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Tengri: Sustainable Style and Craftsmanship

Updated: Jun 8, 2019

Yak in the wild. (Photo credit to Tengri)

At The Suitstainable Man, we like to tell stories of how different brands are at the forefront in advocating the dynamics between sustainability and craftsmanship.

Needless to say, some of them are rather mind-blowing; like the one I will be sharing with you all today.

To begin with, in the piece on London Craft Week 2019, I briefly mentioned the work of TENGRI as a brand that has a strong ethos in sustainable craftsmanship.

I touched on how it collaborates with brands to create high-quality garments and shoes using only the finest materials from rural Mongolia, as well as how it aims to counter the wasteful Mongolian cashmere industry; but I didn't really go further than that.

As a continuation of the original article, I will be addressing tengri's work in greater depth in this article, as well as providing my input on what Tengri’s market positioning would mean for sustainable craftsmanship as a whole. Enjoy.

As a London-based design/ lifestyle social enterprise, the House of Tengri is a pioneering heritage brand that builds on technological innovation, British design and, craftsmanship.

By itself, it creates exclusive (and timeless) products using natural fibers sourced from remote corners of the world, namely rural Mongolia, where the cashmere and yak herders are located.

At first glance, you may feel like this is nothing out of the ordinary, especially considering brands (and NGOs) like these are getting more and more popular.

This is, however, until we realize that the uniqueness of Tengri is how it aims to provide a better living condition for the Mongolian herders, as well as to reshape high fashion ultimately.

Now, in order to better understand the work of Tengri and how it came to this mission, we should first look at how disastrous the Mongolian cashmere industry has been over the years.

First off, the whole situation has to do with how cashmere products are popularized around the globe for its fiber properties; and as you may know, this ultimately has transformed cashmere from an item of luxury into a common good.

In fact, due to the increasing demand for such garments, the Mongolian government has been actively subsidizing its cashmere industries; and thus the population of these farmed goats has been rising exponentially as a result. (To be precise, its cashmere production has at least doubled between 2005 and 2015.)

This was for the worse, unfortunately, since there is just not enough pasture land to meet such needs, along with the fact that cashmere goats are infamous for grazing the top of grass rather than eating from the roots; and that just prevents the land to regenerate sufficiently.

All in all, this simply translates into rapid desertification in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.

To make things worse, it is not only the environment which is severely damaged through this process, but also the indigenous communities that depend on the wellbeing of the environment to make a living.

And this is where Tengri comes in.

A domestic yak at Yamdrok Lake. (Photo credits to Dennis Jarvis)

Rather than focusing on cashmere, Nancy Johnston, founder of Tengri, came up with this brilliant idea that these nomadic herders should switch production into yak fibers.

'Yak is an indigenous animal. Its fiber is as soft as cashmere, it's warmer than Merino... But what's new about it is that there has never been a global demand, and also the perception of Yak is that it is not a valuable fiber;' Nancy comments.

Indeed, given how yaks are mostly populated in extreme climate conditions (-40c - 40c), their fiber not only is breathable and thermal-regulating but also water-repellent and hypoallergenic.

Hence, taking advantage of yaks' incredible fiber properties and the fact that it is woven by the world-renowned Yorkshire Textiles, Tengri has been able to marketize the luxurious fiber in a premium price point, which could fundamentally benefit every stakeholder along the supply chain.

Needless to say, this gives the herders sufficient incentive to focus on small-scale yak fiber production that would hopefully allow the habitat to restore itself in the long run.

Huntsman jacket made with Tengri Noble Yarns. (Photo credit to Tengri)

On the other side of the token, for us consumers, the brand certainly (or at least attempts to) advocates a clear message that we should 'buy less but better'. However, sustainable craftsmanship often comes at a price, and this is no exception.

For example, the limited edition Goodyear-welted shoes which Tengri had Joseph Cheaney produce start at £800; while a crew neck sweater could cost anywhere in between £495 and £2075.

Meanwhile, for us sartorial people, a jacket made with Tengri Noble Yarns by Huntsman (Huntsman has the exclusive right to make jackets out of Khangai yak) is priced at £11000, according to Huntsman's Campbell Carey.

(To be fair, given the hopsack weave fabric has a weight of 400gsm and is available in undyed silver or natural colouring and eco-friendly dyes, it makes a jacket that is suitable all year-round. But at the same time, as I said, there are plenty of alternatives at a cheaper price point as well.)

And this leads to two problematic issues which I think may occur down the road.

First of all, I fear that despite Tengri's whole-hearted intentions, yak garments would be exclusive to a limited amount of people at the end of the day given its price point.

While herders, fashion designers, artisans, as well as manufacturers would surely be rewarded by the profit they could make from these products, the items are certainly not for ordinary people who have just started investing in better quality clothing.

Additionally, say the bespoke yak jacket from Huntsman as mentioned before - even given its vast range of properties - is not something regular consumers would consider, since there are much more affordable fabrics on the market (e.g. H&S Crispaire - known for its breathability - or Loro Piana's Storm System - known for its water-repelling ability etc.)

Hence, unfortunately, it might end up being another novelty item like vicuña rather than being approachable enough for the public to really 'buy less but more'.

And this leads to a second problem which I think could happen — what would the environmental implications be now that the herders are harvesting yak fibers rather than cashmere?

The starting point of this thought is that just like cashmere goats, yaks could be overbred now that people in the trade industry realize the potential profit they could earn from the latter.

To add onto that, even if yaks are less threatening in the sense of biodiversity since they are indigenous (cashmere goats, actually, are not indigenous), any attempt to increase the population of a certain species would affect the ecosystem in some way or another.

Nonetheless, it is also a problem that Tengri acknowledges which could take place.

Thus in response, Tengri works with the aforementioned nomadic herder families, conservation, as well as wildlife experts and governments to ensure their growth and profit is not achieved in expense of the landscape and its people, animals, and wild plants; and this is all under the Tengri Nature Conservancy Programme.

And I have confidence in Tengri that they would do well in this.

All in all, I must say Tengri is actually doing a lot of great deeds behind the scene.

In addition to combating environmental degradation and improving the conditions of Mongolian herders, Tengri is also collaborating with others within the trade industry to explore the future of textiles.

Clearly, then, it all comes back to the question of whether you are willing to pay more for sustainability — sustainable craftsmanship, sustainable style, and sustainable textile trade.

Looking forward to see more from Tengri.

To learn more about how pasture degradation threatens Mongolia's cashmere industry, check out this article by Tim Ferry.

For more in-depth information on how the value chain of the Mongolian Cashmere Industry operates, check out this review made for the United States Agency for International Development.

Finally, to learn more about Tengri's business model, click here.


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