Creating Systemic Change - Why I started a fashion brand with nomadic yak herders

As a kid, I saw a picture of Mongolia and the images fascinated me. The epic landscapes, nomadic way of life and the delicate and interconnected relationship between herders, the land and animals all really captivated me. The picture was part of a recruitment to enlist teachers, doctors, nurses and social workers to work in countries new to democracy and a free-market economy. Mongolia was one of the countries recruiting for help. Although I was too young to volunteer, that image stayed in my mind and I was determined to travel the world and help people. Over the years, I followed my passions, travelling to various parts of the world, climbing a few mountains, seeking adventure and challenge. I eventually found my niche by becoming a social worker, specialising in designing and delivering innovative and strategic programmes that deliver systemic change and social impact.


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 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 Asia. 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 one day have the same opportunities and experiences as me.

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. According to the United Nations Development Programme, as much as 90 percent of is fragile and dry-land, under constant threat of desertification.  I was also flabbergasted to find that Mongolia, a country with a population of three million (less than half that of London), is the second-largest global supplier of premium fibres, supplying to the world’s top luxury fashion brands, as part of €4 billion cashmere industry currently experiencing a supply crisis. Mongolia has the smallest density of population to land mass in the world, where people are living on $1USD/£1.50 per day. Despite a thriving export industry, Mongolia’s animal fibre industry is still reliant on government subsidies, 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 nomadic herders. Many consumers unknowingly choose to purchase unsustainable knitwear, which results in wild animals becoming the ultimate "fashion victims".  

yak fibre

Discovering yak, the new ‘golden fleece

What I discovered in Mongolia was that yak hair is a luxurious, sustainable, eco- and animal-friendly fibre. Mongolian yak roam semi-wild, often at high altitudes. They graze gently on the steppes and are an indigenous species that live symbiotically in the ecosystem, allowing plant species and other wildlife to regenerate and thrive.

This precious fibre can be sourced only by hand-combing each yak individually, once a year, when the animals shed their winter coats. On average, only 100 grammes of fibre are available from each yak. As soft as cashmere and warmer than merino wool, yak fibres are naturally robust – resistant to odours and water, and less prone to pilling than other fibres. As well as being light, breathable and hypoallergenic, it’s an all-natural material with the added bonus of being machine washable! I experienced an “Ah-ha” moment. Why aren’t the unique qualities of this very special fibre recognised in the global fashion and textile industry?

buying yak wool

My first fibre purchase

Having discovered this, 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. Using my meagre life-savings I bought my first tonne of yak fibre direct from herders. 

With help from my extended network of friends, family and colleagues, Tengri was created. 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.

Tengri Collective

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

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 4,500.

Yak Herder

Sustainable 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, sustainable development and international research conducted as part of the Green Gold project, our partners in Mongolia. Our international trading activity with nomadic herders has supported the influence of the Mongolian government in granting 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 on the fragile ecosystem, and determine whether or not fashion can truly be a force for good.

fibre tech

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. During this process, I discovered that 25 percent of most woollen fibres are introduced to the industry as yarns and woven into fabrics and approximately 75 percent end up as by-product waste. 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 fromall the fibres, leading to zero waste. This includes 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.

I’m incredibly proud, honoured and humbled that Tengri has been recognised as one of the world’s top 100 sustainable solutions by our inclusion in Sustainia100, the annual guide to innovative sustainability solutions. Sustainia100 identifies the leading organisations that tackle some of the most difficult challenges and to contribute to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, evaluated by independent sustainability experts from 20 international research organizations including Yale University, WWF, Acumen, and the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The fashion industry is experiencing, first-hand, the detrimental impact that economic and environmental challenges are having on the source of much of its premium raw materials. The current landscape is unsustainable. I saw an opportunity where a collective movement of design, fashion, ethics, business, environmental activism and individual consumer choice could come together to do good and make a difference.

With your support, I am proud to be spearheading systemic change. Thank you for joining me and I look forward to continuing our journey in building an aspirational company to do good.

Read our feature on Sustainia100 here

Nancy Johnston- Socialpreneur, CEO & Founder - Tengri