Saving Mongolia

Herder tribes have ruled the majestic steppes of Mongolia for thousands of years. Picture: Tengri.

Herder tribes have ruled the majestic steppes of Mongolia for thousands of years. Picture: Tengri.


Most ethical labels want to change the world but few have had as much impact as Tengri, a British knitwear brand made in the UK using Mongolian yak wool. What began as a plan to revivify the failing livelihoods of nomadic herdsmen has transformed the ecology, the culture, even the politics of Mongolia and beyond.

Tengri - meaning “pantheon of sky gods” in Mongolian - was founded in 2013 when Nancy Johnston, former charity worker and inveterate traveller, found herself living with nomadic yak herders in the Khangai mountains.

“On the first morning, the family we were staying with gave us tea without milk,” recalls Johnston. 

Mortified, the mother explained that their yaks had all died, and that they were surviving - and saving for their daughter’s education - by working for another family, living on a pound a day. Herder tribes have ruled the majestic steppes of Mongolia for thousands of years; for a nomadic family to live this way would have been unheard of even a decade ago. 

What Johnston discovered, on talking further, was a landscape ravaged by climate change and herds of indigenous animals unable to survive. Between 1999 and 2005, for example, the yak population dropped by half, from 800,000 to 400,000. And the element making everything a whole lot worse? Cashmere. “I had to ask, how does this little goat cause so much harm?” says Johnston.

Herder tribes have ruled the majestic steppes of Mongolia for thousands of years. Picture: Tengri.

Herder tribes have ruled the majestic steppes of Mongolia for thousands of years. Picture: Tengri.

Mongolia produces a lot of cashmere but it’s a commodity without security. When prices crashed due to a flood of lower quality fibres three years ago (remember when you were suddenly able to afford a cashmere jumper?), herders were forced to buy more goats to make up the shortfall.

More goats mean more grazing on already stricken terrain - and cashmere goats, while pretty, are not kind. “The goats are non-indigenous.,” says Johnston. “While yaks chew grass from the roots up, goats pull from the root and kill the plants. Their little hooves dig up the ground.”

Cashmere goats currently make up 60 per cent of all Mongolian livestock. The results have been devastating - to Mongolia’s environment, to its animals and to its people. In the past 30 years, 600,000 former herders have moved to the capital Ulaanbaatar. 

“Mongolia is the world’s second largest supplier of luxury fabrics in the world,” snaps Johnston. “It feeds into a 4bn euro cashmere market, which feeds into a 60 bn luxury global goods market. And these people are living on a pound a day? That doesn’t make sense.”

Yak were used historically for milk and meat; the wool was a by-product until Johnston decided to take it in hand.

It helps that it is, in itself, quite a remarkable product. “It’s as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino,” enthuses Johnston. “It’s odour, electro-static and water-resistant, organic, hypoallergenic, machine washable. It’s a miracle fibre. [As an alternative to cashmere] it was a no-brainer.”

Cocoa, tan, silver and platinum: the colours of the Khangai yak mirror the landscape. Picture: Tengri.

Cocoa, tan, silver and platinum: the colours of the Khangai yak mirror the landscape. Picture: Tengri.

And this was especially true of the Khangai yak once owned by the herder family Johnston was visiting, now the source of her Khangai Noble Fibres and Noble Yarns. Minerals in the ground create colours of warm cocoa and tan and rare, valuable silver and platinum, mirroring the animals' haunting landscape.

“And, because the ecosystem has not only plus and minus 50 seasonal temperatures but also daily micro-fluctuations, these animals create very soft fibres - softer than all the other yaks in Mongolia,” says Johnston, proudly.

If anything was going to help stop the march of cashmere goats across the steppes, it was the yak. After a pitstop in Britain to thrash out ideas with like-minded friends, Johnston flew back to Mongolia with her life savings and, as she puts it, “bought a ton of yak.”

“I literally didn’t know what I was doing,” she laughs. “I’d read about Divine Chocolate, which pioneered a fair trade model in which the growers are part of the business. So I said to the herders, ‘without you, I can’t make this grow. Let’s set this up as a joint venture.’” The fair trade model resonated intimately with the herders: “In nomadic society, it’s part of the culture that, if you have something, you share,” says Johnston. “It doesn’t make sense for one person to be more well off than another - so a fair trade deal made sense.”

Tengri’s plan covers both income and vicissitudes. “We give the herders a deposit in winter even before any materials are available,” explains Johnston.  “Then, when spring comes, whatever yield they produce, we purchase it on a premium. “The financial security [the deposit provides] makes a huge difference. It helps them with climactic disaster resiliency.”

Because climate disaster - in the form of storms and weather extremes - is an everyday reality for the Mongolian herder. Two years ago, hit by a vicious winter, between 10 to 20 million yaks died and up to 30,000 families lost their livelihoods. Not Tengri’s cooperatives. Using the deposit to provide a simple measure which they, until then, had not been able to afford, the herders bought hay for their animals to keep them warm at night. “There were no casualties,” says Johnston, quietly.

Nancy Johnston signs the contract with the leader of the cooperatives. Picture: Tengri.

Nancy Johnston signs the contract with the leader of the cooperatives. Picture: Tengri.

Back in the UK, Johnston sought ways to turn yak into yarn. “It was very organic,” she admits. “I just zeroed in on the best makers of the best products, Yorkshire and Scottish mills who have been knitting and weaving since the 16th century,”

And so Mongolian yak wool arrived in the north of England. “In all these heritage crafts, factories are slowly closing,” says Johnston. “In working with nomadic Mongolian culture, with its own heritage, I also found myself working with cultural preservation in the UK.”

It means that, when someone picks a product by Tengri, they are encountering a unique item that combines British craftsmanship with a philosophy of globally-orientated ethics (when Tengri starts to pull in a profit, the herders will get a share of that too).

Pair all this with striking, contemporary designs, created with brands such as Huntsman and Harry Stedman, it’s an unbeatable mix. 

One of Tengri’s most significant partners is luxury bed company Savoir, a collaboration set up in response to a common problem of fibre production: waste. 

“We comb each yak, under the belly and chin, once a year,” says Johnston. “It’s hand combed so you only source 100 grams - but only the top 10 per cent have the microscopic properties to spin into yarn. 

“When you talk sustainable fashion, nobody talks about the waste of yarns at source,” she points out. “When you process the fibres and yarns, you get 75 to 90 per cent waste stream. But these are precious fibres. You can’t let 90 per cent go to waste.”

What to do with that 90 per cent came, serendipitously, when Johnson chanced upon Savoir, first created for The Savoy in 1905. Savoir prides itself on using natural materials, from curled Latin American horse tail and British lamb wool - as well as Mongolian cashmere. 

Soft as cashmere, warmer than merino: yak hair is a miracle fibre. Picture: Tengri.

Soft as cashmere, warmer than merino: yak hair is a miracle fibre. Picture: Tengri.

So Johnston walked into the Savoir shop and asked: “What about lower grade yak fibre?” Today, a yak hair-stuffed bed sits in the Royal Suite of The Savoy hotel, promising a night that will “transcend all levels of comfort” - and solving the problem of excess yak fibre.

Tengri’s success has been rapid and exponential. “We started with 298 families,” says Johnston, proudly. “Now, in three years, we’ve expanded to 4,500 families. By increasing the value of yak, we’ve increased the income of herder families.” 

Every year, Tengri sponsors a yak festival. “Before communism, younger people would meet at festivals. They’d lost that tradition. I thought, I bet the herders don’t know what happens to the yak fibre. So we set up a fashion show, with music, a yak parade. We turned it into a cultural event.” Within three days of organising it, 1,5000 people turned up.

Exposure in the world's press means that the Mongolian government, for the first time ever, decided to acknowledge herders’ land and herding rights. “[The area we work in] is now protected land as a Green Zone, celebrating the yak and their herders,” says Johnston.

And, as news of Tengri’s success spread, other communities started approaching Johnston. “The camel herders told us the numbers of camels were declining due to motor vehicles. Could we introduce camel hair to our supply chain?”

“Then it went to all these other communities around the world, the Himalayas, South America, asking us to do the same. What started as a yak story is fast becoming a luxury lifestyle brand that specialises in making amazing products form natural indigenous fibres. That’s the paradigm shift i want to push forward,” says Johnston.

Each Tengri item takes between 18 and 24 months to make. “First, you harvest the fibre in spring and summer; then it gets hand sorted, carted and cleaned, spun into yarn, designed and manufactured,” says Johnston.

Yak is combed once a year and hand sorted. Picture: Tengri.

Yak is combed once a year and hand sorted. Picture: Tengri.

Most sweaters need about 700 grams of yak hair; it takes seven yaks to make one sweater - meaning that they’re not cheap. The Mariner sweater, for example, created with Harry Stedman, costs a cool £750. Johnston is unfazed. 

“This is not a mass market product. We look at every aspect to make sure the supply chain is as ethical and as responsible as it can be, and that all the yarns are sourced and created ethically,” she says. “Plus, to be fair, there’s a lot of people to pay along the way. I honestly don’t see how any item of clothing can cost between £10 and £40.”

According to a survey by the Green-Gold project, climate change has led to a 4 degree Fahrenheit rise in average temperatures in Mongolia, 3 more than the rest of the world. The grass is thinner, there is less rain; 2,000 rivers have dried up, plants and animals are at risk of extinction.

“Mongolia is one of the most highly impacted countries in the world and it’s now at an irreversible tipping point,” says Johnston. “If nothing is done in the next two to three years, it’s at risk from desertification. The agro-economists we work with have calculated that, if we work diligently, for the next 5 years, there is a chance [we can help turn things around].

Mongolia could hardly have found more committed supporters. “We care very much,” admits Johnston. “For me, always, the question is, what is my impact? We have measures on socio economic impact, income. We work with environmental agencies out there, the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Tourism … 

Every quarter, the herders monitor the soil and collect data. And this, for Johnston and for Mongolia, is key. You can buy yak fibre, raise incomes, organise festivals, but without a steady climate, undisturbed by extreme weathers, life is a lot harder.

“People talk about planting trees to absorb carbon but that can take years,” says Johnston. “Grasslands are fast and natural. Nobody’s looking at that. There are only four grassland eco-systems left in the world and they’re still unprotected. From a climate change perspective, those grassland eco-systems have enormous potential for carbon sequestration. And the people who have the most opportunity to challenge that and change that are the nomadic people. Tengri’s trade enables that.”

Land, animals, people; sustainable and fairshare business models; innovation: the ideas encapsulated in Tengri’s manifesto are made concrete in every aspect of its operation. “Tengri is so much more than a label,” says Johnston. “It’s a global collective movement.”

It's no exaggeration. The sky gods would be pleased.