A travelogue by Lotti Blades-Barrett

In May 2019 I attended the Sustainable Fibre Alliance’s Sustainability in the Cashmere Sector Conference, in the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbaatar. As a masters student researching into the social impacts of the cashmere industry, I felt like I’d hit the jackpot and won front row seats to an industry I had only been able to read about, so naturally my excitement was sky high.

The social impacts of fashion supply chains have always been at the core of much of my research. From the roles of farmers, herders and cultivators to the lives of those who make the clothes we wear, the fashion industry is an intricate, widespread network of daily routines, all affected by the way in which we consume the things we buy.

What’s really interesting about Mongolia’s cashmere industry, is that its workforce is 90% female.

From CEOs and herders to manufacturers and managers, you only have to walk around a cashmere processing plant once to understand the full extent of women’s presence in the industry. So as I was researching the role of women in international cashmere supply chains, Mongolia seemed to be the place to be, and while Mongolia had not been the original starting point for my research, I wanted to find out more about these women and their lives working within Mongolia’s cashmere industry.

Day one: ​I landed in Ulaanbaatar on the 20th May, after a 16 hour flight from Edinburgh. After some much needed rest I headed out into the city centre to take a look around and get my bearings. Ulaanbaatar is a busy and exciting place, with over 1 million people crammed into a city built for half that size. Its rapid growth over the past few decades made for a really unique and interesting mix of architecture, including a roman-esque, hot pink opera house and Soviet-style blocks and squares brashly labeled with the Cyrillac alphabet.

Cashmere was absolutely everywhere! From busy, budget shop fronts with signs reading “​Best Cashmere in the City” to elegant boutiques with Italian designs, it hit me just how deep the fibre was ingrained into the daily lives of people in the country. I’m not quite sure what I expected – it is the third largest contributor to the Mongolia’s economy after all…

Day two: ​Prior to the conference, I was invited to observe the Training of Trainers meetings just down the road from where I was staying, on Seoul Street. Herders from all over the country (sometimes thousands of kilometers away), attended two days of seminars on sustainable cashmere herding, which ended in an awards ceremony just before the conference began. Naturally the meetings were in Mongolian, but nonetheless it was great to experience the atmosphere, meet the team and get a glimpse of everyone in their traditional dress – their vibrant and beautiful outfits were such a contrast to my drab jeans and t-shirt…

That evening, the conference guests arrived and we all traveled to the British Embassy, which sat in a small suburban neighbourhood right at the heart of the city. It was strange because buildings towered around us, but we were sat in a really tranquil garden – probably the most peaceful place in the city. From the looks of the guestlist, everyone from mining and international development to academic research and business wanted to talk cashmere, so naturally, my excitement built for the next day’s event.

Day three: ​The SFA’s Sustainability in the Cashmere Sector Conference was my first research conference, so I wasn’t 100% what to expect. What I got was a brilliant mix of environmental science, industry and community. Green Gold and the SFA discussed the effect of herd sizes on Mongolia’s grasslands, while others opened debates and discussions on whether the industry was changing for the better. It was great to see so many brands from Europe and the US coming together to not only learn more about the industry, but challenge their understanding of it. It was a truly unique combination of both the practical and emotional aspects of the industry – a real melting pot of information for a research student like me!

Day four:​ The day after the conference, we ventured to multiple cashmere processing factories in the industrial outskirts of Ulaanbaatar. I had experienced some cashmere processing in Scotland (spinning, knitting and weaving), but I hadn’t seen cashmere scouring or dehairing in action, which is a key component of my research. Women sat under desktop lights sorting the cashmere fibres before they were scoured, while heavy machinery chugged down brown matted cashmere in the neighbouring building – spitting it out in soft layers of cloudy, white fibres. I felt like Charlie in the Chocolate Factory, witnessing centuries of industry tucked neatly into one efficient, operation line.

Day five: ​But for me, the countryside was calling… So on day 5, we spent a night, two hours outside of the capital city in the rolling Mongolian grasslands. ​​It was surprising how quickly the landscape changed from bustling industry scapes to rolling hills of dusty green grass. The roads were quiet and the views were vast. Vultures perched at the side of the highway and bright white gers dotted about in the distance. It felt like we’d taken a step back in time and the endless hours I’d spent researching the Mongolian countryside didn’t even come close to doing it justice. To put it simply, I hadn’t seen anything quite like it, but the parallels between the rolling Scottish hills and those of Mongolia were quite striking.

We met herders and ate traditional Mongolian barbeque, sat snugly inside a beautifully traditional ger. They showed us how to comb cashmere and introduced us to the traditions of their day-to-day lives. We witnessed the drama of the Mongolian countryside – sandstorms and native wild horses on a backdrop of mountains and hills. To us it looked like we were lost, but our guides seemed to know exactly where we were going…When the sun set, the temperature dropped through the floor and the skies exploded with stars – not an ounce of light pollution in sight! My camera couldn’t catch the beauty of it, but maybe that was for the best?

Day six:​ After a chilly night spent in a ger on the edge of a national park, we bussed it back to the city for a farewell dinner. I was staying another week doing further research into the country’s processing industry, so my colleague and I waved goodbye to the group and set out, excited for the next stage of our trip…

The conference allowed me to see a side to the industry I just wouldn’t have seen from behind my computer screen. From experiencing the subtle nuances of the runnings of the industry, to the beauty of where the fibre is grown. It seems the futures of cashmere and Mongolia are intertwined and while the sustainability of the industry may be uncertain, its positive influence on the country is undeniable – Mongolian cashmere is here to stay and it won’t be going away anytime soon.

Lotti has recently completed her an MSc in Ethics in Fashion from Heriot-Watt University with a Masters with Distinction. She is now continuing to develop her research on the cashmere supply chain as well as continuing her work as a writer and project manager in both the fashion and textiles industries.

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