Fashion Goes Green in Patagonia

March 1, 2012

WCS helps a group of Argentine cashmere producers adopt sustainable husbandry practices that improve their livelihoods while also protecting the guanacos, rheas, and Andean cats that share their turf.

Merino wool, silk mohair, pima cotton…green cashmere? It could be the latest fancy fabric to hit store shelves, and this trend is all in the name of wildlife.

In non-fashion terms, green cashmere is produced through a system of sustainable practices that protect wildlife—in this case, the guanacos, rheas, and Andean cats of the windswept Patagonian Steppe. The soft wool comes from goats tended by members of Argentina’s Grupo Costa del Río Colorado cooperative. While cashmere production has had a negative impact on biodiversity conservation in other parts of the world, this group of herders are minimizing the environmental impacts of their goats. WCS’s Patagonian and Andean Steppe Program has been providing assistance.

Grupo Costa del Río Colorado recently conducted its first U.S. sale of green cashmere wool for use in knitting high-quality sweaters, hats, gloves, and other garments. The group’s sustainable practices include adjusting herd sizes to match the carrying capacity of the lands the goats graze, improving the health status of herds, and using guard dogs to minimize livestock-wildlife conflicts with predators such as the Andean cat. Despite keeping fewer goats, the cooperative’s herders have increased their incomes overall, due to better husbandry practices and the higher profit garnered from access to an international market.

Grupo Costa del Río Colorado, with WCS´s support, recently applied for Wildlife Friendly certification for their cashmere. If granted, this certification would allow producers to sell their cashmere with a seal that allows buyers to better distinguish it from other cashmere.

“The cooperative’s first sale to a buyer in the United States represents a 10 percent increase in annual income from goats for members of the group,” said WCS’s Andres Novaro. “This is an enormous validation for the program that will hopefully expand to include more goat herders in the following year.”

Ginger Clark, the U.S. buyer who deals in cashmere fibers for hobby spinners, has advised the Grupo Costa del Río Colorado herders on ways to continually improve the quality and quantity of the product. Ms. Clark also accompanied WCS conservationists on a visit to the Carrizalito cooperative, another herder group that is learning to incorporate sustainable husbandry with cashmere production.

WCS has worked on the Patagonian Steppe for more than 20 years, conserving guanaco migrations and protecting Darwin´s rheas, Andean condors, waterfowl, and the southernmost population of Andean cats. This has been made possible by generous support from the Butler Conservation Fund, Liz Claiborne and Art Ortenberg Foundation, Panthera, Disney, National Geographic, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Latin America Program.

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