06/12/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The True Cost of Cheap Cashmere

For the past few weeks, my conscience and my business sense have been locked in mortal combat. Most days I think my conscience is winning, but then a trip to the mailbox or a phone call from my accountant comes in and my business sense rallies.

See, there is a product that my customers are clamoring for, begging me, emailing me by the hour to get. It's something I can easily get my hands on and the mark-up is fantastic.

The product? Inexpensive cashmere yarn. I know far too much about the way it is made to feel good about profiting from it.

In the yarn business, softness is the key to sales. Knitters are constantly searching for the softest, most luxurious yarns they can lay their hands on and are willing to pay a premium for it -- no surprise given all of the hours they will invest in crafting that yarn into a scarf or sweater. Cashmere combines luxury with cache. In the past, the price of cashmere meant it was reserved for only the most special knitting projects. But in the last ten years, inexpensive Chinese cashmere has flooded the market -- making this former luxury available to the masses.

This may sound like a good thing, but there was a reason cashmere fiber was so expensive to begin with. Cashmere is the soft undercoat of the Cashmere goat. The fiber can be sheared but it puts less stress on the animals when it is combed out, a labor-intensive process. It takes two or three goats to produce a sweater's worth of material, and processing the fiber into yarn isn't easy or cheap either.

According to an exhaustively reported piece by Evan Osnos for The Chicago Tribune, the Chinese have drastically brought the cost of cashmere down by grazing far too many animals on far too little land. The result? The desertification of hundreds of thousands of acres of pasture and severe dust storms that may affect the air quality as far away as the U.S.

As if that weren't enough, once the goats have stripped the land, there is nothing for them to eat. A starving goat will actually eat the fleece off its companions. Under-nourished goats produce less fleece, leading their herders to add even more animals to the already stripped land to keep up with production.

And while there are 53 million knitters in America who may be enjoying the influx of cheap cashmere, the real impact is at a mass retail level. Big box stores -- even Walmart -- will be stocked-up with cashmere sweaters in the fall, priced as low as $19.99. Now, everyone will have cashmere on their backs, but at what cost to their conscience?

At a yarn show I recently attended, I saw knitters lined up four and five deep to buy inexpensive cashmere blend yarn. And while I could definitely use the cash infusion that cashmere would bring, my conscience has won over my business sense.

I won't be stocking cheap cashmere and I'll be doing everything I can to make sure people know how they can knit responsibly. I will be scouting for sources of sustainable, humane cashmere from the U.S. and Mongolia. The price will be higher, but the costs -- to the animal, the land, and the earth -- will be easier on the conscience.