Forging a mechanism for collective action on Sustainable Cashmere in Mongolia

Written by Satoko Okamoto, SDGs and Private Sector Programme Officer, UNDP Mongolia.

Edited by Bulganchimeg Bayasgalant, Communications Analyst, UNDP Mongolia.


June 13, 2019

Nelson Mandela famously said, “where you stand depends upon where you sit.” The Conference on “Multi-Stakeholder Collaboration for Systemic Change: The Case of Sustainable Cashmere”, celebrated in June this year in Mongolia, brought together 100 strong stakeholders from across the country’s Sustainable Cashmere value chain to sit in what has been UNDP’s attempt to create a space for all to gather and identify a common course of action.

While accounting for less than 3.4 % of total export value, a distant second after mining exports, cashmere is a strategic commodity that could bring a far greater export revenue for the country. In working towards that goal, the Mongolian government launched the National Cashmere Programme last year to improve the sector’s competitiveness. Development partners, UN agencies and others alike, show a consistent appetite for capacity building programs to facilitate climatically resilient and socially responsible pasture management. “I always remind people that climate change is the greatest threat to the country” said Beate Trankmann, Resident Representative of UNDP Mongolia, during her closing remarks at the Conference. The twin challenge of land degradation driven by climate change and a stagnating, even deteriorating, poverty headcount ratio, despite the country’s economic recovery in recent years, is what UNDP is addressing to ensure that no one is left behind.

A regular conference could have gathered civil society organizations, domestic industry groups and the government. However, representatives from leading global brands such as Gucci and H&M also joined the crowd, bringing a multi-stakeholder appraoch to the conference. Textile Exchange, a global non-profit organization representing nearly 400 private sector member companies, amplified the voice of international buyers. H&M’s announcement to phase out its sourcing of “conventional” cashmere featured in a recent Wall Street Journal article further added to the sense of urgency. The press conference that took place concurrently at the venue demonstrated the immediate need for action. The global brands’ message was clear: They are interested in sourcing Sustainable Cashmere.


All photos by Nicolas Petit, Senior Commodities Advisor at UNDP Green Commodities Programme.



© Nicolas Petit


But is Mongolia ready to supply?

Sustainable Cashmere remains an elusive concept not only in Mongolia but, also globally. For some, it stands for cashmere harvested in a manner that respects animal welfare, ecosystem and wildlife. For others, it emphasizes clean processing. For all, metrics are important, but poor traceability and textile’s relatively long supply chain makes a solution for the transparency challenge an expensive investment.

This is why the UNDP’s Green Commodities Programme (GCP) expertise was called for. Specializing in supporting governments to take the lead in creating national environments where sustainable commodity sectors can grow, the Programme has already successfully supported ten governments in promoting eight sustainable commodities across the globe. UNDP GCP is headed by natural resource economist Andrew Bovarnick, who took the lead in facilitating the conference. On this occasion, the UNDP GCP team carefully designed the conference with a laser sharp focus on gathering collective inputs and insights in order to develop a roadmap on the way forward.

Two workshops signified the central theme of the conference. Four groups were asked to develop priority issue areas that would require collaboration. The delegates acknowledged that the four major issue areas requiring collective action are 1) consensus on sustainability, 2) capacity building for all stakeholders across the value chain, 3) access to finance and incentives for suppliers, and 4) market access. The second workshop further challenged the delegates by asking them to suggest a national-level mechanism to address the issue areas in a construtive manner that calls for collective action.


© Nicolas Petit


The conference culminated with a voting exercise that gauged the delegates’ levels of agreement. For the four priority items, the majority agreed on the suggested four items, while there were some variations on the levels of agreement. For the voting on the suggestive mechanism, the agreement curve was skewed toward the middle, demonstrating that for any such mechanism to be proposed, further discussion is still needed. As the facilitator presented the outputs, the delegates took a deep breath as they witnessed the tangible results of the hard work of the day. There was a palpable sense of fatigue among the delegates, but an equally visible air of accomplishment permeated the plenary room.

The hard work was worth it. Participants realized they were not only discussing an economic opportunity here, they were part of a mission to save centuries-old nomadic heritage.

L.Sukh, herder of Tsagaan-Ovoo soum, said, "Producing sustainable cashmere is not that difficult as it has been embedded into our centuries-long nomadic lifestyle. For us Mongolians, our livestock is not just a commodity or an economic asset. Instead, any Mongolian herder would establish a special bond with the livestock, treating them as life sources."


L.Sukh, herder of Tsagaan-Ovoo soum, © Nicolas Petit


When delegates arrived at the village for the Conference, they received overwhelming support. Herders wanted to be connected to the global market and wished to sell to buyers who would value the cashmere made in Mongolia. Many of them were aware that their long-term livelihood prospect depends on the healthy pastureland and enthusiastically attended trainings and workshops on sustainable management of pastureland.

In a townhall meeting which gathered 60-plus people, the delegates received a warm welcome. Herders performed traditional dancing and singing, a long-held custom to show the unique identity of Mongolian people. Having been dazzled by the performances, it came time to explain the purpose of the delegates' visit and how the UNDP could work with the community. The herders had many questions. Some questions were easy to answer while others required a deep understanding of the complex local political economic context. 

Eventually, a serious-looking male herder to ask his question: How UNDP could help them sell their cashmere to the global market? The delegates paused for a moment, looking for the right answer. Breaking a moment of silence, the  Resident Representative explained that this mission was already a part of UNDP’s efforts to connect them to the global market and that as a testimony, representatives of H&M and Textile Exchange came to the village. Following her response, the H&M representative explained that the objective of her joining the mission was to gauge the potential of Sustainable Cashmere. Subsequently, she noted her positive observations during her meetings with herders and cooperatives.

Neither the man nor the audience reacted. The herders did not know about H&M. After another few seconds, the H&M representative provided the number of H&M stores: “Over 4,000 stores in 60 plus countries.”  It took a while for them to understand the magnitude of opportunities they were facing. Before long it became clear that they were sitting with a representative of a company representing a global market. When that realization came, the audience shifted their attention to new questions.


© Nicolas Petit


The stakeholders’ positive feedback in response to the conference and the increasing support for Sustainable Cashmere that the delegates saw in rural Mongolia reveals that Mongolia has already taken a step forward towards becoming the leading producer of Sustainable Cashmere. The next immediate action is for UNDP to produce a roadmap for further consultation with stakeholders. Armed with a treasure of passionate comments and insights that the conference delegates vocalized and the herders in the villages shared with the delegates, there is great enthusiasm to use this new opportunity to continue and carry through this work which we have only just begun.


© Nicolas Petit