From fibres to fashion: Launching a sustainable fashion brand
16 February 2016 - Nancy Johnston

The launching of a sustainable fashion brand with nomadic yak herders

The global fashion industry and its supply chain is endemically responsible for human suffering, furthering poverty, decimating wildlife and our environment.  According to the World Bank, textiles production is ranked the second greatest contributor to global water pollution.

In recent years, there has been an unsustainable increase in the level of grazing by cashmere goats and other environmentally damaging livestock. These animals have consumed up to 95% of forage across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and northern India, leaving just 5% for wild animals to graze. Many consumers unknowingly choose to purchase unsustainable woollen fibres, resulting in wild animals becoming the ultimate “fashion victims” (Conservation Biology).

In April 2013 more than 1,100 people were killed and a further 2,500 injured by the collapse of a garment factory at Rana Plaza in Dhaka, Bangladesh – a factory producing clothing for the growing consumer demands of fashion.  The recent passage of the Modern Slavery Act in the U.K. in 2015 is clearly a step in the right direction in driving much more transparency in the fashion supply chain, but more could be done.

A majority of consumers do care about clothes being ethically and sustainably sourced and produced, yet they are unable to use and leverage their purchasing power to shop well and do good. Research by Cone Communications and Ebiquity reveals that 81% of consumers claim a lack of readily available products is the largest barrier to not purchasing better.

What if consumers had options and a better alternative? What if fashion brands can offers better products that are beautifully made and do no harm?

The start of my journey

In 2013, I finally made it to Mongolia, fulfilling a life-long dream. It was there, in the vast steppes, that I lived with a nomadic yak herder family for the first time and fell in love with the yaks and the delicate, yet harsh, nomadic way of life.

I was also able to experience first hand the challenges the family faced. They had a young daughter and were desperately trying to save money for her education. I had a pit in my stomach knowing that no matter how hard the family worked, they would never be able to afford to give her the education or offer her the types of privileged opportunities I had, living in a developed country. I was a lucky refugee baby born in the USA, the first child in my family born outside of Asian soil. Now living in a world class city such as London, I saw myself in that little girl and couldn’t stop thinking about what could be done to help her and her family, so that she could someday have the same opportunities and experiences as me.

Nancy and pink girl

A vicious cycle of poverty and environmental destruction

While in Mongolia, I discovered that the future of nomadic herders and their livelihoods were threatened by rapid industrialisation and land-erosion.   I was also flabbergasted to find that Mongolia, a country with a population of three million (less than half of that of London), is the second-largest global supplier of premium fibres, supplying to the world’s top luxury fashion brands, a €4 billion cashmere industry currently experiencing a supply crisis. Mongolia has the smallest density population to land mass in the world, where people are living on $1USD/ £ 1 GBP per day.

Despite a thriving export industry, the whole of Mongolia’s animal fibre industry is still reliant on government subsistence funded largely by mining.  The severe land-desertification, effects of climate change, dwindling supply and increasing global demand for cashmere is resulting in a vicious and unsustainable cycle of poverty and harm to nature, wild animals and the people living in it.

Small steps to a fashion revolution. Creating a ‘fairshare’ and sustainable fashion brand

Mongolian yak roam semi-wild, often at high altitudes. They graze gently on the steppes and are an indigenous species that lives symbiotically in the ecosystem, allowing plant species and other wildlife to regenerate and thrive.

Yak fibres are soft as cashmere and warmer than merino wool, resistant to odours, water and flame. As well as being light, breathable and hypoallergenic, yak noble fibres are a sustainable and eco-friendly fibre under-recognised in the global fashion and textile industry.

I felt I had a moral choice, if not an obligation, to work with nomadic herders to launch Tengri as a fashion brand that would make a difference to support their nomadic way of life and preserve the land and animals living in the steppes.

Rare Fibre

For some companies and their owners, it might be enough to model their business so that suppliers are paid a slightly more competitive wage than the status quo. But for me, fairtrade wasn’t enough.

It felt right that I set up Tengri as a ‘fairshare’ business, designed in partnership with the herders from whom I source premium noble yak fibres directly, and share the business profits with them, fairly and squarely. It’s a relatively simple model and in a very short time, the number of nomadic families involved in the cooperatives trading with Tengri grew from 398 to more than 1,500.

Fashion as a force for good

Tengri’s direct supply chain with herders takes forward the work of more than a decade’s worth of conservation efforts and international research conducted as part of Mongolia’s Green Gold project. Our international trading activity with nomadic herders has influenced the Mongolian government to grant land and herding rights to herder families involved with Tengri, rights that were not previously recognised. Our work has inspired environmental activism and has enabled the nomadic herder community in Mongolia for the first time to trade and export goods directly on the international market without any intermediary support or third party intervention or assistance. We are now in the early stages of furthering this research with conservationist scientists to look more closely at our environmental impact to the fragile ecosystem, and determine whether or not fashion can truly be a force for good.

From fibre to fashion – Pioneering textile innovation

Since autumn 2014, Tengri has been the first brand to use Mongolian yak fibre to develop and manufacture noble yak yarns in Britain. Working with some of the world’s leading textile researchers and scientists, as well as highly skilled craftsman in Scotland and England, we are launching a new line of luxury yarns made in Yorkshire, which will go into every product.  We are looking at innovative ways to create new yarns and fabric from yak noble fibre, including the use of a range of green technologies, closed-loop systems, ballistic-based technology and waterless and toxic-free dyes made from locally sourced plants.

Testing fibres

On the evening of the 23 February 2016, I will be moderating the first of a series of events entitled, Threads: Rethinking Fashion. Taking place throughout the year, the talk series is delivered as part of a partnership between Impact Hub Kings Cross and Ashoka Changemakers.

Join me and fellow social innovators as we delve deeper into our journeys in transforming fibre to fabrics and uncovering more sustainable sourcing practices and solutions to procuring raw materials in the fashion supply chain.

For details of the event and to attend, click here.

For more information about Tengri, visit www.tengri.co.uk.

 

Photo credits: Joshua ExellBarbara Wieland © Tengri Ltd

 

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