Innovation That Matters

Yak down: luxury yarn with a story and a cause

Nonprofit & Social Cause

Few in the Western world have ever heard of yak down, a cashmere-like fiber that is hand-combed once a year from the rugged animals dwelling in the mountainous Himalayan regions of Western China. Yaks have provided a livelihood for generations of Tibetan herders, and now a new effort aims to preserve that tradition by creating a market for yak down in the rest of the world. The brainchild of two Chinese women who were classmates at Harvard’s JFK School of Government, Shokay is an initiative to address the poverty of Tibetan herders in China by creating new markets for the raw fiber they can produce. Conceived in 2006 as part of a Harvard business-plan competition—which it ultimately won, according to China International Business—the effort now works with some 2,600 herders from the Hei Ma He Village of Qinghai Province in Western China through a series of fiber cooperatives that provide a sustainable source of employment and income. A single village can generate 10 tons of fiber in a year, CIB reported. Once it’s harvested, that fiber gets sent to Shokay’s team of about 40 hand knitters in Chong Ming Island off of Shanghai, who then use it to produce Shokay’s collection of home items and accessories. Shokay helps build the knitters’ skills in a safe and healthy work environment, rewarding them fairly for their knitting talents. It also makes sure to include personalized nametags with each item that gets produced, showing the name and signature of the knitter who made it. Prices range from about USD 25 to 330 for accessories such as hats and shawls and from roughly USD 20 to 950 for home items including pillows and throws. Shokay’s finished goods and knitting yarns are available for sale online, in its own flagship shop in the Tai Kang Road district of Shanghai, and in a variety of retail shops around the world. Forty percent of Shokay’s profits go back to the herders, another 40 percent go to the knitters, and the rest get reinvested in the business, CIB reported. Combining social entrepreneurship with product life stories and (still) made here appeal, Shokay reminds us of the efforts of Crop to Cup in the world of coffee and Naked Wines for small, independent vintners. Next, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Shokay adding a digital element with some traceability to spread its stories further and in more detail, much the way those (and other) contenders have. A personalized nametag is a good start, but if Icebreaker customers can find out which of many sheep stations produced the wool in their sweater, why not give Shokay customers a chance to meet the herder, yaks and knitters behind their new shawl? That’s the beauty of transparency, and it can do wonders for creating an up-close-and-personal feel. One to partner with, support, or otherwise get involved in…? (Related: Tracking & tracing fashion brands’ product storiesDesign your own hat & choose your own knitting granny.) Spotted by: Danielle Matsumoto



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