a strain and supplies are competitive.

Clipped from the winter underbellies of Hircus goats, annual cashmere loads are estimated to be between 15,000 and 20,000 metric tons, or 6,500 tons of actual cashmere when the hair is cleaned. It takes four goats to produce enough fiber for just one sweater.

Mongolian cashmere is the most coveted by luxury brands, and it has been hit hard; the neighbor to China garners a reputation for producing the finest, longest and lightest goat fibers.

Cashmere production relies on natural grasslands in specific geographies such as the grasslands of Mongolia. So location specific environmental hazards like bad weather (in the form of severe winter dzuds) and climate change, are affecting cashmere farms in both the short and long term.

Since 1940 the annual average temperature in Mongolia has risen by 2.1C (35.8F) coinciding with a 30% decline in surface water. Meanwhile, a 2010 dzud killed 8.8 million animals across the region. But do brands appreciate the damage being done?

The distance between the producer and the product is the sad part of the cashmere story. Retailers and brands aren’t prioritizing native Mongolian farmers or the desertification of their farmlands, and are seemingly abstaining from a reinvestment into future cashmere fiber supplies. Which is why Maiyet is deeply committed to forging partnerships with global artisans via its Cradle to Cradle Certified cashmere.

To be Cradle to Cradle certified, safer materials, material reuse, renewable energy, water stewardship, and social fairness must be proved in a brand’s manufacturing process.

In 2011, Maiyet partnered with the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute’s Fashion Positive initiative to start working toward certification and decided to look into alternative wool, cashmere and blends for its knitwear. With the help of Naadam – an eco-conscious cashmere line that debuted in 2010 – Maiyet is directly sourcing cashmere from nomadic Mongolian goats.

Maiyet is dedicated to training and developing artists to promote entrepreneurship, prosperity and dignity in places that need it most,” explains Eva Starmans, a spokesperson from the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute.

The spinning of Maiyet’s cashmere yarn takes place in the Cascami Seta plant of Botto Giuseppe. Designed as a sustainable production system, the operative is fully powered on green energy through its hydroelectric plant and rooftop solar panels, which produce over 100% of the company’s needs.

The dyeing system allows for yarn to have very solid, lasting colors. In addition, the quality of product enables that after its first use, it can be sold or transferred for further uses within the textile industry, reducing the need for new raw materials.

A more inconspicuous cashmere outfit weaving wonders even closer to the heart of the Himalayan Panchachuli herd is Panchachuli Women Weavers (PWW).

In 1995, the reopening of the Tibetan trade route allowed for pashmina cashmere sales, which had been closed due to the Indo-China war. Two years on, Mukti Datta and Dena Kaye – two women passionate about the livelihood and ancient crafts of Himalayan women – created Panchachuli Women Weavers. A training program was soon developed, teaching the local women how to weave using either tradition takli or the ‘Ghandi Spinning Wheel’ methods. 

Then in 2005, the Panchachuli Women Weavers Co-operation was founded. By reviving the region's lost art of handloom weaving, it has become a self-sufficient and vibrant social enterprise.

Panchachuli’s operation is more intimate compared to Maiyet’s socio-enterprise. Starting with 2 looms and 8 women, the operative – now functioning from the Pataldevi Center – has around 350 weavers and some 300 located at other village centers.

The Munsiyari collection is Panchachuli’s specialist cashmere range, sourced from nomads on the plateau of Western Tibet as well as cashmere producers on the steps of Mongolia.

The raw wool is carded and cleaned by state of the art Scottish equipment imported by Panchachuli, and then hand spun and woven into luxurious shawls, stoles, fabrics, blankets and throws. Most end up in as exports to the USA, UK, Germany, and Australia.

Panchachuli produces some of highest quality pashmina cashmere wool. Better still, it is invested in the Panchachuli region it takes cashmere from, providing income to the Himalayan women and farmers. It puts finances back into training and environmental rejuvenation because the future is key.

At the Cradle to Cradle’s Product Symposium held late in 2015, Maiyet and Naadam said they have invested some $80,000 in a veterinary program that supports 1,000 nomadic herding families in Mongolia. Around 250,000 goats – across a region the same size of Rhode Island – have been inoculated and overall production costs have been subsidized for farmers.

“We’re not only impacting each family, we’re changing the economy of the region and getting what we believe to be the best raw material on planet earth,” explained Matt Scanlan, Naadam’s co-founder and CEO, at the summit.

Maiyet is now seeking out additional eco-partners and hopes to offer its yarn at a more viable volume level. To really solve the cashmere crisis, the yarn must become more accessible to brands that sell at a lower price point than just luxury, without surpassing the emphasis for sourcing sustainable yarn.

“The consumer goods industry, the fashion industry, impacts a massive global market,” said Scanlan, at the summit. “The supply chain, all the way down, is one of the most massive industries in the world. Our approach at this stage is to go with that tide and do what we can to make it better, to do it better from the start.”

Meet The Author

Benjamin Fitzgerald
Contributor at Le Souk
Fashion journalist based in Australia, Benjamin covers the latest developments in the global design world - from runway shows to window displays.

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