Mongolia Has an Answer to Fast Fashion: Sustainable Cashmere

The STeP EcoLab is a four-year project funded by the European Union under the SWITCH Asia II Programme. The Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production (CSCP) is a project partner with its key competences: sustainable value chains, hand- and footprint assessments, multi-stakeholder engagement, as well as participatory strategy development and design and communication. Project Manager Pawel Zylka talks cashmere and herders.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • Even though Mongolia has the second largest cashmere wool output in the world, the local infrastructure is not developed enough to process the raw material.
  • Sustainable cashmere is not only necessary to sustain Mongolia’s unique landscape and culture, but is also a business case if done the right way and communicated properly.
  • The goal of the project is to enable cashmere goat farmers to recognise the importance of responsible production patterns for their long-term development.
The Mongolian cashmere wool sector is an important pillar of the country’s economy, supporting about a million nomadic herders.
From Mongolia with Love The Mongolian cashmere wool sector is an important pillar of the country’s economy, supporting about a million nomadic herders. SWITCH-Asia

A cashmere wool sweater is considered a luxury product in Europe. Even though Mongolia has the second largest cashmere wool output in the world, the local infrastructure is not developed enough to process the raw material, and at the same time, unsustainable herding practices are ruining pastureland – the very basis for cashmere production. The project, STeP EcoLab aims to change that dynamic through sustainable practices.

The STeP EcoLab Mongolia project is funded by European Switch Asia Programme and is being implemented with Agronomes et Vétérinaires Sans Frontières (AVSF), the Mongolian Wool and Cashmere Association, the Environment and Security Center of Mongolia, as well as the National Association of Pasture Users Group in Mongolia and the Mongolian Bankers’ Association.

How did the STeP EcoLab Mongolia Project start? How did CSCP narrow down on Mongolian cashmere and the issue of herder livelihoods. Could you give us the backdrop?
STeP is funded by the European Commission via the SWITCH Asia Programme. CSCP has a long-standing track record with this programme (we had implemented several projects in the past across Asia); so, we were very open when AVSF—the lead partner of STeP—approached us and asked to work together with us on Mongolian wool and cashmere.

Wool and cashmere were chosen as a sector, as they are (i) a very important industry for Mongolian economy, (ii) offer very interesting opportunities for communicating sustainability (being a noble and natural product), and (iii) the Mongolian industry was facing significant challenges on herding and on processing levels. This made it a natural candidate for the project.

Usually, when one starts something, there is a working hypothesis in place. What premise was the CSCP working on at the onset of the project? Did you have enough data at the beginning to be able to formulate a proper plan? What were the challenges before you even began the project?
The basic premise of the project—actually the premise of the SWITCH Asia programme—is that improving sustainable production is not only necessary, it also pays off, as the demand by European consumers for sustainably sourced, responsible products is high and growing. Therefore, we knew that sustainable cashmere is not only necessary to sustain Mongolia’s unique landscape and culture (overgrazing is a significant challenge in Mongolia), but that is also a business case if done the right way and communicated properly.

For communication, we always strived to achieve broadly recognised and credible sustainability certification, GOTS was always our benchmark there. Not only because the measures required by GOTS are effective, but also as it is the best-known sustainability standard for textiles, at least in Europe. Using such standardised and credible communication would be key. Also, as it gives good guidance to the sector on what needs to be achieved.

Grasping the concrete challenges in cashmere herding and processing was the initial challenge in the project. CSCP, therefore, started with a comprehensive analysis of the processing sector (while AVSF did the same on herding level), this analysis served as the backbone for aligning all future measures.

Production practices of cashmere do not sufficiently consider social and environmental aspects.  While the farmers struggle with disappearing pastureland, changing practices is difficult. They lack support and an understanding of how to implement more sustainable production processes.
Production Issues Production practices of cashmere do not sufficiently consider social and environmental aspects. While the farmers struggle with disappearing pastureland, changing practices is difficult. They lack support and an understanding of how to implement more sustainable production processes. SWITCH-Asia

As your project page says: "the infrastructure in Mongolia is not developed enough to produce them." What are the metrics that you are going by? How would you say what infrastructure is not enough, and what are the precise project goals so that you can say after the project that the work is indeed complete?
Again, I can only relate to processing here. As mentioned already, we took GOTS as a compass when identifying what the sector needed to achieve. Not only because GOTS is comprehensive (covering all relevant impact categories in textile processing with solid requirements), but also as once achieved, it makes credible sustainability communication possible globally.

This posed significant challenges on the sector (and the country), especially in regard to infrastructure. While the use of chemicals or social sustainability could be easily improved, aspects such as wastewater treatment or waste management posed bigger challenges, as Mongolian capacities for wastewater treatment were not sufficient. This was something that the industry (or individual companies) could not solve themselves.

Regarding the project’s goal. There is always work to be done. Also, in regard to STeP Ecolab, we will apply for a second phase (via SWITCH Asia), where we want to address further sustainability measures that could not be done in the first phase. Further implementation of Circular Economy aspects (very interesting for cashmere!) is one such next goal, amongst others. Also, without COVID striking, there might have been even more development with the sector. But our biggest goal for this first phase of the project was to show the industry what sustainability means, why it is important and that it is an opportunity rather than a threat.

Looking back at the project we can say that this mission was accomplished.

The landscape is huge, and the project canvas is big. It's not just a question of marketing the cashmere, but also issues like deforestation, landscape erosion, etc. That necessarily means working with a number of organisations as well as government agencies. How is this being worked out in the field?
Again, I can only relate to processing here. Challenges in processing differ from the ones you mentioned, aspects such as wastewater usage or disposal but are still relevant sustainability topics and—moreover—not easily addressed by individual companies nor the sector. To overcome those challenges, the wool and cashmere sector and relevant political actors had to jointly formulate the necessary measures.

Building trust and understanding for each other was a necessary first step, the joint formulation of an industrial roadmap (and how supporting actors need to be involved) helped to visualise what needs to be done. The timings agreed upon in the roadmap also held (and keep holding) the pace high so the momentum can be retained.

Mongolian Cashmere

The Mongolian cashmere wool sector is an important pillar of the country’s economy, supporting about a million nomadic herders. Unfortunately, the sector is experiencing a dilemma: It is lacking the infrastructure to process wool into high value products. Therefore, almost all revenue is made by selling the raw material cheaply to manufacturers in other countries and profits can only be increased by adding goats and producing more wool.

The Challenges

Unfortunately, production practices do not sufficiently consider social and environmental aspects. Overgrazing, deforestation and erosion of the landscape, especially due to goat farming, are increasing threats. While the farmers struggle with disappearing pastureland, changing practices is difficult. They lack support and an understanding of how to implement more sustainable production processes.

Cashmere is a fine, natural fibre that decomposes easily. The STeP EcoLab project is supporting the Mongolian wool and cashmere sector to make the difference: achieve a strong sustainability profile and better recognition in the global textile market.
Step in Right Direction Cashmere is a fine, natural fibre that decomposes easily. The STeP EcoLab project is supporting the Mongolian wool and cashmere sector to make the difference: achieve a strong sustainability profile and better recognition in the global textile market. SWITCH-Asia

"Based on the voluntary code of practice, together with industry stakeholders, the project partners will develop a label to help European consumers recognise the industry’s efforts." What is this label going to be? Could you please explain?
During the project, we discussed continuously about the labelling question. Both options—external sustainability labels (such as GOTS) on the one hand and the development of an own certification scheme—have their advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, the sustainability challenges of the Mongolian cashmere industry especially on herding level are quite unique.

The nomadic structures and processes cannot (by now) be addressed by any relevant sustainability textile standard, therefore own measures needed to be formulated and implemented (for details you would have to refer to AVSF).

On the other hand, ‘own’ standards are not known by potential buyers (and their consumers!), they therefore require significant amounts into communication / building up credibility—especially given the broad range of already existing standards (and the amount of greenwashing made by parts of them). Those communication costs could be better used in other ways in order to promote sustainability in the sector.

We therefore decided to follow a hybrid approach: On the farming level, our partner AVSF has developed a nomadic cashmere standard and is now trying to get it accredited under the IFOAM umbrella (therefore making it compatible with GOTS). While working with the processors however, we mostly focussed on implementing measures ‘on GOTS level’, the nature of cashmere processing does not differ much (in regard to sustainability!) from processing of other fibres. This orientation towards GOTS (and other comparable sustainability standards) helped the processing industry also in remaining flexible when it comes to communication of their measures.

The CSCP emphasises these competencies: Sustainable Value Chains, Hand-and Footprint Assessments, Multi-stakeholder Engagement, as well as Participatory Strategy Development and Design and Communication. Could you briefly outline these for us? How do these work on the ground?
I can maybe briefly show this on the case of STeP Ecolab: Creating and promoting sustainable value chains must be the goal of our project (and is the mission of the CSCP). Especially in more complex value chains like wool and cashmere textiles, this cannot be done only by addressing individual actors. Sustainability has to be implemented on herding and processing level, but it has to be made visible and relevant on retail / consumer level.

All actors, including enabling actors such as policy makers and financial intermediaries, have to be involved and have to feel involved in order to make an effective change. A common vision has to be drafted, trust needs to be built, individual measures aligned.

Therefore, multi-stakeholder mapping and engagement is crucial in such projects, a participatory strategy development enables all relevant actors to identify with the common target. Still, all work has to be based on a scientific foundation in order to make sure that a project achieves the impact it wants to achieve.

A hand and footprint assessment (or hot-and sweet spot analysis) serves as a baseline for understanding where the problems are, what measures might be necessary and which actors need to be involved into the process. We like talking about hot spots and sweet spots as we do not want to approach such projects exclusively from the negative/risk perspective, but identify sustainability related opportunities, or sweet spots. And nomadic wool and cashmere has many of those to offer.

Lastly, the best sustainability measures are not sustainable, if they are not seen or understood by the consumers. Therefore, design and communication always have to play a core role from the very beginning of such projects.

Pawel Zylka
Pawel Zylka
Project Manager
Collaborating Centre on Sustainable Consumption and Production

Building trust and understanding for each other was a necessary first step, the joint formulation of an industrial roadmap (and how supporting actors need to be involved) helped to visualise what needs to be done. The timings agreed upon in the roadmap also held (and keep holding) the pace high so the momentum can be retained.

The Goal

The goal of the project is to enable cashmere goat farmers to recognise the importance of responsible production patterns for their long-term development. It also aims to demonstrate how sustainability can effectively and efficiently improve their livelihoods. Based on an in-depth, on-site analysis of the sector, the project partners will jointly develop capacity building measures for all actors: farmers, financial intermediaries and regulatory institutions.

The Code

A voluntary code of practice will also be developed with the industry’s stakeholders. This cooperative establishment of a feasible roadmap is crucial for ensuring continuous and long-term improvement of the industry’s ecological and social performance.

The Markets

In order for these tools to successfully establish more sustainable value chains, the market needs to recognise these practices. To that end, a second and equally important pillar of the project is to raise consumer awareness of the efforts being made towards producing more sustainable products.

The Label

Based on the voluntary code of practice, together with industry stakeholders, the project partners will develop a label to help European consumers recognise the industry’s efforts. The ultimate goal of the label is to give both consumers and producers a way to value and identify goods produced through more responsible production practices.

A fine, natural fibre that decomposes easily, production of the luxurious cashmere comes with significant social and environmental impacts. Carbon emissions from livestock, overgrazing, deforestation, lack of supply chain transparency, and poor working conditions of goat herders are some of the major issues.
Getting the Goat A fine, natural fibre that decomposes easily, production of the luxurious cashmere comes with significant social and environmental impacts. Carbon emissions from livestock, overgrazing, deforestation, lack of supply chain transparency, and poor working conditions of goat herders are some of the major issues. SWITCH-Asia

There are issues of animal welfare, and a strident movement against anything that is animal-derived. What is the project's official stand on the subject? It's a tricky issue to handle.
Again, I can only speak for the CSCP. Nomadic herding can be seen as one of the most authentic and natural ways of ‘utilising’ animals. Obviously, the animals have to be treated with the necessary respect.

The same goes for potential environmental issues such as overgrazing. Both need to be addressed and is being addressed by sustainability standards and programmes such as STeP. As long as this is the case, I don’t see any reason against animal-derived products. Especially not in the Mongolian context, where the animals have a vast landscape which they are using since centuries. Also, from a climate perspective it wouldn’t make sense, as not utilising those animals would not stop them from emitting CO2.

You have quite a few project partners. How are you working with AVSF, MWCA, etc. Who is the nodal agency for the project? How much funds have been allocated under the SWITCH Asia programme?
The lead partner is AVSF (Mongolia). They are responsible for coordinating the work amongst the partners. AVSF is well connected in Mongolia, as they are present here since quite some time. This proved crucial for the success of the project, such an endeavour with multiple actors—many of them Mongolian—could have never been managed effectively from Europe.

Cashmere is experiencing a dilemma: It is lacking the infrastructure to process wool into high value products. Therefore, almost all revenue is made by selling the raw material cheaply to manufacturers in other countries and profits can only be increased by adding goats and producing more wool.
Production Dilemma Cashmere is experiencing a dilemma: It is lacking the infrastructure to process wool into high value products. Therefore, almost all revenue is made by selling the raw material cheaply to manufacturers in other countries and profits can only be increased by adding goats and producing more wool. SWITCH-Asia

Subir Ghosh

SUBIR GHOSH is a Kolkata-based independent journalist-writer-researcher who writes about environment, corruption, crony capitalism, conflict, wildlife, and cinema. He is the author of one book, and has co-authored three with others. He writes, edits, reports and designs. He is also a professionally trained and qualified photographer.

 
 
 
  • Dated posted: 10 November 2022
  • Last modified: 10 November 2022