Ethical Cashmere: How It All Started


Welcome to Ethical Cashmere, online store for the original Himalayan cashmere craft! Do stay a little while, browse around the shop, and drop us a note or two to say hi. 

I would make you some saffron tea, just like Sumi's father made for me, in his shop far away in Pokhara, Nepal. But alas, it is one of those human touches we cannot yet replicate with the internet. 

But you can sit as I have sat, and here on our blog read the stories of cashmere and Kashmir, of Nepal, of Sumi's family and their weavers - the people behind Ethical Cashmere. 

Machapuchare peak in the Annapurna mountain range of the Nepali Himalayas near Pokhara

A Little Shop with a Big Heart

It is just a little nook of a cashmere shop, tucked close near a corner along the sinuous row of shops lining the main street of Lakeside in Pokhara. Pokhara is a trekker's town. Most shops in the centre of town cater for those trekking tourists preparing for their trip, or looking for much-needed rest and pampering after completing it, or looking for other adrenaline-rush activities. 

But further along the street, you begin to come across textile shops, selling luxury woollen garments and woven Oriental carpets. Selling cashmere shawls from Nepal and cashmere scarfs from Kashmir, among yak wool jackets and silk-embroidered fine wraps. 

It was a main business of Pokhara's Kashmiri community, and one with a centuries-old history. Dating back from medieval times, when wool traders plied the Himalayan trade routes from Pakistan to Tibet, all across the highland kingdoms. 

I met Sumi's family at this shop when her father, Mr. Ghulam Rasool, offered to host me as a traveller in the land. It turned out that this is something they regularly do - when I accepted, there was already an Indonesian traveller staying with them, and later two British ones joined in. Sumi's on Couchsurfing, but really, the culture of hospitality shown by them long predates the website.

She was just adopting a new face for an ancient generosity. 

Discovering Real Cashmere

At the time, I roughly knew, that cashmere is the same thing as pashmina. And I thought I knew what cashmere was, because I have a pashmina shawl. It is ok warm, and a nice bright blue, cheap. 

But then I touched real cashmere in a real cashmere shop - that's all I needed to do to know that the shawl I had was not real. But that is what is normally labelled 'genuine pashmina' in regular malls.

Real cashmere is wonderfully soft, whatever its woven thickness. It's wonderfully warm, and so you could have a lighter shawl than other warm fibres like merino or alpaca. It is fluid in its fineness - especially the light weaves that colour more vibrantly than the heavier scarves. 

The Traditional Himalayan Cashmere

Sitting in the shop was also where I learned a bit more about the traditional ways of the cashmere business in the Himalayas. 

What interested me the most, as an environmental and sustainability professional, was not so much the specific ethical elements that I heard. It was the culture and the attitude that underlie those ethical elements, which sustained it without anyone inspecting or auditing.

It was not an attitude of maximisation, streamlining, controlling. It was an attitude of decency, being proportionate, consultation, and leniency. I asked them about how the goat hair was obtained, and how they deal with their weavers. 

But, why on earth would you shear the goat? In spring, the cashmere goat will moult on its own, and so you can wait until then to get the wool. 

The contract depends on what the weavers prefer. Some of them would like payment all at once, others in instalments. We try to match the weaver's personal life, so it is easy for them. 

It is a business paradigm that is common in Old World regions stretching as far west as Morocco, and is the opposite of corporatisation. The business model purposely does not optimise the supply chain, purposely buys and contracts from many, because value is seen not just in the form of cash. It is also banked in goodwill and the wealth of connections. 

Rainfall in Annapurna watering life down the mountain in many small streams through the valleys

It disperses wealth from the enterprise wider into the participating communities, and does not seek to bind weavers in rigid work hours that force them to change their existing way of life. When I asked them why not, they seemed astonished. 

Why would we want to do that? 

Competition from Mass Produced Cashmere

However, the fact is, others would do that. It is what makes the cashmere question a grey decision for ethical consumers. Is it or is it not ethical? What does ethical mean?  

Mr. Ghulam's son is in charge of a much newer shop in China, where the competition is fierce against a larger-scale cashmere production. Mr. Ghulam looked baffled as he wondered how the competition there could possibly make money selling even the truly 100% cashmere at such prices. 

But there are many ways that costs can be pushed down, and still label the product '100% cashmere'. It does not even have to be fake either - just a different attitude towards business. 

A Cashmere Online Shop in Australia

So I told all these stories to Jason. I also told him of our spur of the moment (and short-lived) attempt to set up an online shop for Caprah Handicrafts. Another new face, for an old enterprise. 

And that was how it all began. 

The idea evolved through several iterations to finally find form in Ethical Cashmere - bringing cashmere scarves from Nepal to online shoppers in Australia, as a retail and social enterprise. 

In keeping with the spirit of the traditional Himalayan way of the cashmere business, we aim to re-invest our profits not just in growing the Ethical Cashmere shop, but also invest in our weavers, aiming to double the weaving wage in 2020. 

Thank you from Jason, Sumi, and myself, for coming. We are here because we chose to support the traditional business of cashmere.

We hope you choose to as well! 

 

Sincerely,

Nuraini 

Dark red crimson cashmere scarf close up diamond weave