How Much Does a Cashmere Sweater Cost the Planet and its People?
Naadam is a clothing company that claims to be ethical and sustainable, as they advertise their luxury cashmere sweaters through high quality YouTube videos. In the growing industry of sustainable fashion, they have been extremely successful, accumulating thousands of five-star reviews on their products and over 8 million views on one of their videos.
Despite their “too good to be true” message, Naadam has one drawback that’s hard to miss: inaccessibly high price points. This is common among eco-friendly fashion brands, who say their sustainability justifies the cost. But let’s delve deeper into a different cost: the environmental cost of a brand that claims to be sustainable, and let’s analyze the myths and truths of Naadam as an example for the sustainable fashion industry as a whole. Does the PR add up, or is it a disguise that allows business-as-usual to remain while pleasing the narrow community who can afford alleged sustainability?
Naadam is a new company, founded in 2013 by Matthew Scanlan and Diederik Rijsemus. In their YouTube videos, the founders detail how they were spontaneously in Mongolia, befriended locals, and eventually decided to become cashmere traders. Since Scanlan and Rijsemus are Americans, an obvious criticism is the sense of colonialism with their decision to source materials in Mongolia and release video montages of them exploring the land. On the other hand, Scalan and Rijsemus did enter an existing cashmere industry that is uniquely important to the livelihoods of the people of Mongolia, as cashmere comes from the hair of goats that originate in Northern China, Mongolia, and Afghanistan.
Moreover, Scanlan and Rijsemus explain that goat herders are not usually paid a high price for their efforts. They say Naadam is an exception to this trend because their business model with fair wages eliminates the middleman. We have no proof, as Naadam does not disclose exact wages nor any comparison of their wages to those of other companies; still, we know that Naadam has put in more effort than most companies to benefit the local area and people they get their cashmere from. A spotlight on responsible cashmere explains that Naadam “supplements its retail arm with a Mongolian NGO it helped found, called the Gobi Revival Fund.” Additionally, they have set up fenced preserves to protect grasslands from desertification caused by overgrazing, veterinary services for the goats, and a park that provides a hub for small businesses and community events.
However, since climate change, along with overgrazing, exacerbates desertification, just fencing in areas does not seem like a strong enough effort. The Wildlife Conservation Society’s Sustainable Cashmere project, working independently from Naadam, is enacting additional plans. They have created vegetation maps, which they are showing to local families to spread awareness and encourage changes in management practices. Naadam should collaborate with the WCS to boost their efforts to improve land use practices.
Along with the serious desertification concerns, Naadam’s production is taxing on the environment in several other ways. The long drives transporting the raw cashmere to various processing facilities produce significant greenhouse gas emissions, and the cashmere cleaning process is water-intensive. According to their viral video, “The Democratization of Cashmere,” trucks carrying raw cashmere travel for 36 hours to the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar for washing and dehairing, and then another 600 miles to the spinning facility where the cashmere yarn is created Lastly, the yarn goes to a factory where the sweaters are put together. After the sweaters are completed, they are shipped all over the world to customers' homes.
Progress is in the works though. According to Naadam’s annual Social and Environmental Impact Report, their “primary suppliers have committed to using 20% clean energy to power their operations in 2020 using a mix of renewable sources including solar and wind.” As for water, the report explains that their “clothes are dyed in facilities that use a closed-loop water filtration system where wastewater is cleaned and treated on-site so that it can be used again.”
The greatest distance of all in Naadam’s supply chain is the journey from Mongolia to their headquarters in New York City. Most Naadam customers will receive clothing shipped from the warehouses as opposed to in-person because Naadam only has 3 physical stores: two in New York and one in Chicago. While having few in-person stores is efficient in some ways, it also has its inefficiencies. For example, every time someone decides to return an item, they can’t just go to a nearby store. The greenhouse gas emissions from long distance transport add up. Just by being a U.S. company that extracts and processes its products overseas, Naadam can never be as sustainable as if they extracted, processed, and sold their products in the same local area.
In their Social and Environmental Impact Report however, Naadam demonstrates the significant progress they have made in improving the sustainability of their distribution: “Starting in 2020, we became a carbon-free freight shipper. Our freight forwarder, Flexport, calculated the footprint of our shipping operations in 2019 to 402 tons of CO2e. We offset these emissions via the Carbon Fund.” And with packaging, another wasteful component of the fashion industry, Naadam is also putting in an effort: “Our inserts and hangtags are made from 100% pre-consumer Forest Stewardship Council-certified recycled paper. Our mailers and bags are made of 100% recycled plastic and [use] non-toxic chemicals and Breakdown Plastic (BDP) technology.” Still, as Naadam cites in their 2025 goals, there is room to improve.
The final aspect of sustainability we should examine is what happens to Naadam sweaters over time. With their steep price point, we can hope that the quality level is high, making them last for many winter seasons. There are several hopeful indicators on Naadam’s part that show they are trying to promote a slower fashion model. For example, they sell a cashmere comb, which can be used to neaten pilling and keep a sweater looking fresh for longer. Naadam also lists “Embrace circular design principles to create high-quality products that can be used as long as possible” in their 2025 goals.
In other ways, however, Naadam still keeps in line with the fast fashion model: advertising new arrivals, Black Friday deals, and a holiday gift guide. Their sustainability PR supplements, but does not completely replace, the traditional fast fashion PR. However, without advertisement, they would not make as many profits, which farther back in the supply chain would negatively affect the goat herders in Mongolia. Here we see that social and environmental ideals don’t always line up.
So, Naadam, by being a business in our world of ever growing economic growth, where consumerism parallels environmental harm, is limited in its ability to be authentically sustainable. Naadam can continue to work towards being the exception by introducing fewer new styles and colors, reducing the “new season, new wardrobe” fast fashion push. In addition, if they can figure out how to recycle used sweaters, they could offer a trade-in program, or they could partner with second-hand brands like ThredUp to sell their cashmere second-hand. These measures would have concrete impacts, lengthening the lifespan of each sweater and changing consumer culture. However, we also have to look back at the original production process where vast amounts of pollution are created. Changing the technology and the infrastructure may have the greatest impact earlier in the supply chain. What if Naadam’s suppliers could commit to 50, 75, or 100% clean energy? What if Naadam created more fenced-in preserves or a rotating system of grazing to fight against desertification in Mongolia?
In contrast to fast fashion, Naadam’s sustainability achievements are monumental, but they are still a business resourcing off of land that nomadic families rely on. These people benefit from Naadam’s business, but if overgrazing and climate change cause complete desertification of the grasslands, their precious way of life will no longer be possible. Not to mention, Naadam does not work in a vacuum. They need to incentivise the rest of the fast fashion industry to become more ethical and sustainable. As the Guardian describes, “Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has calculated the fashion industry produces 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions every year, while it is estimated to use around 1.5 trillion litres of water annually.” Unfortunately, Naadam’s individual business efforts can make no difference against the tidal wave of fast fashion unless everyone rapidly adopts their practices, and much stricter ones.