From steppe to catwalk: The Mongolian co-ops protecting a way of life

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In the steppes of Mongolia, the nomadic herders’ way of life and indeed the landscape itself is under threat. But herder co-operatives, fronted by a new London-based fashion brand, have ambitious plans to reverse this.
Tengri aims to protect the Mongolian landscape and herders’ livelihoods from rapid industrialisation and land degradation. It is turning co- operatively traded yak wool into high fashion knitwear using a team of expert knitwear makers in Hawick, Scotland – a town famous for knitwear since the 18th century.
The wool is sourced directly from two co-ops representing 1,500 nomadic herder families in Mongolia’s Arkhangai province. Hand-combed from semi-wild animals living in the steppes, the fibres are robust, breathable and hypo-allergenic.
Because Mongolian yaks live at high altitudes and endure extreme weather, their wool is 10-15°C warmer than merino wool.
The brand is the brainchild of Nancy Johnston, who has witnessed first-hand the challenges threatening the herders and their culture. “As a kid, I saw a picture of Mongolia and the images fascinated me,” she explains. “The epic landscapes, nomadic way of life and the delicate and interconnected relationship between herders, the land and animals all really captivated me.
“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.”
But Nancy knew the family would never be able to offer their daughter the opportunities she had had. “I was a lucky refugee baby born in the USA, the first child in my family born outside of Asian soil. I saw myself in that little girl and couldn’t stop thinking about what could be done to help her and her family.”
Nancy, a social worker specialising in programmes that deliver systemic change and social impact, discovered that the herders’ livelihoods were threatened by rapid industrialisation and land erosion. According to Conservation Biology, 95% of forage across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and northern India has been consumed by cashmere goats, leaving just 5% for wild animals to graze.
Mongolia, with a population of just three million, is the second- largest global supplier of premium fibres, supplying the world’s top luxury fashion brands.
“The €4 billion cashmere industry is currently experiencing a supply crisis,” Nancy says. “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.
“Many consumers unknowingly choose to purchase unsustainable knitwear, which results in wild animals becoming the ultimate fashion victims. What the world doesn’t know is that yak fibres are a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative.
“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.
“I felt I had a moral choice, if not an obligation, to work with nomadic herders to launch a fashion brand that would make a difference.”
She used her life savings to buy her first tonne of yak fibre direct from herders. “Slowly, what started out as a small group evolved into a collective movement of people involved in design, fashion, arts, technology, marketing, business, conservation biology and many other disciplines helping to shape Tengri,” she says. “It’s where design, fashion, ethics, technology, business, environmental activism and individual consumer choice come together to do good.”
Nancy decided that Fairtrade was not enough for this venture.
“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,” she says. “It’s a relatively simple model and in a very short time, the number of nomadic families involved in the co-operatives trading with Tengri grew from 398 to more than 1,500.”
Tengri pays herder co-operatives double market rate with a deposit upfront, before the fibres are combed. Once combed the herders are paid again and finally they are given a share of the profits on sales. In its first year of trading, Tengri has increased the herders’ household income by 175%.
Tengri’s agents in Mongolia are the herder co-ops themselves. The fibres travel straight from herder families to Tengri’s appointed freight agent and direct to the plane. The herders oversee the whole process; a first in the history of Mongolia.
Since autumn 2014, Tengri has been the first brand to use Mongolian yak fibre to develop and manufacture yak yarns in Britain. With support from Heriot-Watt University, it is launching a new line of luxury yarns made in Yorkshire, which will go into every product.
The knitwear is designed in London and made in the UK with undyed Mongolian yak fibres. To maximise transparency, these stories will soon be available to consumers as video features on the Tengri website and the Provenance website, alongside interviews with herders. Tengri is also investigating the use of mobile phone and 3G technology to enable herders to share their experiences with the Tengri collective and its customers.
The team is still working to improve its supply chain. Through processing, 25% of the yak fibre becomes premium down, which is spun into yarns and woven into fabrics. That means approximately 75% of the fibres are waste, but Tengri plans to treat them as a by-product.
“This by-product comes in three variety of grades and gets discarded in many developing countries,” Nancy explains. “We’ve imported all the waste fibres to the UK and are looking at ways to make use of this 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.”
Tengri itself means ‘Sky God’ – the primary deity of a pantheon of gods who governed all human existence and natural phenomena on earth. “The words ‘Tengri’ and ‘Sky’ are synonymous,” says Nancy. “The physical appearance of Tengri was unknown and considered to be timeless and infinite, like a blue sky. These qualities and the meaning of Tengri is what inspires us.
“Respect for the delicate balance between human existence and nature is at the heart of our approach. Working with herder co-operatives, as well as spinning, processing and knitting companies, we aim to help preserve rural and remote landscapes and support nomadic herders’ way of life.
“In terms of auditing for ethical standards, Tengri has introduced a whole new industry standard in itself, offering 100% transparency. It’s actually setting a new standard.”


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