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How your cashmere pollutes the air

China's mass production of the fabric has lowered prices, but at an environmental cost.

December 24, 2006|Evan Osnos | Chicago Tribune

ON THE ALASHAN PLATEAU, CHINA — Shatar the herdsman squinted into the twilight on the ruined grasslands where Genghis Khan once galloped.

He frowned and called his goats. The wind tasted like dust.

On the other side of the world, another morning dawned in the historic embrace between the world's low-cost factory and its best customer. Every minute of every day last year, America gobbled up $463,200 worth of Chinese goods -- including millions of cashmere sweaters made from the hair of goats like Shatar's.

In less than a decade, a deluge of cheap cashmere from China has transformed a centuries-old industry, stripping the plush fabric of its pricey pedigree and making it available in big-box America. Chinese-made cashmere sweaters go for as little as $19.99.

But behind the Made in China tag is something Americans rarely see: the consequences when the might of Chinese production and U.S. consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.

The improbable connection between cheap sweaters, Asia's prairies and America's air captures how ordinary shifts in the global economy are triggering extraordinary change.

This is the story of how your sweater pollutes the air you breathe -- and how the rise of China shapes the world.

The country's enormous herds of cashmere-producing goats have slashed the price of sweaters. But they also have helped graze Chinese grasslands down to a moonscape, unleashing some of the worst dust storms on record. This in turn fuels a plume of pollution heavy enough to reach North America.

China's breakneck consumption of raw materials is part of an economic revolution that has lifted 400 million Chinese out of poverty, but at a growing environmental cost. Not only has China's demand for resources proved strong enough to turn its grasslands into a dust bowl, it has driven illegal logging into prized tropical forests and restaged a risky Great Game for control of vital oil supplies.

Every product has a global footprint defined by the resources and energy used to make it. In the case of cashmere, America snapped up a record 10.5 million Chinese sweaters last year, 15 times as many as a decade ago, and far more than every cashmere sweater imported last year from Italy and the United Kingdom combined.

The spike in demand for cashmere is taking a toll on the soil, air and water in China as well as the U.S. And many consumers are unaware of the link.

"I would never have imagined," Colleen Young said amid the bulk Cheerios and plasma TVs at a Costco in Chicago. "When you're shopping for a sweater, you would never think of pollution. Maybe the poor animal, maybe slave labor. But never pollution."

Still, she gazed appreciatively at the $69.99 lavender crewneck in her hands, pulling at the Chinese-made sweater's waistline to test the quality. "That's a really good price," she said. "This is every bit as nice as the one I bought at Bloomingdale's."


As goats go, Shatar's are thoroughbreds -- crystal-white coats, pure bloodlines and the durability to withstand China's punishing north, where summer boils to 107 degrees and winter sinks to 33 degrees below zero.

Straddling the Mongolian border, far from China's throbbing cities, the Alashan Plateau produces the world's most expensive cashmere -- that silky underlayer of a goat's hair that sells for at least six times the price of ordinary wool. Side by side under a microscope, Alashan cashmere makes a single human hair look like rope.

Shatar, 51, who like most Chinese nomads uses one name, grew up here. He has ridden two decades of China's cashmere boom, expanding his herd by one-third, to more than 300, and steadily pushing production. The profits have given him a three-room house and paid for his daughter's college education.

But something in Alashan has gone wrong.

Shatar called his goats once more, and the animals trudged into view. They limped up a hill and slumped to the ground around him. They were starving.

"Look at them. They have nothing to eat," Shatar said. Throwing handfuls of dry corn, he added, "If it keeps up this way, I'll have to sell half the animals."

This stretch of China's mythic grasslands, one of the world's largest prairies, is running out of grass. The land is so barren that herders buy cut grass and corn by the truckload to keep their animals alive. Goats are so weak that some herders carry the stragglers home by motorcycle. Shatar expects most of his goats will live 10 years, half the lifespan of their parents.

The animals' birthrate is sinking too. Shatar once had 100 new goats each spring. This year he got 40. Even the cashmere has been affected. Hungry goats are sprouting shorter, coarser, less valuable fleece.

Shatar crouched to grab a handful of gravelly dust from his family land. When he was young, it was carpeted in green.

"Our life depends on nature," he said softly. "Things are getting worse year by year."


Wang Linxiang is the Henry Ford of cashmere.

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