Fine Fibres: Alpaca vs. Cashmere - A question of sustainability
FNA | 27 May 2015

Is alpaca more sustainable than cashmere or vice-versa? Here are a few pointers to consider.

The widespread availability of cashmere is making this fine fibre far less sustainable. Cashmere has gotten cheaper since making the leap from luxury to mainstream in the 1990s, but the quality has declined with the price.

It has proven itself to be environmentally detrimental. Grasslands in China cannot support the hungry goats required to keep stores stocked with piles of cashmere, and they are turning into icy deserts.

How cashmere damages the environment making it unsustainable

Prior to the 1990s, cashmere was a rare luxury, but as the fibre has grown cheaper over the last two decades, the demand for ultra-soft, lightweight cashmere sweaters has skyrocketed.
Goat herds have exploded accordingly. In Mongolia—the second largest provider of the world’s cashmere behind China—the goat population quadrupled from 5 million to 20 million between 1990 and 2009.  The majority of those goats reside in the steppe, high plains that are susceptible to extreme cold.

China Cashmere Sweater Exports

Although those low temperatures help goats to grow the soft down we know as cashmere, unusually harsh winters in recent years have decimated the herds. In the winter of 2009-2010, one of Mongolia’s worst in 30 years, the country lost nearly a fifth of its livestock. The World Bank granted US$1.5 million for workers to pile goat carcasses into mass graves.

Ninety percent of Mongolia is already at risk of turning into a desert, and many hypothesise that over-grazing is compounding the effects of climate change in a process that is already underway. Between 1994 and 1999, the Gobi Desert increased by an area larger than the Netherlands.

Because goats are hardier than sheep, herders tend to shift their livestock mix towards goats as land becomes more arid. But that adds to the problem by further damaging the ecology; the goats’ sharp hooves destroy topsoil and grasses and they nibble plants close to their roots, destroying the native grasses. It is a vicious cycle.
Perhaps the only way to ensure that cashmere is sustainable and environmentally friendly is to fence goats off into feed lots and keep them far away from the fragile grasslands of the Mongolian plateau. Cost would be an obstacle in implementing this system on a wide basis.

Herded animals are not the only creatures in the area. Those former grasslands are also home to endangered snow leopards, wild horses, and Tibetan antelope—all of whose survival have been threatened by the cashmere industry.

The environmental impact of alpaca is far less

The environmental footprint of an alpaca is far lighter than that of a cashmere goat. Alpacas live largely in the highlands of the Peruvian Andes, a less fragile ecosystem, where their soft, padded feet are gentle on the terrain and they graze without destroying root systems.

Andean landscape with light stepping alpacas

The kind of population boom that cashmere goats have seen seems less likely for alpacas. In spite of fluctuating demand for their fibre, Alejandro Salazar, sales manager of the world’s largest supplier of alpaca yarns, Michell & Cia , says the animals’ population in the Andes remains relatively steady. If anything, he worries that the herds will decline as the current generation of alpaca herders and breeders ages. Their children are more interested in finding work in the city than continuing their parents’ work. For this reason, Mihell owns and operates a breeding ranch and education centre to help sustain Peru’s alpaca population.

Alpacas are also more efficient than goats. An alpaca drinks less water than a goat and can handily grow enough wool for four or five sweaters in a year. It takes four goats the same amount of time to produce sufficient cashmere for a single sweater, according to the Natural Resources Defence Council.

Basic alpaca fibre grades

Nonetheless, there are only about 4 million alpacas worldwide, 90% of which live in the Peruvian highlands. Compare this to the number of cashmere goats after the population boom that started in the 1990’s even though fibre production is approximately 20 times less on average than the alpaca, there are many millions of cashmere goats that have a greater toll on the environment. 

Alpaca demand on the rise

“In the last two years, we have seen an increase in alpaca consumption,” noted Salazar. His colleagues are currently preparing orders for clients in Europe, Korea, Japan and the US, adding that newer customers, including large chains such as Banana Republic and Polo, will have yarns sent directly to factories in China to be knitted into sweaters that will hit stores in September.

Like cashmere, alpaca is a natural fibre that looks and feels luxurious and it can be equally, if not more, durable. Although it’s cheaper than cashmere, the Incas placed a higher value on the fibre than silver or gold—which isn’t really surprising to anyone who has actually worn a coat or sweater made from this fine fibre.

Numbers on this year’s alpaca sales are not yet available, but some designers say their alpaca yarn orders are on waiting lists, as mills in Europe and Asia rush to buy up Peru’s supply. The alpaca boom is not only good news for Peru, which exports some US$175 million of alpaca fiber each year; it is also good for the planet.

Alpaca is a serious competitor to cashmere these days

As cashmere quality has declined alpaca products are measuring up to cashmere. After Mongolia’s cashmere industry was privatized in 1990, breeders began crossbreeding their herds and focusing on quantity over quality. So goats produced more cashmere by weight, but the fibre became shorter and coarser. The result? A sweater that’s less soft, and more likely to pill.

While an alpaca fibre has an overall larger diameter than a cashmere fibre after animals are shorn, experts hand-sort the wool by staple length and diameter, ranging from prime, downy-soft baby alpaca (those finest of under-hairs, not actually shorn from baby alpacas) to the more robust guard hairs found on animals’ legs and undersides.

Just as certain parts of a cow produce prime cuts, so do specific sections of an alpaca produce prime fibres—and that’s how alpaca yarns are sold. A sweater made of classified “super baby” alpaca can rival its cashmere counterpart when it comes to softness, and outdo it when it comes to strength.

A sweater costing US$150 to US$200—pretty standard for 100% alpaca—may seem expensive, but it can be a good investment. Whereas cashmere fibres over four centimetres in length are considered long, alpaca fibers commonly measure between eight and twelve centimetres—so are far less likely to pill and are longer-lasting.
The key to competing with cashmere longer term will undoubtedly be the sustainability question for alpaca. Customers are becoming more and more aware of environmental concerns and damage and it may be easier for many to buy an alpaca sweater with a clear conscience rather than a cashmere one that may be contributing to widespread desertification in Mongolia and northern China.

Sustainability forms part of the luxury concept and quantity rather than quality fomented by the Asian cashmere industry may have pushed cashmere into the mainstream except for the highest quality garments.

Information courtesy of Quartz. Rewriting by Richard Smith