That low-priced cashmere sweater has a hidden cost
Behind the "Made in China" tag is a cascade of consequences. This is the story of how our sweaters pollute the air we breathe.
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 now go for as little as $19.99.
But behind the "Made in China" tag is something Americans rarely see: the cascade of consequences around the world when the might of Chinese production and U.S. consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.
With all the grand ways to measure the impact of China's ascent — the mountains of exports, the armadas of oil tankers — there might seem little reason to take stock of cashmere. Yet 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.
Cashmere production primer
Cashmere is combed each spring from beneath the coarse "guard hair" of the outer coat of Capra hircus, the goat. It takes two or three animals to produce a sweater, twice that for a sport coat.
About 70 percent of the roughly 15,000 tons of cashmere produced a year comes from China.
Alashan Plateau, near the Mongolian border, produces the world's most expensive cashmere.
Across Inner Mongolia, the number of goats soared tenfold from 2.4 million in 1949 to 25.8 million in 2004, helping to turn China's grasslands, the world's third-largest, into deserts. From 1994-99, the Gobi Desert expanded by an area larger than the Netherlands.
China had an average of five dust and sand storms per year during the 1950s , 14 in the 1970s, and 23 in the 1990s, mostly derived from Alashan.
A 1998 storm that began in China and Mongolia caused health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue air pollution warnings.
Sources: U.N. Environment Program, Asian Development Bank
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 fuels a plume of pollution heavy enough to reach the skies over North America, including Washington state.
China's breakneck consumption of raw materials is part of an economic revolution that has lifted 400 million people out of poverty, but at a growing environmental cost around the globe. And with their burgeoning appetite for Chinese goods, U.S. consumers have become crucial, if unwitting, partners, financing the political survival of China's one-party government.
China's demand for resources has proved strong enough to turn its grasslands into a dust bowl, and it has driven illegal logging into prized tropical forests and restaged a risky Great Game for control of vital oil supplies.
Every product — every T-shirt, every SUV, every toy — 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.
It's impossible to say how much any single product contributes to China's air pollution. But the spike in demand for cashmere is taking a toll on the soil, air and water in China as well as the U.S. — a cost that never appears on any store's tag. 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. The Issaquah-based wholesaler moved 18 percent of the world's consumption of cashmere in 2001 — more than a million sweaters.
"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."
Nothing to eat
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 downy 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 on the plateau. He has ridden two decades of China's cashmere boom, enlarging his herd by one-third, to more than 300. The profits have given him a small 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. Their wispy coats fluttered in the wind. 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 Shatar and other 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 life span 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 begun to suffer. Hungry goats are sprouting shorter, coarser, less valuable fleece.
The "diamond fiber," as cashmere is known in China, has lost some sparkle in the West. There are cashmere bikinis and hoodies, jogging suits and baby clothes. Target is pushing a tousled "Casual Cashmere Look."
Of all cashmere products, though, nothing changed faster than the sweater. China sold its cashmere sweaters to America for just $34 on average last year, 75 percent off the import price of the Scottish version.
In a September speech to Chinese producers, Andy Bartmess, chief operating officer of Scottish cashmere producer Dawson International, pleaded with them to halt the tumbling price. "Cashmere has a hundred-plus-year history as a luxury product," he said. "The last few years have begun to destroy that reputation."
The Capra hircus, aka the goat, keeps its most valuable asset hidden. Its cashmere is combed each spring from beneath the coarse "guard hair" of the goat's outer coat. It takes two or three animals to produce a sweater, twice that for a sport coat.
Many have tried to breed cashmere goats outside of Asia, but few have succeeded. That has left global supplies at roughly 15,000 tons a year, 70 percent of it from China.
An exclusive history
Until recently, not much had changed in the business since the 16th century, when Kashmiri craftsmen spun shawls out of material delivered to India by Silk Road caravans from China, Afghanistan and northern Persia. Very little ever came from Kashmir, but the name stuck. By the early 19th century, French Empress Eugenie created an icon by wearing shawls delicate enough to be drawn through a ring. In the 1870s, Scottish mill owner Joseph Dawson mechanized the processing of cashmere, and a blue-blood tradition was born.
From the grasslands to the shelf, it was a stable, stodgy business.
Deng Xiaoping changed all that. In 1979 the Chinese leader launched his drive toward a market economy, and China's garment industry exploded. In a pattern that would ripple through products from electronics to furniture, China swiftly claimed the bulk of the world's $350 billion textile trade.
It now exports an estimated 20 billion finished garments a year, more than three pieces of clothing for every person on Earth.
As with everything from groceries to socks, high-volume retailers such as Wal-Mart and Costco have changed the way customers think about cashmere prices.
"When we negotiate and are able to reduce prices by additional purchases or large quantity, we are going to pass that along to [customers] in every case," said Jack Weisbly, a Costco executive who oversees cashmere products. "I think once the consumer was able to buy a cashmere sweater for $100, rather than $300, consumers came to appreciate and expect it."
But the big-box revolution is putting pressure on the business and the land that sustains it.
So many cashmere plants and other industries have opened in Alashan that authorities must ration water, forcing each factory to close for days at a time. Herders are forgetting the names of grasses that have vanished as their goats have helped denude the land.
"Desertification is a big problem, and we know that all types of goats are rather voracious and tend to damage the fragile pasture," Swiss cashmere executive Francis Patthey said in a speech to Chinese suppliers.
The problem is being ignored, Patthey said. With U.S. demand at an all-time high, companies continue to build factories and buy more expensive equipment. That glut of production, in turn, pushes prices lower.
At Lingwu Zhongyin Cashmere, a high-end producer where workers were busy stitching Saks Fifth Avenue labels onto pale blue sweaters, executive Ma Feng said he worries that the system is overheating.
"People forget this: Cashmere is not like cotton," Ma said. "It's a very limited natural resource."
The limits of that resource have become impossible to ignore. Just down the street from Alashan's cashmere factories, bright yellow sand dunes rise from the horizon.
Without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, the deserts are expanding by nearly 400 square miles a year. The land, it seems, is reclaiming itself from the people.
Making the plains bloom
In the 1950s, the father of modern China, Mao Zedong, urged his people to open the western frontier and make the plains bloom. Near Shatar's home, migrants arrived in 1956 and established the town of Wuliji. They dug wells and opened a factory to make wooden tables and chairs. Within a decade, they had chopped down all the local trees, and the factory closed.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, migrants helped triple the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia's population to 21 million. Some tried to cultivate land that had never been farmed. Many others swarmed to the fast-growing cashmere trade.
By 1982, recurring droughts plagued Inner Mongolia, straining already arid lands. Still, national leaders pressed ahead with further development.
Like many other herders on the Alashan Plateau, Biligedeli, 51, shifted from camels to goats, whose hair is more lucrative. "A herding family will watch what animals bring the most economic benefit," he said.
But details as seemingly insignificant as the shape of a hoof or the style of eating were changing the fragile grasslands.
"Have you ever done any ballroom dancing with someone who steps on your foot? The goats have stiletto heels," which break up the delicate plants that hold the dust in place, said Martin Williams, an authority on desertification at the University of Adelaide in Australia. "The camels have broad, soft pads. So a camel can tread on you and you wouldn't feel it."
Goats also are expert foragers.
"They graze down to lower levels and pull up stuff, where a camel would be browsing," Williams said. "The goats nibble at the bark around seedlings which transports nutrients to the plant, so once that bark has been damaged, the plant will die."
Across Inner Mongolia, the number of goats has soared tenfold from 2.4 million in 1949 to 25.8 million in 2004.
Today, China's grasslands, the world's third-largest, are turning into deserts. In just five years, from 1994-99, the Gobi Desert expanded by an area larger than the Netherlands, according to the U.N. Environment Program.
An unnerving sight
On April 9, Beijing residents woke to an unnerving sight: The sky was orange.
A blizzard of dust hung in the wind and blanketed cars, trees and rooftops. It mixed with industrial pollution and formed a soupy cloud. Environmental officials warned children and the elderly not to open windows or go outside while the city weathered the worst air pollution of the year.
Such storms are increasingly common. In the 1950s, China suffered an average of five dust and sand storms each year; in the 1970s, the average rose to 14, and in the 1990s storms struck 23 times each year, according to a 2005 study by the Asian Development Bank. That study found that for the past decade, Alashan has been the source of most sandstorms originating in China.
A storm in 2002 forced 1.8 million South Koreans to seek medical help and cost the country $7.8 billion in damage to industries such as airlines and semiconductors, the state-run Korea Environment Institute said.
Scientists thought that was as far as China's pollution could reach. But a wave of new research is detailing how China's dust and dirty air hurtle across the Pacific, fouling the sky, thickening the haze and altering the climate in the U.S.
"We had one storm in East Asia which we called the perfect dust storm," said Barry Huebert, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii. "There are good images of it following over the Pacific as a yellow plume. When it got to Colorado, it reduced visibility enough to make the national news. It continued east, and the last measurement was in the Canary Islands" off the west coast of Africa.
What scientists call trans-Pacific transport is an airborne highway of dust and pollutants.
Coal is the main culprit; about 70 percent of China's soaring energy needs are met by coal-fired power plants. Many private homes also burn coal, combining to give China some of the world's highest emissions of sulfur dioxide, soot and other pollutants.
The goats play an important role as well. Dust from the animal-ravaged grasslands of Alashan is snatched by wind and sent east, where smokestacks frost it in a layer of pollution. Together the noxious brew reaches the U.S. within five days, where it can combine with local pollution to exceed the limits of healthy air, said Rudolf Husar, an atmospheric chemist at Washington University in St. Louis.
Of most concern are ultratiny particles that lodge deep in the lungs, contributing to respiratory damage, heart disease and cancer. One storm that began in China and Mongolia in spring 1998 caused a spike in air pollution that prompted health officials in Washington, Idaho, Oregon and British Columbia to issue warnings to the public.
Asian dust already accounted for 40 percent of the worst dust days in the Western U.S. in 2001, according to a study by researchers at NASA and Harvard. Despite efforts to reduce emissions, a top Chinese environmental official warned last year that air pollution could quadruple within 15 years because of the rapid rise in private cars and energy use in China.
Chinese environmental authorities recognize the damage contributed by overgrazing and are struggling to stem it. They have stitched massive checkered straw mats into the surface of the desert, dropped seeds from planes and planted millions of trees nationwide. Nothing has solved the problem.
The American cashmere industry says it cannot solve the crisis in the grasslands. The problem is "probably bigger than the industry," said Karl Spilhaus, president of the Boston-based Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute. "It's a government problem and a world problem."
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.
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