Where there’s a wool…
Cashmere in Mongolia
On the freezing plains of Mongolia, animals have had to evolve over time to protect themselves. For the goats who live there, they have managed to survive by developing thick coats of wool.
Stronger and warmer than anything found on other goats around the world, this wool brings with it not just the livelihoods of the animals who grow it, but also the people who herd them. It is the foundation of Mongolia’s deep connection with cashmere.
Gobi Factory, Ulaanbaatar
The machines are clattering away – it’s hard to hear over the top of them. Workers in protective suits move between them, pushing large baskets. Room after room, different stages of the cashmere production line take place. The fibre is sorted in one area, then it’s turned into a usable consistency. Colours are added in another section, then it’s put through a machine to prepare it for the final stages.
The is the factory of the Gobi cashmere company, one of Mongolia’s biggest success stories. Founded 35 years ago, it was once wholly owned by the government but is now in private hands. It employs more than 1500 people and many of them are here, concentrating on their specialised tasks.
Gobi has about two thirds of the cashmere market in Mongolia and it sends its goods to distributors in more than 30 countries around the world. I get a sense of the scale of the operation as I am taken around the factory. As well as the production floors, there are rooms where people are working on designs on computers and creating bespoke products to order.
Gobi outlet store, Ulaanbaatar
Unfortunately, it’s not normally possible to see the inner workings of the Gobi factory. I’ve been offered exclusive access as part of an international delegation here in Ulaanbaatar for a conference. But right next door is the company’s outlet store, which is popular with visitors who want to buy some clothes right from the source.
There’s a fashion show going on when I arrive there to have a look. It’s not hard to make these clothes look good – not only is the production quality world class but the designs are in line with international fashion standards.
I wander around the outlet and look at the stock on the shelves and hanging on the racks. It’s also incredibly affordable – much cheaper than you would find anywhere else in the world. I guess the company saves a lot of money not having to ship the goods and deal with middlemen. I like to think it’s also a bit of a reward for anyone who has made the trek all the way to Ulaanbaatar!
Mongolia’s cashmere industry
Cashmere is big business for Mongolia. They produce a third of the global supply and it is the country’s largest export after minerals. The good news for the country’s economy is that demand has risen in recent years and so has the price, making for a nice increase in Mongolia’s GDP.
Unfortunately it has had a flow-on effect that the country is still coming to terms with. Most of the goats that produce the cashmere wool are tended by Mongolia’s nomadic herders. (You can see my story here about life as a Mongolian nomad). These nomads are now able to earn a lot more money by keeping goats than traditional livestock, so they’re increasing the size of their goat herds.
But the problem is that goats eat a lot more than the traditional animals like cows, sheep and yaks. And unlike those animals, they don’t just eat the shoots of the grass, they also go right down and eat the roots as well. So the grasslands that are used for herding are coming under a pressure that seems unsustainable.
If you’ve never been to Mongolia, let me paint a picture for you. The long stretches of the plains have very little vegetation – certainly seeing a tree is uncommon. There’s not much green around, the colour is more like a struggling brown. The ground is actually really dry and it’s at risk of becoming desert. So when you have animals that rip up the grass so it can’t grow back, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
The number of goats in Mongolia has tripled in the past 20 years and it shows no sign of abating. The best figure I’ve seen shows that a nomadic farmer can earn about US$7500 a year from selling cashmere – which is a lot in a country where so many live under the poverty line. So there’s no desire from an economic perspective for the nomads or the government to reduce the amount of goats in the country.
That’s a discussion the country will hopefully have in the coming years and it’s one of sustainability, not ethics. As I walk through Gobi’s factory, it’s clear that the cashmere industry is something that should be celebrated in Mongolia. It is directly employing thousands of people on the production and sales side and thousands more who are working the land.
The harsh weather conditions here have created many unique cultural phenomena. Cashmere is one of them. It’s a part of Mongolia and learning a bit more about it shows you another layer of this fascinating country.