How your cashmere pollutes the air

Chicago Tribune

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 go for as little as $19.99.

But behind the Made in China tag is something Americans rarely see: the consequences when the might of Chinese production and U.S. consumption converge on a scarce natural resource.

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.

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 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. 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 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.

The spike in demand for cashmere is taking a toll on the soil, air and water in China as well as the U.S. 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. "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."

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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 silky 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 here. He has ridden two decades of China's cashmere boom, expanding his herd by one-third, to more than 300, and steadily pushing production. The profits have given him a 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. 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 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 lifespan 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 been affected. Hungry goats are sprouting shorter, coarser, less valuable fleece.

Shatar crouched to grab a handful 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 year."

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Wang Linxiang is the Henry Ford of cashmere.

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. Industrial parks devoted to cashmere have opened on the plains of northern China.

"If you cooperate with us, you're 100% guaranteed to make money," declared Zhang Zhijun, manager of the Zuoqi Jiali Co.

Zhang was in a good mood; one of his partners, St. Edenweiss International, said it had just received an order from Wal-Mart for 300,000 cashmere coats.

As with everything from groceries to socks, high-volume retailers have changed the way customers think about the price of cashmere.

"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 both the cashmere industry 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.

"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.

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 as if they were part of an implausible movie set.

Without grass and shrubs to hold the dunes in place, Alashan's deserts are expanding by nearly 400 square miles a year. The land is reclaiming itself from the people.

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On Sunday, April 9, Beijing residents awoke to an unnerving sight: The sky was orange.

A blizzard of dust 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.

Such storms are increasingly common. In the 1950s, China had 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. The study found that "for the past decade, Alashan has been the source of most sandstorms" originating in China.

New research is detailing how China's dust and dirty air hurtle across the Pacific, fouling the sky, thickening 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."

China's air 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 research institute.

The main culprit is coal. About 70% of China's 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.

That's where the goats come in. Dust from the animal-ravaged grasslands of Alashan is snatched by wind and sent east, where smokestacks frost it in a layer of pollution. The noxious mix 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.

Asian dust accounted for 40% 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 China's rising energy use and increasing number of cars. More Chinese pollution will make it harder and more expensive for cities like Los Angeles to meet 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. In Inner Mongolia, they have banned grazing on 163,000 square miles -- more than a third of the province -- since 2000. Other herders have been required to lock up their animals and feed them by hand.

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. And 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%," said Ma, the Zhongyin Cashmere executive. "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."

On the other side of the world, Shatar the herdsman saw no choice but to leave his land.

After a long, bitter summer, the same goats that had brought him prosperity now cost him a fortune. 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 cashmere built. They moved the herd 50 miles south in search of grass. He was leaving the plot where his father was born.

But just two months later, Shatar returned. Cashmere was too good to give up.

Lu Jingxian and Ari Sznajder in Beijing contributed to this report.

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