Interview with Anna Heaton
The Good Cashmere Standard (GCS) has been created in close cooperation and dialogue with experts along the textile supply chain and with reference to the best scientific advice on animal welfare. One of the experts who helped to develop the standard is Anna Heaton whose passion is animal welfare. For over 15 years she has worked internationally on animal welfare and sustainable livestock management. Recently, she joined the non-profit organization Textile Exchange as Fiber and Materials Strategy Lead for Animal Materials.
Anna, you are a member of the Advisory Board for The Good Cashmere Standard. Can you explain to us briefly what the Board is doing and what your role is within this group?
The GCS Advisory Board is made up of people from different organizations including some GCS certified processors as well as animal welfare NGOs and others. The Advisory Board reviews key topics within the GCS standard and its implementation and provides external oversight and advice for the GCS team.
My role is as a technical expert both in terms of animal welfare and the certification system for GCS. I also provide insights from the Textile Exchange perspective on the expectations of our members when they source cashmere. Partnership with other aligned organizations like the Aid by Trade Foundation, initiator of The Good Cashmere Standard, is an important part of Textile Exchange’s work within the textile industry.
The Standard was piloted in the field first allowing cashmere farmers to comment on its applicability and practicality. During this process, you travelled to the cashmere farmers and producers in Inner Mongolia to get direct feedback on it and observe the situation on the ground. How did the cashmere farmers and producers react to the introduction of this new sustainability standard?
The engagement from the cashmere processors and farmers was great. The farmers were very happy to talk about how they were managing their goats and their land and interested to understand the content of the standard and what was important for cashmere buyers.
Generally, the farmers could see the opportunity that engaging with GCS would bring, and when they challenged the standard they did so to understand the science and reasoning behind them.
The Good Cashmere Standard was launched in 2020 and serves as a benchmark for sustainably produced cashmere. It aims to deliver positive outcomes for cashmere goats, farmers and nature. From your perspective, what has been the impact of the standard so far?
The standard has made amazing progress in the short time since it has been launched with a huge number of farms and goats covered by GCS certification. This is an incredible achievement, especially given the Covid restrictions in the region. GCS has helped bring animal welfare, land management and social criteria to the fore throughout the cashmere supply chain in China, and the process of certification to the GCS standard helps to drive positive change.
Farmed cashmere in Inner Mongolia is in most cases a family-business with many traditions that are inherited from one generation to the other how to handle the goats. The Good Cashmere Standard wants to secure the wellbeing of cashmere goats and consequently seeks to transform some old traditions in the industry. Why does the standard still allow combing goats?
When we were working on the development of GCS we reviewed a lot of science and research and spoke to many different stakeholders. On the topic of shearing versus combing we had some who favoured combing and others shearing. There are challenges for ensuring goat welfare is protected for both ways and GCS is framed to ensure that whichever method is used goats are handled calmly and carefully and only restrained for as short as as possible. The standard has an improvement criterion that recommends shearing is used instead of combing, and information from the industry suggests that this is in any case a growing trend. However, we did not have enough evidence to show that combing was automatically a bad method of harvesting cashmere and did not want to exclude smaller and more traditional farmers that still use this method – as long as they met the requirements of the standard on how this is carried out.
As many other standards for agricultural raw materials, The Good Cashmere Standard requires a minimum of about 10% of all farms to be annually audited. Is this a sufficient sample size to ensure that certification requirements are met by all farms?
The important thing about the auditing protocol for The Good Cashmere Standard is that this sample of third-party audited farms is not the only oversight that takes place. Some people have concerns that if only a percentage of farms are audited each year, poor practices on the unaudited farms can be hidden. If all the farms were operating completely in isolation with no other contact regarding GCS this might be true, but the way the GCS auditing protocol is set up links the farms to buying stations and processors who help to educate farmers about GCS and to prepare for audit. Each farmer must also complete a self-assessment form with questions about the standards. The self-assessment responses – and previous audit results – are then used as a risk assessment when deciding which farms need to be audited. You might think that all farmers would answer the self-assessment to show that their farms are perfect, but the experience to date is that farmers are generally honest in their responses.
As you note in your question, this audit model is not unique to GCS. For all standards and certifications, a consideration has to be made about cost and practicality when seeing auditing requirements. Well managed models like GCS or the Textile Exchange Responsible Animal Fiber Standards use a mix of internal auditing or self-assessments plus third-party auditing and have a good track record of ensuring certified materials really are up to standard.
Some people require that cashmere is removed from textile production and replaced by vegan alternatives. What do you think about it?
The answer to this depends on the reason being put forward for using vegan alternatives. Some people choose a totally vegan lifestyle as they do not believe that humans should use animals or animal products whether this is for food, textiles or any other reason. Those people will choose non-animal based alternatives to wool, cashmere or other animal materials.
Others are turning to vegan alternatives to animal fibre and materials as they are concerned about the impact of farmed livestock on our planet. The question then is whether the non-animal alternatives are better in this respect. Some non-animal products like polyester are oil-based plastics with major environmental impacts of their own. Other natural materials such as manmade cellulosic fibres or even cotton can be produced in ways that also have detrimental impacts. I believe that natural fibres – animal and crop-based – that are produced in ways that deliver positive impact are the best way forward.
Textile Exchange’s Climate+ Strategy which makes climate a key focus looks exactly at this issue. The biggest climate impact for fibres and materials is at the pre-spinning phase, so for animal fibres and materials that is the farm level. We know that materials like wool and cashmere can be produced in a way that minimises greenhouse gas emissions, protects soil health and supports biodiversity. The Climate+ strategy will help guide people to better understand the impacts of their choices and give a pathway for better production methods. This is the best way forward for all of us.