|Your Cheap Sweater's Real Cost|
By Evan Osnos
December 16, 2006
That inexpensive sweater exacts a hidden toll: dust-borne pollution that reaches
America. Part one of a Tribune special report.
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
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 inexpensive Made in China tag is something Americans rarely see:
the cascade of consequences around the world when the full 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 a commodity as innocuous as cashmere. Yet the improbable connection
between cheap sweaters, Asia's prairies and America's air captures how the most
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 the skies over 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 around the globe. And with their burgeoning appetite for
Chinese goods, American consumers have become crucial if unwitting partners,
financing the political survival of Beijing's one-party regime.
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--every T-shirt, every SUV, every child's 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-smashing 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
choking 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 on Chicago's North Side. "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
A grassless prairie
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
Shatar, 51, who like most Chinese nomads uses one name, grew up here. He has
ridden two decades of China's cashmere boom, enlarging his herd by one-third, to
more than 300, and steadily pushing production. 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 precious cashmere has begun to suffer.
Hungry goats are sprouting shorter, coarser, less valuable fleece.
Shatar crouched to grab a clump 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
He stood and cast aside the handful of thin, russet-colored earth. It vanished
into the breeze.
Cashmere goes big box
The "diamond fiber," as cashmere is known in China, has shed 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 simple
sweater. China sold its cashmere sweaters to America for just $34 on average
last year, a full 75 percent off the import price of the Scottish version.
The sudden shift from elite to everywhere has convulsed an industry that once
prided itself on its posh cachet.
"This growth has been truly incredible," said Andy Bartmess, chief operating
officer of Scottish cashmere producer Dawson International. In a September
speech to Chinese producers, Bartmess 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, a.k.a. 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 the bleak, harsh plateaus and
mountains of Asia, but few have succeeded. That has left global supplies of the
stuff at roughly 15,000 tons a year--70 percent of it from China.
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 itself, 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.
The whiff of empire endured: For decades, Chinese and Mongolian herders sold
nearly all their raw fiber to Europe and the U.S. for Western mills to process
and sell. Brands such as Italy's Loro Piana and Scotland's Pringle were the
Western outlets for China's raw material.
"The president of Dawson would come over [to Beijing] like a king and say `50
tons from here, 80 tons from there.' He would stay in the presidential suite,"
said Christian Murphy, the British-born managing director of Beijing-based
Alphatex Knitting Co. "That's how business was done."
From the grasslands to the shelf, it was a stable, stodgy business.
Deng Xiaoping changed all that. In 1979 the Chinese leader launched his historic
drive toward a market economy, and China's garment industry exploded. In a
pattern that later 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.
`Warm the Whole World'
In 1981 he was a 30-year-old Communist Party official overseeing a lethargic
state-run plant in Inner Mongolia when he set out to make as many sweaters as
the West would buy. With a new name, Erdos Cashmere Co., and a new motto, "Warm
the Whole World," Wang opened the age of mass cashmere production in China,
ending the fabric's exclusivity.
Since then, hundreds of competing companies have sprouted across China. Special
industrial parks devoted to the business of cashmere have opened on the plains
of northern China.
"If you cooperate with us, you're 100 percent guaranteed to make money,"
declared Zhang Zhijun, manager of the Zuoqi Jiali Co., striding through his
Zhang was in a good mood; one of his partners, Edenweiss International, said it
had just received an order for 300,000 cashmere coats from Wal-Mart.
As with everything from groceries to socks, such high-volume retailers 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 that fierce price competition leaves cashmere industry veterans concerned.
The big-box revolution is putting pressure on both their 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," said Swiss cashmere
executive Francis Patthey in a speech to Chinese suppliers.
The problem is being ignored, Patthey said. And it's easy to see why. With U.S.
demand at an all-time high, companies continue to build new factories and buy
more expensive equipment--putting themselves deeper in debt. That glut of
production, in turn, pushes prices ever 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
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 like an implausible movie set.
Without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place any longer, the deserts in
Alashan are expanding by nearly 400 square miles a year. The land, it seems, is
reclaiming itself from the people.
Making the plains bloom
Not long ago, the Alashan Plateau was one of the world's least-inhabited places.
The size of Colorado and Arizona combined, it is unrelentingly severe, with
ridges as tall as the Rockies, seas of sand and epic grasslands straddling
China's border with Mongolia. In a good year, it gets 6 to 12 inches of rain.
For centuries, pastoral nomads had lived more or less as they had since Mongol
tribes ruled Eurasia. They raised camels, sheep, cattle and goats, roaming to
let the land recover. It was dry but dotted with rivers and small lakes.
"When I was young, the whole area was green," recalled Ge Lasheng, 63, a doctor
who lives near Shatar the herdsman. "There was a creek here that ran for 3
kilometers in either direction."
But in the 1950s, the father of modern China, Mao Tse-tung, urged his people to
open the western frontier and make the plains bloom. In the tiny grassland
village of Yaoba, leaders answered the call by luring homesteaders with the
slogan "Develop the prairie of Yaoba!"
Ancient uses of the land changed almost overnight. Nomads were required to
settle down. Villages appeared where none had existed before.
Near Shatar's home, migrants arrived in 1956 and established the town of Wuliji.
They dug deep 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
From the 1950s to the 1980s, migrants helped triple 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 the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia,
straining already arid lands. Still, national leaders pressed ahead with further
development. When Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited the Erdos cashmere
factory in 1990, he urged his people to expand the processing industry.
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
Across Inner Mongolia, the number of goats soared tenfold from 2.4 million in
1949 to 25.8 million in 2004. Camels, meanwhile, declined 8 percent to 10,100.
Today, China's grasslands, the world's third-largest, are turning into deserts.
In just five years, from 1994 to 1999, the Gobi Desert expanded by an area
larger than the Netherlands, according to the UN Environment Program.
Not only does that rob farmers and herders of valuable land, but similarly
eroding grasslands on the Tibetan Plateau in western China also deposit silt
into the headwaters of rivers that flow to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and
Biligedeli the herder lives amid the consequences. His land is barren. Standing
beside his goat pen, he stared at his ailing herd, which produced just two
surviving kids this year--down from 70 a year ago.
Sand as fine as talc clung to the base of scattered grass. Irrigation has
further desiccated the soil. From the western edge of Biligedeli's parched plot,
the wind off the plateau raked the ground and headed east--straight toward the
country's industrial heartland.
A plume of destruction
On Sunday, April 9, Beijing residents woke to an unnerving sight: the sky was
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, said the state-run Korea Environment Institute.
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
"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
What scientists call trans-Pacific transport is an airborne highway of dust and
pollutants. Indeed, just as China's air comes to the U.S., North American
pollution traverses the Atlantic. But China's air poses particular hazards
because it is some of the world's filthiest. Roughly 300,000 people die each
year in China of diseases linked to air pollution, according to a Chinese
The main culprit is coal. 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
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.
That storm was strong enough to drape a brown cloud over the West Coast. Most of
the time, China's dirty dust is invisible to everyone except the growing ranks
of researchers troubled by it.
From China, with dust
From 2,500 feet in the hills above San Francisco, Steven Cliff peers down on a
spectacular range of forests, skyscrapers, clouds and sea. But Cliff and other
researchers are more concerned about what lies years over the horizon.
Cliff unlatched a plastic box filled with eight highly sensitive air monitors.
From atop Mt. Tamalpais and other sites on the West Coast, researchers are
discovering that polluted air from Asia hits the U.S. far more regularly than
was believed even two years ago.
"As pollution levels in Asia continue to rise, I believe that we will observe
more Asian pollution in the U.S. in the future," said Cliff, an atmospheric
scientist at the University of California, Davis.
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. More Chinese pollution will
make it harder and more expensive for cities like Los Angeles to meet strict
federal air standards.
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.
Officials on the front line of the advancing deserts are scrambling to undo the
damage that got them here. In Inner Mongolia they have banned grazing on 163,000
square miles--more than a third of the province--since 2000, with broader bans
to come. Other herders have been required to lock up their animals and feed them
Just as the American Dust Bowl of the 1930s sent millions migrating to
California, Chinese herders are moving off the grasslands to try farming and
other trades. As grazing gets more difficult, China's impact on the market is
reversing: the price of cashmere has begun to climb.
"This year, grazing bans have cut production in growing areas by 20 percent,"
Zhongyin Cashmere executive Ma said amid a factory floor of humming knitting
machines. "In the long run, the output is going to decrease year by year."
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."
If China's measures to address the issue don't have a real impact, pollution
will keep rising both within China and abroad. For a world that has come to rely
on China's distant engines of production, that will bring the costs much closer
Yet it was easy to forget all that on the clear fall morning that Cliff checked
his mountaintop sensors. A cool wind spiked the air, and cars glided back and
forth across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Christmas was coming, and stacks of cheap, fluffy cashmere were already in the
The pull of cashmere
On the other side of the world, Shatar the herdsman saw no choice but to leave
After a long, bitter summer, the same cashmere goats that had brought him
prosperity now cost him a fortune to keep alive. He was trucking grass and corn
from 120 miles away, consuming the very windfall that cashmere could deliver.
So Shatar and his family packed up their motorcycle and shuttered the house that
They moved the herd 50 miles south in search of grass. He was leaving the plot
where his father was born. But he would do anything to avoid resettling in a
town, the fate of hundreds of other herders who are succumbing to their
industry's overuse of the land. Many of those former nomads can be found in
Alashan's towns, listlessly growing wheat and raising dairy cows--the nomad's
equivalent of a desk job.
"Herdsmen can't take farming life because we've been doing this for
generations," Shatar said.
In November, just two months after leaving his land, Shatar returned. He was
determined not to end up like the other herders in town. Cashmere was too good
to give up.
Lu Jingxian and Ari Sznajder in Beijing contributed to this report.