Attending the first ever RESP meeting

Nancy Johnston, Tengri's CEO & Founder, reflects on a significant meeting of minds to preserve natural capital.

I was thrilled to be invited to attend the first global meeting of the Responsible Ecosystems Sourcing Platform (RESP) at Burberry’s Global Headquarters in London in April. RESP is a non-profit and member-based organisation founded by some of the world’s top luxury brands.

How did I, a former charity worker, someone devoted to helping people, start a fledgling fashion brand and end up in the same room with some of the top global luxury fashion brands? I am still reflecting on this. 

More intriguingly, the event was not about luxury fashion (thank goodness!). The meeting was to discuss bio-diversity and land management issues – and their impact on people. Since I have dedicated my life’s work to helping people, I was struck to see how equally passionate attendees at this event were about preserving our natural capital. Yet equal to that passion was a feeling of frustration.

RESP2015.jpg

Part of the reason for Tengri’s invitation was to participate in the working stream that focuses on woollen fibres. Tengri started out as an idea to help Mongolian nomadic herders by directly purchasing yak fibres from cooperatives of herder families, set up with the support of the Swiss Development Agency for Cooperation (SDC). This NGO has supported greater democratisation and sustainable socio-economic development in Mongolia for the past 50 years.

With the amazing support of my friends and a wider network of caring people, I figured out how to go from purchasing the raw fibre directly, to processing it, spinning it into yarns, weaving it into fabrics, to working with designers, knitters, tailors and manufacturers and making clothes.

Many of the issues faced by premium and luxury brands are rooted in the supply chain. Problems include an inherent lack of transparency, honesty, integrity and traceability from the source of the raw materials to the fabric production before top fashion houses purchase it. 

How can fashion brands really be accountable when they can’t be sure what they are purchasing? And how can we create change and ensure what we buy doesn’t damage the earth, animals or people who live in it?

I think we all have a part to play.

In the case of cashmere, our desire for luxury softness fuels this much-desired fibre, driving demand to unsustainable levels. This results in other wild animals being killed – the ultimate "fashion victims”. Mongolia and China are the largest suppliers and producers of cashmere, yet cashmere goats have consumed as much as up to 95% of forage across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and India, leaving just 5% for wild animals. As much as 70% of Mongolia’s rangelands are at risk from permanent desertification

The knock-on effect of this desertification is infertile land, affecting the livelihoods and nomadic way of life of thousands of herder families in Mongolia.

While the work of RESP is still in its early stages, the meeting ended with concrete measures to work on traceability. Tengri was invited to participate in the international working group on wool fibres, to which we shall contribute with much energy and enthusiasm. 

It’s still early days, but as more than just a fashion label, we thank you for joining our journey and helping to be an active force for change.

Mongolian inspiration

We invited knitwear designer Carlo Volpi to design our first collection. He shares the story behind this collaboration, and how a trip to Mongolia provided further inspiration.

Until a couple of weeks ago, Mongolia was a country I had flown over, seen in random pictures in various magazines, and associated with the infamous Chinghis Khan. Never in my life did I think I’d go there, for the simple reason that I didn’t have any friends who lived there and didn’t know much about the country – other than it is three times the size of France, it gets very cold in winter, and nomadic herders live there in tent-like houses called “ger”.

Visiting a herder family in the Arkhangai region of Mongolia, 11th August 2014

Visiting a herder family in the Arkhangai region of Mongolia, 11th August 2014

I met Nancy through a friend, and during our first meeting we discussed her aspirations and vision for Tengri. I liked the idea of working with a new brand and helping to shape its identity whilst using my skills to improve the lives of the Mongolian nomadic herders. At the same time this was an opportunity to work with yak, a fibre that I really hadn’t used in the past.

For this capsule collection, I decided to look at the theme of warriors. Mongolians are very resilient people, strong-minded and physically able to live through the country’s very cold winters. I thought about what it must be like to be a warrior in our cultures, both Mongolian and Western, and I really wanted to merge the two worlds – the one of traditions, folklore, epic Mongolian landscapes, and the fast-paced, ever-changing, overcrowded melting pot of London life.

At first, I found working with yak fibre very challenging. Having trained as a textile designer, I’ve always used colour as my strongest weapon. Yak only comes in four natural colours, one of each, cream, is mixed with the other three in the spin, so in actual fact there are only three colours of yarn available. So far, yak has been used to create some lightweight sweaters in similar gauges and with very simple designs, so even the yarn available is very plain. The same applies to the woven and felt fabrics that have been produced until now.

Although this sounds very restricting, it also provides a blank canvas, a big lump of clay that can be moulded in any way, shape or form, and this is what we have started to do with our first collection. I really wanted the knits to take centre stage and use the wonderful qualities of yak wool to create something simple, understated but strong and resilient at the same time.

Tengri yak yarn

Tengri yak yarn

Tengri yak yarn cable sweater knit samples

Tengri yak yarn cable sweater knit samples

Visiting Mongolia made a huge difference. I was really impressed with the beautiful landscapes and culture that the country has to offer, but more than that, I was really impressed with the people we met, especially the nomadic herders and their animals. They all seemed very genuine, open-hearted individuals, but very quiet and shy at the same time. Their animals, especially the yak, were very similar: they looked majestic and had a very big presence, but they were also incredibly shy.

Yak with a herder in the Arkhanghai region of Mongolia, 11th August 2014

Yak with a herder in the Arkhanghai region of Mongolia, 11th August 2014

Carlo knitting a sample piece with Tengri Khangai yak  yarn

Carlo knitting a sample piece with Tengri Khangai yak yarn

Carlo's knitting machine in his studio

Carlo's knitting machine in his studio

Carlo's sketches: cable sweaters for the Warrior collection

Carlo's sketches: cable sweaters for the Warrior collection

Hand-knitted sweater made with our Khangai noble yarns

Hand-knitted sweater made with our Khangai noble yarns

Work in progress…

Work in progress…

…Tengri yak wool cable sweater

…Tengri yak wool cable sweater

The finished article!

The finished article!

It was very important for me to translate this aspect in our collection, to show strength with vulnerability and simplicity. All the knits have strong, symmetrical textures inspired by medieval armour that become soft, almost undetectable, stitch structures. Our shorts mark a new beginning for yak fabric, from traditional felt to sportswear. For these pieces I was inspired by the shorts that boxers wear in the ring: I thought it would be great to use yak to make these trousers as it really represents the essence of Tengri. Our coats and trousers are the first investigations into colour and what can be achieved with the simplicity of yak felt.

Carlo's sketches for Tengri's debut collection

Carlo's sketches for Tengri's debut collection

Carlo working with London tailor Udo, whose team helped bring the collection to life

Carlo working with London tailor Udo, whose team helped bring the collection to life

So far, Tengri has grown faster than the speed of fashion! All of a sudden our small three-person team turned into a wider group of individuals doing all sorts of things. This collection marks Tengri’s first steps into redefining yak fabrics and knitwear, a long journey that in the future will see us experimenting with technology, new techniques and knitting methods.

We’re excited to bring the collection alive in the video. More than just a label, Tengri is a collective movement built by people pioneering a new heritage. We're a London-based social enterprise built on technological innovation, British design and craftsmanship, and a 100% transparent supply chain. This collective combines conservation, innovation, technology and ethical business. We’d love to know what you think.

Tengri design

Our knitwear designer Carlo Volpi explains the process...

It's extremely chaotic and painful, but always quite prolific. I love the hard work and at the end take a big breath, have a fag while I look at everything and think, "this time we managed it!"

I usually start developing ideas from an image, a sentence, a thought... After that everything else starts falling into place. More ideas come, I might read the right article or stumble across the perfect exhibition that inspires my work.

It's very important to find a context for your work and not just be bound to create something that looks good. There needs to be a message, something to stimulate the mind rather than just the eyes. For most designers, this is the most challenging aspect of the work because it requires total honesty and a willingness to look at and know oneself deeply.

I love making and collecting images. Most of my sketching is done through making rather than drawing -- usually I sketch ideas after I've made something, or I just let the making process, the materials and the yarn dictate what the work will look like.

Good design does more than respect people and the environment. It also shows our humanity, the designer's passion and love of their craft. These days we are almost forced to buy mass-produced items that say nothing about the identity of the designer or the skills of the maker. I completely believe it is up to the people who design and make to educate consumers about this, and that's what we are trying to do with Tengri.

Tengri 'Warrior' knitwear sketches. www.tengri.co.uk

Tengri 'Warrior' knitwear sketches. www.tengri.co.uk

Tengri 'Warrior' knitwear sketches. www.tengri.co.uk

Tengri 'Warrior' knitwear sketches. www.tengri.co.uk

Is Fairtrade really fair?

The clothes I wear, the coffee I drink, the food I eat – even that little bit of cheeky chocolate – are all labelled 'fairtrade'. When I buy fairtrade, I walk away feeling good that I just did my bit for the world. But what am I really buying? It seems as though fairtrade has become a commodity – just a way to increase the price and sell to the growing eco-friendly market.

I can't help but ask the question: is fairtrade really good enough?

When I decided to create a socially minded business I took a long, hard look at the fairtrade industry. I saw images of smiling, clean people happily working away in factories – all possible because of the nice man or woman who made it a point to pay them just that little bit more than their competitor.

But how do we define fair? Here we are sitting in our comfy homes, living our comfy lives and that person, half a world away, is working and living in conditions that no one in the developed world could stomach, for a wage that a penniless student wouldn't even get out of bed for. The conditions in marketing material tell me that things are probably better than other local factories in the same industry, but the situation isn't even close to fair.
Shouldn't the factory workers be given the same opportunities and salaries as I am? Shouldn't they have the right to travel, start a business, live in a city, or to earn a wage that can afford the kind of home, consumer electronics, or education that I can? 

We know that the world is not fair, but can fairness really exist in a first-world business that employs a third-world workforce? For some businesses, it might be enough to pay their international suppliers a slightly more competitive wage than the status quo. Consumers may also be content to pay just that little bit more for a slice of humanity. For me, as the founder and CEO of Tengri, it wasn't good enough. During my visits to factories in Mongolia, I was flabbergasted by the fact that much of the animal fibre industry (cashmere, camel, sheep and yak wool) is fairtrade and is in fact sold to high-end designer labels. Much of it is shipped to European countries and America, where it is processed and sold in the luxury goods market. If these labels claim to be fairtrade, then why is the whole of Mongolia's animal fibre industry still reliant on government handouts to subsist in the face of a thriving export industry? Why are NGOs still needed? I began to wonder if this is true of many developing countries and the whole of the textile market and fashion industry. Did I uncover a dirty hidden truth? 

While in Mongolia, I had a chance to hear from the herders. They said that they never really had a chance to see what the fruits of their labour were. The very people who were supplying the raw materials never saw the end goods, nor would they ever be able to afford any of the products in their lifetime – or several lifetimes. 

A woman herder told me "In the countryside, you don't need money to live... you just need the land and animals". The irony was, that she was working for money to save for their young daughter's future education. I had a pit in my stomach when she told me this, because I know what I paid for my education in the west. I had a deep sinking feeling that what she saved would never be enough to buy a decent education, nor would she be offered the same opportunities, just because she was born in Mongolia. 

Nancy and the little Mongolian girl. www.tengri.co.uk

To me, this was the nail in the coffin for fairtrade. Yes, it's a start, but the fact of the matter is, this situation is not 'fair'.

I asked myself: How can I make things fair? How can I be fairtrade and be equitable in business? These questions plagued me and with that came another set of questions: Is it not fair to share the business profits equally, irrespective of currencies or country? Is being fair sharing my skills and knowledge rather than using them for commercial gain? life can't just be about give and take, sometimes it is about creating and giving back--so that is what I set out to do.

Tengri was created to go further than fairtrade, eco-friendly fashion. We won't just donate a percentage of our profits to help Mongolia. We won't just pay our suppliers a little bit more or organise humanitarian aid. We won't set up factories in Mongolia to make our clothes. Instead, we will partner with existing small and medium enterprises to help shape the market and grow. We will design our collection, based on all things Mongolian, inspired by the spirit of Mongolia and its people. We will work with them to help create and export the best of what Mongolia has to offer. We will share our profits, fairly and squarely with the cooperatives, herder families and manufacturing companies in Mongolia. We will allow them to use their profits as they see fit. We are not here to tell Mongolia what to do or treat our partners like a charity case. We are here to work as a collective partnership in the spirit of fairshare and show a little slice of Mongolia to the world.

Tengri is a culmination of my lifetime's passion and commitment to make a better world. I believe there is a place where design, fashion, business, individual consumers and collective action can truly make a difference to the environment, the animals and the livelihoods of nomadic people who live in it.