In recent years there has been an increased public interest in ethical and sustainable fashion. Events such as the collapse of Rana Plaza, Bangladesh in 2013, causing the death of 1,120 garment workers, combined with growing awareness of the huge environmental impact of the global fashion industry, have led to greater concern about who, what, where and how of clothes production.
Where consumers have led, manufacturers and retailers have followed, with a number of popular high street names producing so called 'sustainable' ranges, such as Zara's Join Life Collection. It is easy to dismiss such efforts as a cynical ploy to retain, or even grow, market shares, with initiatives around eco-friendly clothing providing an excuse to pedal new lines: something else for customers to buy, leaving everyone involved with a sense of piety.
This was certainly my initial attitude towards Selfridges' current 'Material World: Clothes with a Conscience' promotion. Last year, the company won the 'World's Best Sustainability Campaign by a Department Store Award' at the Global Department Store Summit and this promotion signals its intent to excel in this area again. Its stated vision is to encourage questions about the negative impact of eight popular materials, each of which is paired with a sustainable alternative - which of course are also stocked by the store.
As I scrolled through the list, I saw examples that I was already pretty familiar with accompanied by illustrative comparisons. A pair of jeans, for example, 'requires 11,000 litres of water during its lifecycle - that's enough water to sustain a family of four for a month'. The answer, claim Selfridges, it to 'champion innovative new wash methods', which conscious consumers can do by purchasing Tortoise denim from the store (price range £280 to £480).
However, while the damaging environmental effects of cotton, denim and leather are relatively well-known, the final material mentioned in Selfridges' initiative took me a little by surprise: cashmere. This soft wool, harvested from goats in the plains of Asia, has a long history of being a luxury fabric. The length of time taken to acquire a decent size fleece and the processes required to turn the raw product into the finished goods have meant it retained its premium even as the cost of other materials, such as cotton, declined in the twentieth century.
Many of the items produced in cashmere, from hot water bottles to bed-socks to jumpers in the palest, most delicate shades, reinforce this association with luxury. It continues to be regarded as an investment choice, the antithesis of fast fashion. As such, it's easy to assume that cashmere is therefore a good sustainable choice.
Yet even this material has become much cheaper in recent decades. One can pick up a cashmere jumper from several different high street stores for around the £50 mark nowadays. These more easily affordable versions, particularly the pioneering range sold by Marks and Spencer, seemed revolutionary when they were released but we have quickly become accustomed to the lower price tag. Phrases like 'affordable luxury' abound in marketing literature.
This change reflects some of the major developments that have shaped global markets in last thirty years or so. The collapse of the USSR meant Mongolian herders could more easily sell their fleeces to the outside world, while at the same time - as in so many other areas - China has become a major producer of cashmere. Increased supply and increased demand also feed upon one another: more Mongolians have turned to grazing goats as it is a profitable industry. Goats breed quickly too (who knew?). In a recent report for National Public Radio in the US, one nomadic herder complained that her twenty animals quickly became 150: 'I don't want that many', she said, 'They're just taking over.'
Indeed cashmere goats are taking over much of Mongolia. The same report claimed that in the late 1980s, they made up 19% of all livestock in the country; that figure now stands at 60%. The impact of this is extremely damaging. Cashmere goats have sharp hooves that cut through the soil. They also rip the grass up by its roots when eating, meaning it cannot thrive. This, along with the effects of climate change, is annihilating the habitat.
However there are solutions. The grasslands will flourish again if they are less intensely grazed by cashmere goats. Alternative livestock includes camels and yaks, both of whom have hair which is very similar to cashmere when processed but wreak less havoc on the ground. Western consumers (and the burgeoning Chinese middle class) can help by switching allegiance to these similar materials, making the market for yak and camel hair more lucrative and thus encouraging those at the other end of the chain in Mongolia to switch too.
This is exactly what Selfridges is attempting doing. Their 'Material World' entry on this topic states 'no, no - it's yakshmere darling!' before explaining that 'Overgrazing of cashmere goats is leaving nearly 90 per cent of Mongolia's pasture land in danger of desertification.' 'Let's find alternative luxury fibres for more sustainable style' is their rallying cry, and while it's easy to sneer at the price of the specific alternatives that they suggest (£95 to £1,200), Selfridges warrant recognition for their efforts to raise consumer awareness. As well as reports and analysis from the frontline of fashion, we need the fashion mainstream to be on board in order to share messages about sustainability with consumers and to help shift market demand. Last year and this, Selfridges is leading the way among the major department stores of Britain's capital.