Interview With Tina Stridde and Christian Barthel from the Aid by Trade Foundation

Interview With Tina Stridde and Christian Barthel from the Aid by Trade Foundation about the development, impact and goals of The Good Cashmere Standard

The past year at The Good Cashmere Standard has been marked by several important milestones. A major one is certainly the conclusion of the second verification process, in which 14 cashmere producers and approximately 8,000 associated farmers completed the audit process. About 3.3 million goats supplied 1,300 tonnes of cashmere certified according to The Good Cashmere Standard. Six million textile items have already received The Good Cashmere Standard’s label. The year was rounded out by cross-sectoral exchanges with other stakeholders, like the Textile Exchange’s Animal Fibers and Materials Round Table. On the demand side, numerous new retailers and brands joined to make a public stand for animal welfare in the textile industry and drive the shift towards greater transparency in the supply chain. Tina Stridde and Christian Barthel, respectively the managing director and the head of business development at the Aid by Trade Foundation, let us take a look behind the scenes of The Good Cashmere Standard and dive deep into the work of the Aid by Trade Foundation team.

Tina, The Good Cashmere Standard has made it its goal to improve the welfare of cashmere goats through its more than 100 criteria that provide clear guidelines on issues including the nutrition, keeping, handling, shearing, and health management of the animals. What progress has been made so far?

The Good Cashmere Standard was created around two years ago to serve as the world’s first standard for the welfare of cashmere goats. Today, we can look back on outstanding growth and two completed audit rounds. Demand for cashmere wool certified according to The Good Cashmere Standard was overwhelming in 2021 and continues to hold up in 2022, both on the production side and among retailers and brands on the demand side. In 2021, 476 audits were conducted at the farm level and 26 at buying stations, where cashmere wool is purchased and sold. In addition, 7,900 farmers, more than three million goats, and 1,300 tonnes of cashmere wool[1] were certified according to The Good Cashmere Standard in 2021. This is a milestone for The Good Cashmere Standard as the first standard to document how cashmere goats are kept in Inner Mongolia, one of the world’s leading producers of cashmere wool. Sixty-eight percent of the farms are small-scale operations without any employees. Only a single farm had to be immediately expelled from the standard due to an infringement of the exclusion criteria. In this coming year, we aim to give a greater role to training and to raising additional awareness of animal welfare among farmers, in part by working even more closely with the Humane Slaughter Association from the UK and with both local and international animal-welfare experts.

Christian, The Good Cashmere Standard was also able to introduce and successfully implement several innovations in the textile value chain. The Cashmere Tracking System, CATS for short, was developed to meet the rising demand for transparency and traceability. Can you tell us a little about the system?

It is a priority for us to create more transparency about the origin and production of the cashmere products. The Aid by Trade Foundation developed CATS as a digital tracking system that covers all certified cashmere wool and all orders for products bearing The Good Cashmere Standard labels. Only certified cashmere producers and farmers who have successfully completed the audit process are integrated into the system. Registered partners involved in processing the cashmere wool and licensed textile companies and brands also have access to the system. In 2021 alone, nearly 200 partners throughout the textile value chain, from producers to spinning mills to retailers, were registered in the system. All purchase orders can be traced back from the finished product to the raw material in CATS. The tracking system provides a detailed overview of the quantity of cashmere used by each partner and ensures that the wool being processed is actually certified cashmere. This makes the Aid by Trade Foundation’s online portal the only one currently on the market to ensure this degree of transparency and traceability in the cashmere industry.

Tina, The Good Cashmere Standard addresses the welfare of cashmere goats in Inner Mongolia, a vast and largely rural area in northern China that borders Mongolia. How are on-site verifications going, especially considering that the coronavirus continues to dominate our daily lives and that significant travel restrictions will remain in place?

From the very first, it was important to us to maintain a good, reliable, and co-operative working relationship with the people there in order to ensure that our standard and its requirements would be implemented properly. This includes having the standard verified by independent third parties. From the beginning, we have been working with local verifiers from China who are familiar with local circumstances and have good access to the producers and farmers, at the very least for linguistic and logistical reasons. They regularly check whether the cashmere farms and producers are complying with the criteria laid down in the standard. They do so by visiting the farmers on their farms and the producers at their place of operations. When the certification process is successful and the requirements are met, the farms and producers receive a certificate that is valid for twelve months and authorises them to sell their products under the The Good Cashmere Standard® label. The decision to work together with local representatives from China is already paying off, especially considering the current restrictions. It is relatively simple for our auditors to travel to each location to verify that the standard is being implemented correctly. As a result, we were able to ensure the ongoing monitoring of the farmers and producers and to maintain close contact with them and with all other stakeholders and partners in Asia via digital communications platforms.

Tina, the cashmere goats are combed or shorn to harvest their wool. The Good Cashmere Standard includes precise specifications for this process. For example, the goats’ wool needs to be removed at a time when they would otherwise be losing their coats naturally. Their wellbeing must always be respected. At this time, no preference has been indicated for either method of wool harvesting. Could you explain why that is?

To date, there have been no reliable studies or investigations revealing conclusively which method—shearing or combing—is preferable from an animal-welfare perspective. The standard currently recommends shearing because this process can be completed very quickly; however, it does not make any binding requirements. As a counterargument to shearing, several experts (including some herders) point out that shorn animals no longer have any wool protecting them from the elements, for example sun exposure. Because the goats’ wellbeing is important to us, we are keeping a close eye on the matter and regularly discussing the latest insights with animal protection specialists and industry experts, for instance those on our advisory board.

Christian, The Good Cashmere Standard seems to have come into being at the right time. A number of companies and brands like Peter Hahn, Boden, and H&M are joining the standard and moving away from conventional cashmere. To what extent did you take the needs of fashion companies into account when you were developing the standard?

The Good Cashmere Standard is an independent standard. It was developed with input from animal protection specialists and industry experts in response to the growing need and demand for sustainable, transparent, and traceable cashmere production. Following a social business approach, our founding principle is to operate independently of donations and generate sustainable change on the basis of trade. Commercial demand therefore plays a key role. With their expertise, producers and retailers have made key contributions to the transparent and smooth integration of certified cashmere in the chain. In this way, they helped us bring to market a standard that is simultaneously independent, effective, and implementation-oriented without compromising on the welfare of the cashmere goats.

Christian, in the public discourse about the textile industry, vegan alternatives to animal fibres are gaining ground. For example, soya yarn is soft, completely biodegradable, and produced as a by-product of soya bean processing. Is it not time to replace cashmere wool with animal-free alternatives?

Demand for cashmere has grown significantly in recent years. However, the origins, quality, and production conditions of the cashmere have largely remained a mystery. The Aid by Trade Foundation advocates for the welfare of the goats on the cashmere farms. We are happy to see so many promising projects being conducted to promote alternative raw materials in the textile industry. However, a major breakthrough in alternative materials for the mass market has not yet occurred. This means that demand for animal fibres will remain high in the medium and long terms, making it especially important for us to establish a standard that lays down requirements for animal welfare as well as social and environmental criteria and ensures the independent verification of compliance. Doing nothing would mean failing to do something to further the animals’ welfare. That does not meet our definition of responsibility.

Tina, climate protection is increasingly a priority for the general public. What does The Good Cashmere Standard say about cashmere goats tearing out the roots of plants when grazing and compacting the soil with their hooves, causing fertile soil in this region to become increasingly rare, which creates new deserts and leads to increasingly violent sandstorms striking China? Is this not something that should be stopped?

Sheep and goat farming in Inner Mongolia have undergone significant changes in recent years. The Chinese government has recognised that the intensive and significantly expanded usage of increasingly large areas for grazing livestock in recent decades led to increasing desertification of the grasslands. Its response includes grazing prohibitions and quotas on the cashmere goat population. Protecting the environment that the cashmere goats and farmers call home is a key goal for The Good Cashmere Standard. The Good Cashmere Standard focusses exclusively on farmed cashmere, i.e. cashmere produced by sedentary farmers who keep their goats on farms, feeding them and only letting them roam and graze within fenced pastures. This enables the farmers to protect the remaining grassland. In addition, the standard prohibits the logging of primary forests while clearly defining the way towards peaceful coexistence with wild animals, the responsible use of pesticides, and the protection of biodiversity.

[1] Dehaired cashmere