Another day, another story about the negative impact of the fashion industry. This time it comes from the Tibetan plateau of Mongolia and northern India, where rapid industrialisation and desertification – chiefly caused by intensive grazing of cashmere goats – is threatening the nomadic way of life and future of wild animals.

In fact, a 2013 study published in Conservation Biology, found that many native wild animals in Central Asia are being driven to the edge of survival by the growing multi-billion dollar cashmere industry.

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Economic motivations link Western fashion preferences for cashmere to land use in Central Asia, the report noted, adding that “this penchant for stylish clothing, in turn, encourages herders to increase livestock production which affects persistence of over six endangered large mammals … in these remote, arid ecosystems.”

In fact, unsustainable levels of livestock have significantly reduced the amount of land for animals to graze across the Tibetan plateau, Mongolia and northern India. Conservation Biology’s report found that intensive grazing of cashmere goats and other environmentally damaging livestock had led to the consumption of up to 95 per cent of grassland on the plateau – leaving just five per cent for wild animals to graze, threatening their survival.

A potential solution doesn’t lie far away. In fact, it comes in the form of Mongolia’s indigenous yaks. As Nancy Johnston, founder of a British knitwear brand Tengri, explains: “Noble yarn made from yaks is a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to cashmere. It is as soft as cashmere, warmer than merino wool, breathable, odour-resistant, hypoallergenic  and less prone to balling and fluffing than other fibres.”

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After living with a herder family in Mongolia, Johnston launched Tengri in 2014 “to preserve the Mongolian landscape, protect its wildlife and support the nomadic herders’ way of life, threatened by rapid industrialisation and land degradation”.

The London-based company produces knitwear and yarn using yak fibres sourced from herder families in the Mongolian mountains. Its aim is to offer herders a sustainable alternative to cashmere production. Cashmere goats are non-indigenous, domesticated animals bred for their fibres. (With only the finest fibres making it to market, the majority are treated as waste.) Yaks, by contrast, are indigenous, their fibres a by-product of herders’ breeding. Tengri creates yarn and fabrics from this by-product, producing three times as much in one metric tonne of fibre as cashmere.

The environmental benefit of sourcing fibres from yaks, not cashmere goats, is obvious. By using yaks living symbiotically in the ecosystem, thus allowing plants and other wildlife to regenerate and thrive, herders help to protect and preserve Mongolia’s biodiversity.

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Then there’s the social and economic benefit. Tengri sources fibres directly from co-operatives representing 1,500 nomadic herder families in Mongolia, and enables them to export goods directly to the international market without intermediary or third-party support. It pays premium prices for fibres, sharing profits as part of its 'fair share' business model. According to Tengri, international trade in yak fibres has helped increase herder household income by 50 per cent. The Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation reported in 2014 that it had led to Mongolia’s government granting new land and rights to herder families.

Tengri’s garments may be pricy – a knitted sweater costs £950 – but choosing cheaper alternatives such as cashmere means others pay the true cost. Tengri shows that fashion shouldn’t cost the Earth – and its story is well worth yakking about.

This innovation is part of Sustainia100 – a guide to 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The guide is produced annually by Sustainia, working with public and private organisations to create a more sustainable tomorrow by building on the solutions available today. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at Discover more @sustainia and #100solutions

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