The Yak Challenge
Khunu World quizzes Khunu co-founder Julian Wilson on the challenges of building a yak wool brand
You were formerly in the British army and the financial communications industry. How did you come to run a yak wool clothing brand?
I first came to China in 2005 on sabbatical from Hong Kong to learn Chinese. Following that my former boss asked if I would start the office of a financial communications firm in Beijing. After a couple of years running the office I realised that I was more interested in creating a business that produced a physical product and gave opportunity to people who needed it. Perhaps I'm naive and idealistic but I do believe that making money and doing good can be intrinsic and non-contradictory elements of a sustainable business.
Why did you choose the name “Khunu”?
We were in Mongolia looking at wool sourcing and manufacturing opportunities and came across the name. The Khunu name dates back some 1,000 years pre-Genghis Khan and was the term given to the collective of Mongol tribes when they first became one entity. It seemed to fit with the ethos and idea behind the business – an adventurous spirit combined with an inclusive approach for all those people involved.
The Tibetan plateau and Mongolian grasslands where you source your yak wool are some of the most far flung regions in Asia. What are the logistical challenges of doing business there?
Many! Simply getting to these places can be a fairly arduous experience. Wool is sourced on the plateau, travels to a de-hairing facility, then to the yarn spinner and finally to where the garment is finished, so you need to coordinate with all these parties to ensure you have the best quality product. Finding good people and convincing them to work with you is key, but, as you can probably appreciate, this can take longer than usual in the world of yak, where you need to be overcome issues such as language, geographical distance, and cultural differences.
What is life like for the yak herders?
Hard. It is easy to romanticise their life on the plateaus, but the reality is extremely tough. The traditional way of life is being challenged and many herders are becoming drawn to an easier existence in towns and cities, even though their skills are not always compatible with the urban environment. For example, the recent dzuds (harsh winters) in Mongolia have caused many herders to move into the capital Ulaan Baatar to find work. This in-turn has created a whole range of social and environmental problems such as violence, alcoholism and pollution. That said I am always amazed at how incredibly independent, tough and happy the children are – it is not uncommon for boys and girls aged 12 to be entrusted with a herd of yaks during the day, and then be expected to deal with a whole range of chores when they get back to the tent or yurt. They always seem very quick to smile and see the funny side of life.
How has Khunu benefited them?
Right now, we provide herders with a bit of extra income by buying their yak wool, which they have long considered a by-product. Our core mission is to provide them with sustainable and direct income-driven economic opportunities. Last year in Mongolia, for instance, our direct purchase of wool contributed the equivalent of nearly 40 additional months of an average families salary to a particular soum, representing approximately a 20% increase in the annual per family income there. We’ve always believed that the biggest service we can do for the communities is to create greater demand for our yak wool products - that will allow us to source more raw material and invest more back into the communities through our 2% fund.
To create demand you first need to convince consumers to buy yak wool products...
Absolutely. Most people imagine yak wool to be something coarse and itchy when in fact the opposite is true. The higher grade wool we use creates fabric that is warmer and softer than other more traditional types of wool. Independent lab tests we conducted showed that yak is actually warmer than merino wool and more durable than cashmere. And judging by the number of repeat customers we have our products are clearly being well-received.
Is yak wool also environmentally sustainable?
Yes. There are reportedly over 11 million yaks on the Himalayan plateau and Mongolia and the majority roam freely. This means they do not over-graze one particular area. Herders have been managing yaks for centuries and seem mindful of the need to maintain an ecological balance between man, the yak and the grasslands. Moreover, bovines such as yaks are far less destructive than goats and sheep and tend not to pull up roots, grazing instead on just the shoots of grass. The Nature Conservancy has published some interesting research that shows the degree to which goats and their grazing behavior contributes to desertification in parts of Mongolia as a result of the rise in demand for cashmere. Thankfully, the grazing behaviour of yaks is far more environmentally sustainable.
Eventually, you want Khunu to move beyond producing just yak wool products. What are your other ideas?
We love yak, and it will always be core to what we do, but that doesn’t mean we will only ever do just yak. There are many other great natural fibres out there and if they have better properties for an intended usage then we will explore using them. We are currently looking at blending yak with other fibres for spring and summer wear as yak on its own is often too warm. The important thing is we keep exploring new ideas whilst sticking to our core values.
Finally, what is Khunu’s key message to consumers?
Your personal impact comes from the everyday consumer choices you make. Sure, we want you to buy our products, but we also want your purchase to have a direct impact on struggling communities in these far-flung regions. The more we can make that positive connection between herder and consumer happen the more I will believe we are achieving what we set out to do.