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SNF Global Conference 2024 Summary | Beijing, China

Posted by Katy Edwards

Make it Last

The first Sustainable Natural Fibres (SNF) Global Conference, aimed at advancing sustainability and responsible practices within the world’s natural fibres sector, took place in Beijing, China on the 11th and 12th April 2024 with resounding success. Organised by the International Cooperation Committee on Animal Welfare (ICCAW) with support from the SFA and the Cashmere and Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI), this international and collaborative event welcomed nearly 400 in person participants from a diverse and global community.

Covering the length and breadth of the natural fibres supply chain, the SNF Global Conference offered a platform for international speakers to highlight key topics and trends affecting the industry as a mechanism for opening global discussions and networking opportunities. With participants ranging from herders and farmers to producers and manufacturers, brands and retailers to NGOs and governmental bodies, this two-day event hosted a series of plenary sessions on the first day, with breakout meetings and consultations taking place on the morning of the second day and concluding with a special event hosted at Beijing’s U-Town Shopping Centre.

Insightful Plenary Sessions & Panel Discussions

The first day of the SNF Global Conference saw an impressive schedule, with an Opening Ceremony that included welcome speeches by 5 representatives from local government and NGOs. Immediately following was a series of 3 standout Presentations that set the stage for key areas of discussion within the Chinese natural fibres sector:

  • Study on the Status Quo & Development Trend of Cashmere & Wool in China
  • Present Situation & Developing Trend of Sericulture Industry in China
  • Sustainable Development Practice in Feather & Down Industry

 

Important perspectives and insights were then brought to the forefront during the main part of the day, the Presentations & Panel Discussions, which encompassed 4 dedicated sessions each hosted by an expert chair and collectively saw 26 speakers welcomed to the stage.

Split across 2 sessions, the Global Brands & Retailers Presentations & Panel Discussions saw many SFA brand members and partners taking part in important conversations. Chris Gaffney, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin, gave an engaging presentation on the history of the brand and their sustainability journey towards 100% certified cashmere. Erdenetuya Mangaljav, Founder of Sor Cashmere, presented an overview of the SFA-Certified Primary Processor and provided insightful information on the Mongolian cashmere and wool industry to all those present. Members of the first panel were asked to provide one sentence or word on the conference’s theme of Make it Last – their answers included the ideas of togetherness, connection, synchronicity and flexibility of all within the supply chain to create a more sustainable future for natural fibres.

Global Brands & Retailers Session One Panel Members:

  • Chris Gaffney, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin
  • Matteo Farinoni, Raw Material Purchasing Referent at Loro Piana
  • Man Lam, CEO of M.ORO Cashmere
  • Brian Yu, General Manager of Artwell
  • Cheng Xudong, Chairman of Chifeng Dongli Cashmere
  • Zhao Xinhao, Deputy General Manager of the Consinee Group
  • Fabio Garzena, President of CCMI

Global Brands & Retailers Session Two Panel Members:

  • Tana Dai, General Manager of the Erdos Group
  • Michael Huang, Managing Director of Greater China Region from Brunello Cucinelli
  • Ma Jiangtao, Chairman of YUTENG Cashmere
  • Liu Hongyan, Senior Manager of Corporate Communication at Jnby Design
  • Tsumoto Yoshihiko, Assistant to CEO for East Asia Bloc at Itochu
  • Erdenetuya Mangaljav, Founder of Sor Cashmere

“If you don’t know where the fibre comes from, then you can’t improve the quality.” Chris Gaffney, CEO of Johnstons of Elgin, on the importance of traceability in the supply chain.

“It is rare for me to attend a conference on such a dedicated topic.” Tana Dai, General Manager of the Erdos Group, on the conference’s theme of global natural fibres and sustainability.

The afternoon hosted a unique opportunity during the Herders, Producers & Processors Presentations & Panel Discussions, which brought together a diverse range of speakers that represented herding and farming communities from China, Mongolia, Inner Mongolia, Afghanistan and South Africa. Ronald Lamb, Cashmere & Wool Processing Expert from DAI, gave an insightful talk on the benefits of Afghan cashmere alongside the devastating hardships that the country’s herding communities face day-to-day. Marco Coetzee, General Manager of Mohair South Africa, provided an update to conference attendees on the Mohair industry and their very own sustainability journey.

Herders, Producers & Processors Panel Members:

  • Ganzorig Altangerel, Leader of Mongolia’s “Ashid Munkh Bayn” Herder Cooperative
  • Munkhtsetseg Tumendemberel, Leader of Mongolia’s “Shine Burgaltai” Herder Cooperative
  • Marco Coetzee, General Manager of Mohair South Africa
  • Ronald Lamb, Cashmere & Wool Processing Expert from DAI Global
  • Cara Loomis, Research Analyst at the SFA
  • Sainculuu Amarsanaa, MEL, Partnerships & Communications Manager at SFA Mongolia

“Since childhood, we are taught to protect the land.” Ganzorig Altangerel, Mongolian Herder Cooperative Leader, on their relationship and deep connection with the environment and land around them.

“Climate change has had a significant influence on herders, as small rivers and lakes have dried up leaving little vegetation.” Munkhtsetseg Tumendemberel, Mongolian Herder Cooperative Leader, on the visible changes they have witnessed due to climate change.

The chair for the panel discussion, Chu Xueqin, Campaign Manager at World Animal Protection China, concluded the session with a statement that truly encapsulated the global and collaborative aims of the event, to advance sustainability and responsible practices within the world’s natural fibres sector:

"We are not divided by borders."

Next to present was Eco-Age’s CEO, Harriet Vocking, and Woolmark’s Greater China Senior Manager of Marketing Communications and Sustainability, Holly Ho, who talked about the effects of legislation, such as PEF, within the industry.

Harriet’s presentation shifted the focus of the conference to the connection with the consumer, showcasing many of Eco-Age’s engaging projects and influential activities alongside Woolmark’s Filter by Fabric campaign. Holly provided insightful information on sustainability within the Chinese market, followed by a deep dive into consumer insights and Woolmark’s recent projects within China.

“It is possible, if we make enough noise, to make change.” Harriet Vocking, CEO of Eco-Age.

Concluding the first day of the SNF Global Conference was the Animal Welfare & Certifications Panel Discussion that brought together ICCAW’s Vice President, Ayongxi, SFA’s CEO, Una Jones, RSPCA’s Head of International, Paul Littlefair, and the Deputy Dean of Inner Mongolia’s Academy of Agricultural & Animal Husbandry Sciences, Sun Haizhou, to talk about this significant topic that goes hand-in-hand with the world of animal-derived natural fibres.

“To show ‘this is what we do and how we deal with it’ is crucial to the consumer.” Paul Littlefair on the fundamental connection between natural fibre standards and best practice animal welfare for brands and retailers in the global fashion market.

“We [SFA] initially followed the five freedoms of animal welfare but last year changed to the five domains, which works better with indigenous herders.” Una Jones on the importance of working together with herding communities to improve animal welfare practices.

Engaging Breakout Sessions & Roundtable Consultations

The morning of the second day saw the conference focus on fibre and project specific sessions with 4 dedicated and simultaneous breakout events available for attendees to join. These were:

  • Cashmere & Wool Industry Session
  • Down & Feather Industry Session
  • Silk Industry Session
  • Rangeland Stewardship Council – Global Rangeland Standards & B4L Consultations

SFA’s Head of Standards, Dr. David McElroy, spoke during the Cashmere & Wool Industry Session on the importance of chain of custody and traceability within the animal fibres sector, presenting a case study on the process of SFA & ICCAW certified cashmere. “It is just so inspiring to see so many different people, from different backgrounds, who are passionate about the same things that we are passionate about.” says David following the Cashmere & Wool Session. “There are really big challenges within the world – within the cashmere industry – and to see so many people who are interested to solve these problems, and have so many ideas to do so, is great.”

Running alongside was the Rangeland Stewardship Council – Global Rangeland Standards & B4L Consultations Session. Hosted by the SFA and UNCCD, the event received support from the GEF-funded STELARR (Sustainable Investments for Large-Scale Rangeland Restoration) Project, which is implemented by IUCN and executed by ILRI. SFA’s CEO, Una Jones, begun proceedings with an introduction to the Rangeland Stewardship Council (RSC) and its mission to advance the sustainable management of the world’s rangelands.

The first part of the session provided a platform for a range of expert speakers to present on different inputs and outputs relevant to the RSC, including land degradation neutrality, animal welfare, value chains, One Health, and more.

RSC Session Speakers:

  • Sarah Toumi, Donor Relations & Private Sector Engagement at UNCCD
  • Peter Hughes, Head of Sustainable Business Development at Eurofins | BLC
  • Una Jones, CEO of the SFA
  • Fiona Flintan, Senior Scientist Rangelands & Pastoralism at ILRI
  • Paul Littlefair, Head of International at RSPCA
  • Dr. Cara Loomis, Research Analyst for the SFA

After the presentations concluded, guests of the session were invited to break into 2 groups to discuss global indicators for rangeland stewardship and the challenges and opportunities each of these indicators come up against. The main challenges discussed included the use of hazardous materials and pesticides, stocking rates, the economic and social aspects of the rangelands, migratory and grazing patterns, and the importance of herding and indigenous communities in rangeland management.

The session closed with a presentation provided by UNCCD’s Associate Programme Officer, Radhika Jain, on the organisation’s Business for Land (B4L) Strategy. “What asks do you have from UNCCD – organisations like the UN, other international organisations, governmental bodies – and what can we do to facilitate your task?” a question that Radhika posed to those present towards the end of the session. “We have always been ‘what can the private sector do for us?’ but I [UNCCD] think it should be the other way around. We are facilitators for you, so we can all work in a holistic environment.”

Youth Sustainable Forum at U-Town Shopping Centre

During the afternoon of the second day, the SNF Global Conference co-hosted a special event within one of Beijing’s biggest shopping centres, U-Town. The Youth Sustainable Forum focused on providing engaging, consumer-level information from different areas of the natural fibres industry to an audience comprising both conference attendees and members of the general public, beginning with a fashion showcase.

Speakers at the event included Liu Fei, Brand Communication Manager of the Erdos Group, and Lauren Moore, Head of Communications & Sustainability at Mohair South Africa. This forum created a vital connection for the SNF Conference to engage directly with customers and the public to discuss important issues of sustainability and development to generate wider conversation.

Factory Tours of YUTENG & M.ORO Cashmere

On the Saturday directly following the conference, the SFA team and many of the SNF event attendees travelled from Beijing to China’s Hebei province where they had the unique opportunity to visit and tour two cashmere facilities – YUTENG and M.ORO Cashmere. For some, it was their first exposure to the cashmere manufacturing process, with team members from the facilities on hand to provide in-depth information and knowledge into the processes of dehairing, scouring, sorting, spinning, dyeing and more, which took place within the factories. A special thanks to YUTENG and M.ORO Cashmere for organising and hosting this incredible and educational excursion!

Thank you!

As co-organisers and supporters of the conference, the SFA team would like to say a heartfelt thank you to the conference hosts, the International Cooperation Committee on Animal Welfare (ICCAW) of the China Association for the Promotion of International Agricultural Cooperation (CAPIAC), for creating a beautiful and engaging event.

We would also like to thank all of our incredible partners, members and industry friends for their wonderful support both in attending and participating in the many sessions and panels of this two-day event.

We hope that the discussions and conversations that have taken place will help to drive collaboration towards a more sustainable future of the natural fibres sector and foster relationships that will encourage development to Make it Last.

Katy Edwards

SFA MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER

Update: 14 May 2024

What Does Decent Work Mean to Women Herders in Rural Mongolia?

Posted by Katy Edwards

In 2022, on behalf of the SFA, María E. Fernández-Giménez with the assistance of Tugsbuyan Bayarbat, Chantsallkham Jamsranjav and Tungalag Ulambayar hosted a series of participatory workshops with women herders from Mongolia’s Arkhangai and Bayankhongor provinces. Discussing what decent work meant to them, the sessions looked at how women herders relate to their work – characterised by a connection with nature, their herd, the family unit, their community and the wider Mongolian population.

What does decent work mean?

Broadly speaking, it relates to employees earning a sufficient income from the work they do in a fair and safe environment, and while it might have different meanings depending on geography, culture and economic development, the term decent work is somewhat rigid in its definition. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines decent work as “productive work for women and men in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity”, with the four pillars of their Decent Work Agenda  – employment creation, social protection, rights at work, and social dialogue – pivotal in the development of The United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals’ (SDGs); Goal Eight is Decent work and Economic Growth.

Access to decent work is one of the Five Global Principles of the SFA’s Cashmere Standard and ensures ‘fair hiring practices and working conditions, equality in wages, the protection of traditional communities, the prevention of child labour, gender equality and the promotion of health and safety’. The Principle is also guided by the eradication of forced labour, while ensuring equal pay and decision-making roles for women. Developed inline with the ILO’s own definition, the SFA’s Decent Work Principle often applies to communities that live in remote, rural locations which can be a regulatory challenge. However, conversations across the supply chain are important in addressing such challenges, as they capture the realities of herders’ working lives. They also provide vital insight for standards such as the SFA’s by contextualising the nuances of herders’ own definitions of decent work within their day-to-day – something that might not necessarily be captured by international development agencies.

Conversations from the workshops highlighted two overarching themes: the definition of what decent work meant to the women in a practical sense, and how the societal expectations impact the women’s access to it. The facilitators used themes inline with, but not exclusive to, the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda to discuss their definition of decent work. This covered the women’s opinions on meaningful and productive work in healthy and safe environments, as well as freedom from abuse, harassment and discrimination, social protection and security, social dialogue, cooperation and opportunities for professional development and learning.

It’s widely accepted that herding in Mongolia is more than just a livelihood, it’s a way of life that brings meaning, a sense of identity, culture and tradition – it’s an occupation that creates feelings of dignity, pride and purpose – especially when the work is valued and respected by the wider society; an important component of the global understanding of decent work. Discussing the position of herders in modern Mongolia, the participants noted how respect for herders and the herder lifestyle had dwindled in recent years, with young people increasingly opting to live in urban areas in pursuit of life away from rural pastoralism. According to The International Organization for Migration (IOM), this is a countrywide shift, with dramatic rural-to-urban migration raising the capital Ulaanbaatar’s population to almost 1.5 million – half of the entire country’s total population. With this migration, the women feared the loss of their culture and tradition, emphasising a lack of cultural education and a disconnect between those living rurally and in urban environments. The development of a more secure rural economy was just one of many suggestions the women made in reference to not only encouraging people back to the countryside, but also as a means to secure productive work and income year-round from their livestock. They also touched on the prospect of alternative rural employment as another solution. Interestingly, the women intrinsically linked decent work and productivity, raising a further five points that they thought vital to their access to both:

  • Stable and sufficient income from livestock. 
  • Access to the means of production (seasonal pasture lands, water and minerals, shelters and corrals (animal pens) and livestock).
  • Access to the knowledge and the information they needed to work.
  • Fair and timely pay for hired herders.
  • Protection from climate hazards.

It’s important to understand that cashmere is just one of several income streams for Mongolian herders who herd a mix of goats, sheep, cattle, camels and yaks – dependent on their geography. The mixed herds provide a range of produce ranging from cashmere fibre to meat and dairy, and generate seasonal income throughout the year. As Mongolian herders are predominantly reliant on this produce, access to resources and means of production is paramount to their access to decent work year round. A great example of this was discussed by the workshop participants from Arkhangai. The women spoke of their relative success in adding value to their produce through the production of ‘fancy’ aaruul (a traditional Mongolian curd cheese) which they sold directly to customers in the capital and other cities across Mongolia. They keenly noted that aaruul, along with sales from other such value-added dairy products, accounted for roughly 80% of their household income. In a later discussion regarding the production of value-added produce and their access to opportunities for professional development and learning, the women all strongly desired increased access to vocational training, forums and knowledge sharing in order to independently improve the earning potential of their produce.

Another important factor that sits front and centre of both international and more localised decent work agendas is the impact of climate change and the realities of its effect on rural pastoralists. With a changing climate, fragile ecosystems, such as those seen in Mongolia, are already dealing with the brunt of more extreme weather. According to Save the Children, Mongolia is one of the most vulnerable countries to climate change, with a significant rise in dzuds – catastrophic weather events when a drought in the warmer months is followed by extreme temperature drops and snowfall. In the past, dzuds were known to occur once every decade or so, however in recent years they have become much more common. The National Agency of Meteorology and the Environmental Monitoring (NAMEM) of Mongolia reported that as of February 2024, a total of 80% of the country has been in a dzud weather disaster, with iron- / glass-dzud hitting regions covering 58 soums, across 13 provinces of Mongolia. The snow fall, along with the fatally low temperatures, restricts livestocks’ access to food, creating significant challenges for herders. When discussing the impact of dzuds, long term weather forecasts was one way the participants said could help them in their preparations, with the groups all in agreement that such pre-warnings would allow them to stockpile hay for the animals, as well ensuring appropriate access to shelters.

While much of the discussions focused on the welfare of the land and livestock in the herder context, the women also spoke of the challenges they’d experienced with their own and other’s health and safety whilst working – a core component of the Decent Work Agenda. The ILO’s International Labour Standard on occupational safety and health states the importance of how ‘workers must be protected from sickness, disease and injury arising from their employment’. It also understands that this might not be the case for millions of workers worldwide – with some difficulties arising when the lines are blurred between the workplace and home and when income streams are seasonal. Using cashmere as an example, cashmere is harvested in the spring, over a course of a few months. Within that period, tens of millions of goats across the country are harvested for their fibre. This level of intensity can create a number of challenges with respect to health and safety, especially as the home and workplace, as previously mentioned, are one and the same. The women spoke about a number of issues including the importance of ‘safe and healthy working conditions that promote mental wellbeing and limit excess stress’ as well as ‘ensuring the work is appropriate for the ability and age of the person doing it’. The women, especially those from Arkhangai, expressed how taking time away from work and vacations played an important role in the reduction of workplace stress, especially as all the women agreed about the impact of their ‘triple labour burden’ – caring for the livestock, children and the elderly, the processing dairy products and housekeeping. It’s customary for children, especially adolescents, to support their family by helping with milking, cashmere harvesting and the processing of products from the animals, alongside caring for younger siblings. The workshop participants, worryingly, identified how children, especially boys, were increasingly being removed from school too soon in order to do so, thus not finishing their education. With respect to decent work, many of the women mentioned the importance of education for children, especially how the education of their children in soum centres (a community and commercial centres with access to facilities, education and commercial opportunities) played a significant role in their development. Soum centres have dormitories for children to attend school, however if those spaces are full, the women are expected to stay with the children, which was noted to potentially create marital stress. As the family and labour unit are the same, this can often lead to children being educated at home – another addition to the triple labour burden.

Another important factor raised by the participants was how the triple labour burden impacted their ability to access health care, due to time constraints along with a number of other obstacles. Some noted how health insurance was too expensive for them, while most of the women complained about how health care was not readily available, with doctors appointments difficult to obtain. They also discussed how they didn’t have confidence in the training of the bag (a smaller division of the soum) and soum doctors available to them – with many expressing worry about mis-diagnosis and dismissals of their symptoms. This, combined with their remote locations, presented a very real concern for the women, especially with respect to access to vaccinations, regular check ups and other preventative care and screenings.

In the context of community cooperatives and collectives, women across the various groups emphasised the critical need for organisations representing herders’ rights. These organisations would address pressing issues such as the loss of grazing lands, environmental degradation, inadequate access to health and veterinary services, and the absence of preschool facilities in remote rural areas. Particularly, they underscored the necessity for representation specifically tailored to women herders. Due to the triple labour burden the women highlighted the profound social isolation they sometimes experienced. They also expressed a desire for increased opportunities to participate in community and cultural events, seeking avenues for social connection and engagement. There was also a recurrent observation regarding the shift in herder culture towards individualism, which they saw to have eroded traditional forms of community solidarity, collective work, cooperation, and mutual support. While some communities still maintain these traditions, others have experienced a decline, impacting both local and global perspectives on accessing decent work opportunities. These observations underscore the importance of revitalising and preserving communal values to foster more inclusive and sustainable decent work for women herders.

The insights gleaned from discussions between the workshop facilitators and the women herders immediately shed light on something interesting. In terms of the ILO’s approach to decent work, which is categorised under somewhat rigid frameworks, the women herders held a more holistic perspective on what constitutes decent work. From their perspective, decent work relied heavily on the interdependent integration of human, environmental and livestock health and wellbeing.

The participants emphasised the importance of:

  • The health of the environment in which they do the work.
  • The health of the livestock on which their livelihoods depend, and which in turn depend on a healthy environment.
  • Human health and wellbeing – which is also linked to the two previous points.

These points prompt reflection on the potential gap between global standards and the realities and requirements of herders, especially women, in Mongolia’s countryside. However, it also offers an opportunity for organisations like the SFA, which use international standards to craft their own standards, to develop an approach to decent work that makes use of insights from both ends of the spectrum.

Learn more about how the SFA incorporates decent work practices into their standards here.

Lotti Blades-Barrett

8 March 2024

Dzud Hits Mongolia | Devastating Conditions for Livestock & Herders

Posted by Katy Edwards

The National Agency Meteorology and the Environmental Monitoring (NAMEM) of Mongolia reports that as of February 2024, a total of 80% of the country is in a “Dzud” weather disaster, with Iron / Glass Dzud hitting regions covering 58 soums, across 13 provinces.

According to the National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) report on the 26th of February 2024, the loss of livestock reached 2.3 million, an 86% increase compared to the same period last year.

Map showing areas affected by Dzud in Mongolia and their severity level on the 10th February 2024.
Reference NAMEM.

What is Dzud?

Mainly occurring in steppe regions of central and east Asia, Dzud is a winter weather phenomenon in which deep snow, severe cold, or other conditions render forage unavailable or inaccessible, leading to high livestock mortality. Dzud is considered a disaster due to its effects on livestock populations that support the livelihoods of a third of Mongolia’s population.

Not just leading to a disastrous number of livestock loss, Dzud can also threaten human lives as it makes travel conditions and transportation impossible. Food, drink, fuel, medicine, and other necessities quickly become unreachable for a period beyond the regular supply reserves of households. The devastation it brings can have a turning impact on household livelihoods, as well as local and national economies.

There are many types of Dzud, from White Dzud and Cold Dzud to Black Dzud and
Hooves Dzud, each with their own extreme conditions and harsh weather affects.

Each type of Dzud brings its own extreme level of conditions that challenge herders beyond their provisions for already harsh Mongolian winters. Although not regular in occurrence, scientists documented changes in regional climate in the past 60 years and predict that Dzud will likely increase in frequency and magnitude with future atmospheric changes.

How does Dzud affect animals?

With this year’s disaster hitting especially hard, Mongolia is expected to see more snowfall throughout the beginning of March. With this, animal mortality will reach devastating numbers due to the lack of feed and water, combined with the extreme cold, as herders exhaust their winter reserves.

Records warn that a tough spring is likely to  follow these harsh Dzud conditions, with storms, blizzards, and floods causing a late arrival of fresh grass. Herders will need intense strength as they start to approach offspring season and prepare for already weakened survivor herds following the Dzud disaster.

How does Dzud affect people?

Herder communities and their families are physically affected by the Dzud with road blockades making it difficult to reach water, food, fuel, and to stock up on supplies. Additionally, being cut off from medical and emergency services can cause serious situations for those who need it.

With a shortage of cash on hand, many herders will try to restock these necessities by exploiting an advance sales payment for their upcoming cashmere harvest. Burdening to their already decreased harvest in the spring, this will affect them financially during the cashmere season with a loss on actual market price.

Besides livestock and financial loss, herders will suffer from stress and mental well-being as an outcome of these tough conditions. Especially young herders, who need moral support to cope with the loss and devastation. In many cases, herders face a total loss of livestock that will likely force many to migrate to urban settlements, adding to the already overpopulated slums and poverty in the city.

How can we help?

The Mongolia government, managed by the State Emergency Commission, began immediate response to the disaster situation by making roads accessible, distributing hays, fodders for animals, and necessary relief to herders. However, despite government measures and aid from international donor organisations, more assistance in parallel is needed to reach and support all households to mitigate animal and livestock losses effectively.

Utilising knowledge and previous experiences from reports such as “Lessons from the Dzud” (co-written by SFA founder Batkhishig Baival), we are informed through science on how best to adapt and increase resilience in these disastrous situations. The report recommends that short-term aid relief should link to sustainable long-term development support. In line with the recommendations presented in this report, the SFA has begun initiating immediate aid for SFA herder organisations in the regions that have been hit hardest. Through organised coordination with local governments and herder communities, the SFA Mongolia team begun distributing vital animal feed and supplies this week to six SFA herder organisations spread across three soums in the north-eastern provinces.

Animal feed is purchased with support from
SFA brand members and partners.
SFA Mongolia team distributes animal feed to
herder organisations in worst hit areas.

The SFA works with established herder organisations that consist of multiple herding families in a communal grazing area, supporting them in governance, capacity building, and participatory planning to bring benefits to their livelihood. Find out more about how we support herder livelihoods and more through our work and standards here.

Throughout the last week, we have begun raising funds internally with incredible support from SFA members and partners to look to purchase and deliver essential items, such as fodders, blankets for animals, salt, supplements, batteries, medicines, and milk supplements for newborn animals. These items are purchased from local suppliers at the province level and handed over to herder organisation leaders, ensuring efficient distribution to herders in need, as well as supporting local businesses.

Supplies are delivered to the heads of SFA herder organisations,
who will distribute out to their member households.
Certificate of appreciation is received from Khentii province government, with thanks to SFA Mongolia and our members.

Thank you to SFA Members & Partners

On behalf of our SFA herders and herder organisations, we would like to say a huge thank you to all our brand and retailer members, chain of custody participants and partners who have already reached out to us with amazing offers of support. Without your generous donations and joint efforts, we wouldn’t be able to support our herder households in working to overcome the Dzud disaster by providing much-needed moral support.

Ms Narantsetseg, head of the Yavin-Bulag herder cooperative, of Umnudelger soum Khentii Province, expressed profound gratitude for the aid received via video call to the SFA Mongolia & UK team:

“It is the first aid we receive for the entire soum. The cube feeds are crucial for this time. We are distributing them to co-op members and begging Mother Nature to turn the season soon. Thank you SFA for the aid!”

While initial relief efforts have garnered commendation from local authorities, the road ahead remains fraught with challenges. The SFA aid campaign is ongoing and calling members and other partners in the natural fibre industry for support. If you would like to get involved with our Dzud natural disaster plan and emergency fund, please contact info@sustainablefibre.org.

A Mongolian proverb says:

“It is worth helping with a single needle when in need, rather than a whole camel in time of prosperity.”

Tamir Bud

SFA COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER

29 February 2024

What Makes Cashmere, Cashmere?

Posted by Katy Edwards

Unravel cashmere's unique qualities and their role in the responsible production of cashmere.

The insurance of high-quality cashmere fibre is one of a number of important factors that feed into its responsible production – the core of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance’s (SFA) mission. Achieving gold standard sustainable fibre should exist in conjunction with the commercial interests of the sector. However, such an outcome depends on an approach that holistically focuses on a number of key environmental, welfare and production areas – it also takes time, which does not often work well in the context of fast fashion. In this article, we are going to explore how cashmere’s properties, origins and qualities play a significant role in steering the industry’s longevity and authenticity, alongside reducing its environmental and social impact.

Cashmere is combed or sheared from cashmere goats predominantly herded or farmed on arid plains in China, Mongolia and Afghanistan. High quality cashmere relies on the seasonal, subzero temperatures of these environments in order for goats to grow the insulating undercoats that the fibre is harvested from. Cashmere is world renowned for its softness, warmth, elasticity and, when knitted or woven, its ability to keep its shape. Once recognised for its exclusivity, cashmere is now a high street and supermarket staple and is available to suit more democratised price points. However, the casualty of quantity is quality, with lower grade fibres added to the mix to meet the growing demand for cheaper, faster fashion.https://www.traditionrolex.com/22

Cashmere’s unique qualities stem from a number of core, measurable properties including fineness (the fibre’s diametre), length, colour and crimp, which vary depending on a number of factors including the age, breed and welfare of cashmere goats, their environment and the way in which the fibre is harvested, stored and processed. The standards for the welfare of cashmere goats vary depending on their location, but all prioritise the natural behaviours of cashmere herds and their mental wellbeing, access to good quality food, clean water and shelter when required. In Mongolia, the welfare of cashmere goats is intrinsically linked to the quality of their natural environment, which has come under strain due to climate change and overgrazing. Ensuring the preservation of the goats’ natural habitat is dependent on effective herd management and regenerative herding practices to ensure grasslands are utilised and maintained in line with nature, not against it. Effective Management and Animal Welfare, along with preservation and improvement of good quality cashmere fibre are three of the five Global Principles outlined by the SFA’s Cashmere Standard for the responsible production of cashmere. The continued decline of cashmere fibre is a direct symptom of overconsumption and poses a significant threat to the livelihoods and prosperity of cashmere herders, as well as to the integrity and longevity of cashmere fabric. By committing to improving fibre quality, the SFA aims to secure livelihoods for cashmere herders, enabling them to maintain their traditional way of life with incomes that can sustain them. Furthermore, it sits at the heart of the SFA’s call-to-action for developing sustainable cashmere supply chains in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to eradicate poverty (Goal One) and to encourage and incentivise the sustainable production and consumption of cashmere fibre (Goal Twelve). However, improving cashmere fibre quality is not a simple fix and it takes time to see marked differences, especially as cashmere goats produce harvests just once a year. In line with the SFA’s Cashmere Standard, there are a number of key areas that herders need to focus on in order to maximise on fibre quality including responsibly breeding goats that produce good quality fibre, knowledge sharing between herder communities, and monitoring and adapting their methods depending on the outcome of their annual harvest. Knowledge sharing is especially important in the context of environmental responsibility, not only in cashmere, but across the entirety of the fashion sector and other global industries. Applying effective knowledge and methods to one group is good, but sharing such insight across an expanse of groups and communities is excellent. This is how long lasting sector-wide sustainable impact is made.

The key to unlocking high quality, high grade cashmere fibre – graded from A to C, depends on the aforementioned environmental and welfare conditions goats reside in, but it also depends on several other external factors. For instance, the way in which the fibre is sorted and stored. The age and colour of goats are important to the overarching quality of fibre and, in mixed herds, the SFA Cashmere Standard ensures that fibres are sorted and stored with this in mind to separate different grades of cashmere fibre. Fibres are also stored using materials that reduce the likelihood of contamination, be that via fragments from the storage itself – such as fragile polypropylene bags, or other foreign, biological materials.

To protect the integrity of cashmere fibre, fibres are tested in laboratory settings to ensure the quality and authenticity of cashmere goods. Industry leaders such as the CCMI and SGS respectively promote and use various technologies, like optical and scanning electron microscopes to check fibre scales, along with other properties such as fibre fineness in order to test these perimetres, identifying products that are falsely labelled via fibre blends or fibre qualities that are below industry standards.

When asked: ‘How does effective fibre testing and identification have an impact on the cashmere’s industry progression toward increased sustainability?’ CCMI’s President Fabio Garzena responded:

“Testing methods – microscopy before and more recently instrumental methods like proteomics and DNA had, have and will have a direct impact on the sustainability of the fibre. If the cashmere wasn’t recognised as such by testing or if its value and integrity wasn’t protected in the past and now, and hopefully in the future (mainly by the action of CCMI and its members), the cashmere industry would have not been sustainable and the value chain and its viability could have been compromised. Today we associate the concept of “sustainability” with animal welfare, grassland management and soil degradation, but these important aspects are the most recent of many challenges that the entire cashmere industry has faced, is still facing, and will face.

There is still a need for further innovations in testing technology. Today, we lack a reliable quantitative methodology to measure the blends of recycled and virgin cashmere. Even qualitative evaluations are not reliable or standardised. Recycled cashmere is cashmere, but of course has a lower quality compared to virgin cashmere, however most of the recycled cashmere is not sold as such to consumers, which are unaware of what they are buying. This is not transparent for consumers and is unfair competition for the supply chain that lives on virgin cashmere and is producing the cashmere that will be recycled in the future.

Everything is “sustainability”: some aspects or past challenges have been resolved only because they have become “business as usual”, but cannot be ignored, but managed daily. Current “sustainability” efforts are more challenging because they need more network integration and collaboration, which is complex and needs time and compromises to be accepted by everyone.”

When mentioning significant trends or changes in cashmere fibre testing, and whether fibre quality or purity has changed over recent years, Fabio said:

“During the last decade there have been various, very important innovations in the testing technologies related to animal fibers recognition and quantification, which of course includes cashmere. Proteomics methods have been developed and standardised and their use is and will get more widespread with the reduction of their cost (already similar to traditional microscopy). Such instrumental methodology has resolved, once and for all, the issue of distinguishing cashmere from yak or very fine wool with a fully objective method (an improved DNA based method will add further tools in this direction). Microscopy of course is objective but relies on technicians’ skill, so is very difficult to master. Instrumental analysis requires training and investments in expensive equipment, but can scale up easier if needed.

About quality and purity, these are concepts that depend on where and when we consider such features: quality of cashmere might be slightly reduced compared to the past, but this has nothing to do with purity. Purity is a concept related to manufacturing in all the different stages of the supply chain, of course without considering “intentional blends” made with fraudulent intent. For those cases of course testing technology have been an extremely important tool.”

The fineness of cashmere fibre is defined by the fibre’s diameter, measured in microns – a micron is one millionth of a metre (µm). The micron count of cashmere fibre can measure anywhere from 15 microns to 19 microns, with some super fine cashmere measuring as low as 14 microns from adult goats. For context, The International Wool Textile Organisation states wool fibres can range from 17 microns for super fine merino wool to 40 microns for much coarser wool used in carpets and hard wearing textiles. The fineness of cashmere fibre is what makes it soft and gentle on skin, with finer fibres achieving higher premiums. Fibres with higher micron counts such as wool are known for their irritation when worn next to skin. In contrast, cashmere’s fineness reduces irritation and increases practical versatility with a range of applications in garment and accessory design and production.

A much sought after, super fine cashmere, reserved only for the upper echelons of the luxury market – is baby cashmere – cashmere harvested from kids less than one year old. As goats mature their fibre thickens, but young kids produce cashmere with an average micron count of just 13.5 microns, which takes an entire season to produce just 30 grams. For context, an adult cashmere goat produces on average over 110 grams per growing season, so baby cashmere is an extremely rare and expensive fibre.

Another defining feature of cashmere quality is the length of the fibre – known as the ‘staple length’ – with lengths ranging from approximately 28mm to 42mm. The longer the staple lengths the higher the quality, because longer fibres are easier to spin and produce stronger yarns, fabrics and clothing that are more resistant to pilling (the bulbs that form in areas of high friction). Longer fibres also allow cashmere garments and fabrics to retain their shape better, with shorter fibres producing more fragile garments that have a more common tendency to stretch after wear and washing – feeding into the unsustainability of fast, throwaway fashion.

Multiple studies have identified how harvesting methods can impact fibre length, with industry leaders preferring the traditional combing method over shearing. Combing is when the fine cashmere undercoat is gently removed from the goat’s coarser guard coat during shedding season and naturally maintains the entirety of the fibre’s length, while reducing the removal of coarser guard hairs. Cashmere purity refers to the ratio of fine cashmere fibre to coarser guard hair exceeding the 30 micron limit. As identified by the CCMI, classified cashmere garments and fabrics should not contain more than 3% (by weight) of cashmere fibres above this limit. By shearing, coarser guard hairs are more prominent in harvests.

Cashmere is lauded for its ability to take dyes and retain its colour fastness – the capacity of materials to keep their colour. Lighter cashmere fibres are more versatile with respect to this and are therefore seen to be more valuable. White fibres, the industry’s gold standard, remove or reduce the need for bleaching at the dye phase and provide a wider variety of colour options. For darker fibres, bleaching is a necessity but can be harsh on fibres and can therefore impact the strength of the fibres in the long run. However, white cashmere fibre is not a natural norm and is most easily attained in a controlled farm setting, such as those seen in China. Cashmere goats herded in Mongolia and Afghanistan as a part of traditional pastoral lifestyles vary greatly in colour, with fewer white goats set against herds ranging from greys, browns and sometimes black. Mongolia’s national herd is known for its grey and brown goats, while Afghanistan’s herd is darker again, with goats producing grey, dark brown and sometimes black fibres. Selective breeding is one way the SFA is working with herders towards increased fibre quality, which involves the breeding of goats with fibres in a range of colours that are longer, finer and with higher levels of crimp.

Crimp refers to the natural waves of cashmere fibres, with higher crimp more prominent in finer fibres. Cashmere fibres are naturally wavy, providing essential insulation for goats raised in cold climates. Fibres with increased levels of crimp are of a higher standard and are linked to cashmere’s elasticity and the aforementioned insulation properties. Higher crimp not only increases insulation through the capture of heat bubbles in the wave, but it also enables fibres to lock together more effectively during the yarn spinning phase of production. Crimp is also known to give cashmere its loftiness and famously luxurious drape.

While setting the precedent for the continuation and increased flow of high quality cashmere fibre should be set by the cashmere industry itself, the consumer still has a significant role to play. Due to the nature of cashmere, it should not play a role in any decisions to impulse buy. Investing in pieces that last and are well made from high quality, responsibly sourced materials is paramount to the move to more environmentally and ethically sustainable fashion and textiles. While consumers might not have access to in-depth technical information, understanding the journey of cashmere and the importance of fibre quality for the sustainability of the cashmere industry is integral to making responsible purchasing decisions.

Lotti Blades-Barrett

22 January 2024

2023 Highlights

Posted by Katy Edwards
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Welcome to the SFA’s annual highlights where we look back and reflect on our journey over the past year!

2023 has been both busy and productive, seeing us reach significant milestones and growth whilst striving towards more responsible impacts at every step. Let’s dive into the key highlights that have defined this impactful year…

A Year of Progress & Collaboration

From ground-breaking conferences to transformative launches, this year has been a whirlwind of activity for the SFA. We’ve proudly welcomed 14 new members in 2023, bringing our total membership to 64, representing a global collaboration across 13 countries. Each member contributes valuable insights, fostering a collective commitment to advancing sustainability within the cashmere sector.

Mongolian Herder Organisations & Certified Farms in China

By year-end, we have 193 registered herder organisations in Mongolia, covering around 16,297 herder households, as well as 13,587 certified farms in China. This accounts for 1,322 tonnes of certified raw cashmere from Mongolia.

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Revised SFA Cashmere Standard

A major highlight this year was the exciting launch of our revised SFA Cashmere Standard. This holistic global standard, published in January 2023, unites the previous regional Codes of Practice under five key principles: Effective Management, Decent Work, Biodiversity & Land Use, Animal Welfare, and Fibre Quality Improvement.

Previously due to come into effect in January 2024, the SFA Standards Team are now in the process of developing and improving the SFA Cashmere Standard through an extended consultation period with v2.0 due to be published in the latter part of 2024. To learn more, please read the SFA Cashmere Standard Statement of Intent here.

Introducing the Rangeland Stewardship Council

The Rangeland Stewardship Council (RSC) gained recognition and support with a series of talks at the annual Rangelands Without Borders Symposium in Idaho, USA, where seven speakers representing international organisations participated to help launch the RSC initiative and garner support from key stakeholders. A dedicated session for RSC was then held later in the year, during the Natural Fibre Connect (NFC) conference in Biella, Italy to launch and provide updates regarding the initiative to the wider natural fibre sector.

Projects in Mongolia & Afghanistan

The SFA Research Team has remained dedicated to our mission of driving positive change in natural fibre value chains by empowering herding communities, promoting responsible sourcing and rewarding more sustainable practices through various projects and programmes.

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In Mongolia this year, our Landscape Verification Project, funded by ISEAL, focused on restoring degraded grasslands and safeguarding biodiversity.

Through engagement with local communities and stakeholders, the primary objective of this initiative was to develop a monitoring framework to measure progress towards environmental targets and achieve conservation goals and implement biodiversity measures.

Expanding our commitment, SFA has announced the start of our USAID-funded project in Afghanistan. As part of this 13-month project, we will be looking to build a programme of work and Country Guidelines for Afghanistan centring around the “One-Health” approach of humans-animals-environment to develop and implement the programme on the ground.

By doing so, we hope to create better social, environmental, and animal welfare support whilst understanding the current issues surrounding the country, as well as building communities and peace through sustainable development and ensuring that no-one is left behind.

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A project of this scale will take some time and the SFA will not be looking to certify any products during this period. The programme aims to reach 5,000 farmers, with a focus on 30% female farmers.

Working Collaboratively Together

In fostering unity across the cashmere supply chain, the SFA orchestrated impactful conferences throughout the year.

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In February, we co-organised the Cashmere Connect conference in Biella, Italy in partnership with Natural Fibre Connect (NFC), the Schneider Group, the Cashmere & Camel Hair Manufacturers Institute (CCMI), and LVMH. The first of its kind conducted in Europe, the event welcomed stakeholders from every level of the supply chain, from herders to final products, offering insightful discussions on sustainability, engaging workshops, and illuminating factory tours.

In early September, herders convened for the yearly SFA Mongolia conference in Ulaanbaatar, bringing together over 150 in-person attendees from across the country. This unique event was organised by the herders themselves, supported by the SFA and the Ministry of Agriculture and Light Industry of Mongolia (MoFALI). Concluding the event was the highly anticipated Herder Sustainability Awards, a presentation of nominated herders and herder cooperatives celebrating their achievements over the past year across six main award categories.

Towards the end of September, the second edition of the Natural Fibre Connect (NFC) conference brought together a global fibre community of cashmere, mohair, wool, and alpaca in Biella, Italy, with over 350 in-person participants and 1000 virtual attendees. The event focused on a collaboration across sectors with a key aim of providing herder and grower perspectives with a collective mission of a “World with more natural fibres by 2030”.

Moreover, the National Young Herders Conference in Mongolia at the beginning of October witnessed the participation of over 800 young herders.

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Hosted by the Mongolian Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Light Industry (MoFALI), this gathering highlighted the significance of the SFA Cashmere Standard and supply chain in shaping the future of the sector. Through these conferences, SFA continues to play a pivotal role in bringing diverse actors together, promoting sustainability and collaboration.

Continuous Improvement

This year has seen many exciting announcements, from the adoption of a fully segregated Chain of Custody model ensuring 100% of the cashmere used in the end-product is SFA-certified to publishing the Chain of Custody Global Guidelines v3.0 and subsequent updates of v3.1. Public consultation has also opened for our draft Chain of Custody Standard where we are seeking feedback from stakeholders and the public. This process reflects our commitment to transparency and inclusivity – please learn more and participate here.

Following the past two years of collaboration with Conformity Assessment Bodies (CABs), we have made significant strides and developments. This has led us to the recent release of the SFA Assurance and Certification Manual v1.0, where we have refined requirements for CABs.

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As we wrap up an extraordinary year, we are proud of the impacts that we have made, a testament to the collective efforts of our partners, herders, members, and wider communities.

Thank you for joining us on this journey towards a more sustainable future. Here’s to another year of growth, collaboration, and positive change in 2024!

Tamir Bud

SFA COMMUNICATIONS OFFICER

20 December 2023

Please note, illustrations have been created using Ai.

Winter Preparation & Feed Management | Field Research

Posted by Katy Edwards

In collaboration with Agricultural Master’s student Alina Haus, from the University of Göttingen in Germany, the SFA initiated a study around the winter preparation and feeding management of certified herder cooperatives. In the summer of 2022, low precipitation rates and the ongoing increase of inflation impeded the usual winter and feed preparation of herders, such as harvesting hay and purchasing concentrated feed. Therefore, this study was carried out to explore opportunities to improve support to affected households and improve the winter preparation for upcoming winters at the herder cooperative level.

The study encompassed four cooperatives and their herder members across two study regions (Galuut Sum in Bayankhongor Aimag and Khulunbuir Sum in Dornod Aimag), who differed in the degradation status of the rangeland. In sum, a total of 21 households were interviewed, two focus group discussions were organized, and a total of 52 feed samples that were collected from state emergency fodder banks and herders were analyzed in the lab to assess the nutrient quality of the feed.

The interviews encompassed preferences for feeding and the quantities supplied, measures taken in advance to prepare for the winter (e. g., selling livestock before the winter, repair and insulation of the winter shed, etc.), as well as demographic aspects. During the focus group discussions, challenges and obstacles during the winter and feed preparations were discussed with herder cooperative leaders and members. Group work then followed to discuss and develop potential solutions at the cooperative level.

The results reveal that households in Galuut Sum faced great obstacles during the winter and feed preparation, and consequently prepared significantly less hay and other feeds than households in Khulunbuir Sum. Also, collaborative actions were implemented poorly on this site, while the cooperative leaders in Khulunbuir Sum organized communal haying events before the onset of the winter.

In Galuut Sum, financial resources for herders and cooperatives were not accessible, and the high prices for feed and fuel led to the reluctant purchase of feed during the winter. In contrast, sufficient pasture productivity in Khulunbuir Sum allowed herders to prepare in advance for winter challenges, and decent infrastructure enabled herders to acquire wheat bran as feed from local mill companies.

Finally, the discussions with cooperative leaders and herder members revealed great potential to provide support to herders at the cooperative level. For instance, feed bulk orders initiated by the cooperative leader could increase the herders’ leverage in pricing negotiations, and the communal installation of storage for meat and feed could reduce individual costs. Further,  cooperative leaders are in charge for communicating the needs of their members to local government and administration to ensure local policies are being developed to support herders and cooperatives. Nevertheless, skills in organizational management and communication of the cooperative leader are prerequisites for the successful implementation of collaborative activities.

With the help of these outcomes, the SFA will provide support to those herders and cooperative leaders who need assistance in the feed acquisition and winter preparation to increase their resilience to future winter hazards and climate change, to strengthen their capacity to adapt and improve management to overcome natural disasters. The study researcher believes that supporting activities in this direction will undoubtedly be an important measure that will greatly encourage the sustainable operation of cooperatives in the longer term.

Natural Fibre Connect is Back

Posted by Sarah Krueger

Join the Global Conversation on the Future of Natural Fibres

Natural Fibre Connect launches its 2nd annual conference this September in Biella, Italy

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The Natural Fibre Connect conference returns for a second year on September 25-29, 2023 in Biella, Italy and virtually. The event will bring together over 500 industry professionals, researchers, and students from across the natural fibres sector.

Through plenary sessions, mill visits, workshops and beyond, conference attendees will gain insights into the latest trends, challenges and opportunities shaping the future of animal fibres. Sustainability, innovation, and transformative trends will be at the forefront of the conversation as expert speakers and representatives from across the sector will be engaging in the discussion. Those joining in-person will also have exclusive access to behind-the-scenes mill tours, witnessing first-hand how Italian craftsmanship transforms raw fibre into premium textiles.

Unlike any other conference of its kind, Natural Fibre Connect aims to prioritise the perspectives of growers and herders. Those attending the event will have the opportunity to hear directly from these most important stakeholders as they share how key challenges and trends are impacting the very foundations of the natural fibres sector as well as their livelihoods.

Evelyn Diaz, Peruvian Alpaca Grower and Veterinarian: “NFC is an event that allows us to connect with other growers, with the textile industry and the entire value chain. Likewise, it allows us to share and learn more about the problems and opportunities we have in common, and work together to improve our herds that produce alpaca, wool, mohair, and cashmere fiber. Let us remember that not only do we have the right to inhabit this beautiful space in the universe, but we must also think about future generations. I think that natural fibers offer us a chance at life and it is a great challenge for NFC to keep connecting with growers and entrepreneurs around the world.”

Topics discussed are global trends influencing the textile fibre industry, regenerative agriculture, fibre traceability, innovation and technology as well as green finance. Keynote speakers include Veronica Bates Kassatly (Independent Analyst), Anna Heaton (Textile Exchange), Philippa Grogan (Eco-Age) and a range of other exciting personas that will be announced soon on the event website. In addition, various fibre standards will be holding their working-group meetings during the event including RMS, RWS, SFA and ZDHC.

Whether attending virtually or in-person, Natural Fibre Connect 2023 offers an unparalleled platform to expand ones professional network, connect with potential partners and leave with actionable takeaways. Attending NFC takes participants on a journey towards a more sustainable future for fibres and fashion. Tickets can be purchased via the NFC website. Information about special sponsor packages and benefits can also be found on the event’s website.

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ABOUT NATURAL FIBRE CONNECT

Natural Fibre Connect brings together the world’s leading alpaca, cashmere, mohair and wool organisations to advance shared priorities around sustainability, innovation and ethics. By fostering collaboration across the natural fibres sector, Natural Fibre Connect aims to build a more transparent supply chain and empower fibre communities for generations to come. The Natural Fibre Connect conference is hosted by the International Alpaca Association, Mohair South Africa, The Schneider Group, and The Sustainable Fibre Alliance.

Women Empowerment Programme for Herders in Mongolia

Posted by Fiona Jones

Women Empowerment Programme for Herders in Mongolia

J.Crew and the SFA support nomadic female herders through a series of workshops designed to elevate them to leadership positions and give them tools for success

LONDON, UK – JUNE 8, 2021 – The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA) is proud to announce the successful launch of its Women Empowerment Programme in Mongolia, supported by J.Crew. The SFA, is a non-profit organisation which works to promote a globally recognised sustainability standard for cashmere. Founded by two Mongolian women and with more than six years of working with the extended cashmere supply chain – from herders to retailers, the SFA recognises that women herders in Mongolia, despite having the potential to bring tremendous value to the cashmere supply chain, are hugely underrepresented within decision-making roles in their communities. The women empowerment programme has therefore been established in partnership with J.Crew to help lift these women towards leadership roles.

The programme involves a series of training workshops which target various issues within the industry – from better codes of practice when harvesting and sorting cashmere, to the importance of cooperation between supply chain stakeholders. Through gaining understanding of what the cashmere sector is looking for, the herders add value to their cashmere and strengthen relations with buyers, thereby securing their future income. The aim of the workshops is to ensure that women herders have the knowledge and skills that will help improve their social and economic participation within the cashmere sector and enable them to contribute to decision-making in their community.

Despite the early challenges posed by Covid-19 restrictions, virtual and in-person meetings have achieved high attendance and positive feedback from both instructors and participants. Fifteen instructors have carried out workshops for nearly 700 women from 31 herder cooperatives across Mongolia. The value of the course has been recognised at the national level and participants will be receiving  a certificate from a vocational body – the Technical Vocational Education.

Participant Narantuya Gendensuren, a member of ‘Yavyn Bulag’ cooperative, Khentii province, commented on the workshops, “I have gained a better understanding of cashmere preparation and I believe we will be better able to enter the world market if we produce cashmere according to these standards.”

“J.Crew is committed to be a part of the Sustainable Fibre Alliance and continue to empower women herders in Mongolia by improving their economic and social standing,” says Lisa Greenwald, Chief Merchandising Officer of J.Crew. “We know that investing in women leads to benefits for their families and communities. This program will give over 1000 women herders access to programs to help grow their individual businesses and take important leadership positions in their communities. We are proud to be partnering with the SFA on this important work and are committed to continuing to protect the future of women herders and the cashmere industry.”

Batkhishig Baival, Country Director of SFA Mongolia comments on the mission of the programme, “I am very confident that it is possible to improve the quality of cashmere harvesting and post-harvest management in a shorter period of time through educating and empowering rural women. Mongolian women herders play key roles in their communities, so we are expecting positive changes in herder life and hope that they will be able to share and demonstrate what they have learned during this training with others. To develop the competence-based training curriculum, we are collaborating with the government vocational education institute and national training professionals to make this programme targeted and regionally-appropriate”.

About The Sustainable Fibre Alliance

Founded in 2015, the Sustainable Fibre Alliance is a global multi-stakeholder initiative with a mission to ensure the long-term viability of the cashmere sector through its SFA Cashmere Standard. In Mongolia the SFA works with nomadic herders to produce cashmere in a way that protects biodiversity and ensures the wellbeing of their animals. The expansion into the autonomous region of Inner Mongolia in China, marks the world’s first global cashmere standard. For more information, visit https://sustainablefibre.org/

For press inquiries, contact Katy Edwards: katy.edwards@sustainablefibre.org

About J.Crew

J.Crew Group is an internationally recognized omnichannel retailer of women’s, men’s, and children’s apparel, shoes, and accessories. As of May 27, 2021, the Company operates 151 J.Crew retail stores, 144 Madewell stores, and 147 J.Crew Factory stores in nearly every state in the United States, and also maintains J.Crew, Madewell, and J.Crew Factory websites.

For more information visit jcrew.com, madewell.com and jcrewfactory.com.

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The Unsung Hero of Mongolia and Your Winter Wardrobe

Posted by Fiona Jones

What makes cashmere a luxury fibre and why it’s important to protect its supply chain

Despite its luxury status throughout the centuries and its consistently high price tag, the past few decades have begun to see a dramatic change in the availability and affordability of cashmere fibre.  What was once a statement of high-end fashion now can be found at nearly any price range, showing up in fast fashion retailers and online shops for sometimes less than £50. Why has this happened, and what does it mean for the future of cashmere? To understand the impact that falling prices and mass production has had on the cashmere supply chain, the environment, and peoples’ livelihoods, it is first important to understand what cashmere is, where it comes from and what makes it such a sought-after fibre.

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Coveted by royalty and the upper-class

Cashmere has triumphed its way through history as the world’s most luxury fibre, having been prized by royalty, popularized by Napoleon, and made available to consumers by the finest fashion brands of the times. The material’s biggest emergence in Europe occurred in the late 18th century when it became coveted by upper-class women in Britain and France (The Independent). Not long after, in the 19th century, Beu Brummel, arbiter of men’s fashion and iconic gentleman of England, made white cashmere waist coats a popular garment for sophisticated gentlemens’ style (The New Yorker). As time went on, cashmere remained a fashion staple for both men and women but gradually evolved from use in shawls and waistcoats to jumpers, cardigans, and other knitted garments. This shift happened largely during the knitwear revolution in the mid-twentieth century and especially in the 80’s when fashion designers like Shirin Guild began using cashmere alongside sheep’s wool to make dresses, suits and other clothing items (The Independent).

What is cashmere, exactly?

Cashmere is a type of wool that comes from the downy undercoats of cashmere goats and is distinct from the goats’ course, outer layer of hair – or ‘guard hair’. While many goats grow this undercoat, some have been selectively bred for cashmere production. The quality and yield of cashmere fibre is affected by diet, gender, age, and climatic factors. Herds from the arid regions of Inner Mongolia (China) and Mongolia, are considered to produce the finest cashmere fibre in the world and are the top two producers. Herders in these regions are historically nomadic and have been guiding herds of goats and other livestock across the grasslands for thousands of years – although herders in Inner Mongolia have now shifted to more farm-based production. In fact, Mongolia is so uniquely suited for cashmere production that its production supports nearly 40% of the country’s population. It is also important to note that the life of a cashmere herder, though challenging, is one traditionally respected and enjoyed. Herders feel a sense of commitment and connection to the land and goats and, given prices remain stable, it is a life they would proudly encourage for their children.

As for the fibre itself, cashmere is fine in texture, strong, light, and soft. Under the U.S. Textile and Wool Acts, which closely reflect regulations in other regions, a wool or textile product may be labelled as containing cashmere only if 1) the average diameter of the fibre does not exceed 19 microns; 2) the product does not contain more than 3% (by weight) of cashmere fibres with average diameters exceeding 30 microns; and 3) the average fibre diameter may be subject to a coefficient of variation around the mean that shall not exceed 24%.  For comparison, a human hair can range from 17 to 181 microns in diameter. By industry standards, cashmere must be at least 0.6 – 2.54 centimetres long.

What makes cashmere a highly desirable and versatile fibre

Chimaeze Onyeiwu, Procurement and Technical Director at Johnstons of Elgin, a Scottish textile manufacturer that specialises in cashmere and fine woollens, describes the qualities of cashmere fibre: “Apart from the much recognised softness and fineness of cashmere, it is also hydrophilic, hygroscopic, hypoallergenic and has a very good crimp. Hydrophilic means it naturally absorbs water, which makes it an easy material to dye. Hygroscopic means the cashmere actively attracts humidity from the air which gives it a high moisture content and allows it to regulate insulation properties to fit the weather. Crimp relates to the waviness of the fibre, which helps to trap warm air between the fibres, creates bulk or loftiness, and helps offer insulation up to 5 times that of wool. Add to this its natural hypoallergenicity (non-irritating), its extensibility (extendable), its natural range of colours, and you have a highly desirable and versatile fibre.”

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It is not always obvious at first touch whether a consumer is buying a high-quality product – but there are a few things they can look out for. First is the tension in the knitting – if a small section of a cashmere garment is stretched, its ability to bounce back into shape quickly indicates higher quality. Another trick is to hold the material up to the light and see how transparent it is. The better the cashmere, the denser the material will be. While a certain degree of pilling is considered normal for cashmere garments, a large amount indicates low-quality. Finally, consumers would do well to be sceptical of softness as this may indicate over-processing or that the cashmere has been blended with synthetic fibre. More expensive cashmere is more often harder in the store but will improve and become softer with age and hand-washing (The Sceptical Shopper).

Low quality cashmere is a modern phenomenon

The cashmere production process begins at the herder level in the Spring when goats naturally shed the downy undercoat which keeps them warm during winter. In Mongolia, harvesting is carried out by carefully combing the goats to help remove the moulting cashmere, while in the Inner Mongolia region of China shearing is more commonly used. After harvesting, the fibre is sorted by colour, bagged, and sent on to processing plants for scouring and dehairing. This is where the raw fibre is washed to remove grease, vegetation, and dirt and then dehaired via machinery to remove any remaining guard hair from the fine cashmere fibres. The fibre is then spun into yarn and dyed before being woven or knitted into a sweater, scarf, or other final garment.

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Ian Whiteford, Sustainability and Compliance Manager at Alex Begg & Co., a Scottish weaver of luxury accessories, reflects on the process: “In order to obtain finished articles of the highest quality, it’s vital to start with the very best raw material then to carefully manage the production process.” Even if the raw material is of the finest quality, a sub-par finishing process can affect the final product’s look, feel, and touch. Whiteford continues: “These [processes] impose mechanical stresses, involve chemicals such as detergents and dyes and subject the cashmere to high temperatures. In the end, however, all this effort and expertise creates products of exquisite softness.”

Skill and precision are needed to protect the quality of this fragile fibre as it travels along the supply chain. Cheap, lower quality cashmere is indeed a modern phenomenon as growing demand has resulted in a speedier production process that is more likely to damage the fibre along the way. Not only is cheap cashmere reflected in the quality and longevity of the garment, but it also threatens the future of the sector, after all who is going to train to develop the next generation of skilled craftsman, when the demand is for cheap and low quality? That is before we consider the impact on the herders and the environment. 

The effects on herder livelihoods and the environment are profound

According to USAID, over the past few decades the garment industry has rapidly transformed: prices have steadily decreased while the fashion cycle has accelerated. Consequently, the market size for luxury clothing is declining and the bargaining power in the value chain has shifted from producers to brand name holders. Competitive pressures from garment producers in low-wage countries have also forced producers in high-wage countries to use faster equipment – which, for cashmere, comes at the cost of quality (older and slower machinery can sometimes be better at protecting the fibres). Despite these changes in the supply chain, it is unlikely that cashmere will ever go out of favour with designers. In fact, its widespread availability means it is now more accessible than ever to the masses (The Independent).

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The effects of these industry changes on the environment, herder livelihoods and animal welfare are pronounced. The lower the market value of raw fibre, the higher the pressure to maintain a large herd to ensure a viable income. This in turn puts pressure on the rangelands, and coupled with the effects of climate change, contributes to desertification and loss of biodiversity. If herders in Mongolia are unable to support their families through cashmere production, they are left with few options for alternative income sources and may need to move to the slum-like outskirts of towns and cities – a migration we are sadly already witnessing in Ulaanbaatar.

The SFA is working to create a more responsible cashmere supply chain

It is increasingly important that measures and programmes are put into place to protect the integrity of the cashmere sector, stabilise prices, and return to more sustainable grazing practices. The Sustainable Fibre Alliance (SFA), an international, multi-stakeholder NGO working with herders in both Mongolia and China, created the world’s first global cashmere standard for this purpose and has been working closely with members, local government and other industry partners to make a more resilient and responsible cashmere supply chain. Through the SFA Cashmere Standard and associated codes of practice, it helps to ensure that fibre is produced according to high animal welfare standards and in a way that protects rangelands and secures the long-term viability of herder livelihoods. The SFA also provides opportunities for brands and retailers to contribute to broader capacity building and environmental work programs. Brands and retailers committing to a more responsible cashmere supply chain help to safeguard the high-quality reputation of the world’s most luxurious fibre and also help to safeguard the livelihoods of proud herding communities.

Written by: Sarah Krueger, Communications Manager, SFA