From McKinsey Analyst To Kashmiri Goat Herd: Babar Afzal. Op-Ed By Florence Raqa.
In the Noughties every fashion editor had a rainbow of pashmina scarves to choose from, worn on long haul flights and on the FROW. From Matthew Willamson fashion shows, to across magazine spreads, there were embroidered and super fine pashminas everywhere. But what happens to an artisan or the supply chain infrastructure once the trend has moved on? How do we support the weavers and indigenous communities when markets are saturated with cheap fakes? Just how do we ensure long-term sustainability?
This is where Babar Afzal, a Jammu and Kashmir born former McKinsey analyst stepped in, founding the Global Pashmina Goat Project. I went to the Houses of Parliament this week to listen to him discuss the links between luxury and artisanal crafts and the opposing issues of climate change and community impact.
So what’s so special about this goat? The “Changthangi Changra” (Pashmina goat), lives on the plateaus in Tibet, Nepal and neighbouring areas of Ladakh in Jammu and Kashmir, India. Like nomads, goats don’t have a sense of manmade borders. Raised for ultra-fine cashmere wool (known as pashmina once woven) they were also reared for meat in the past. This breed of cashmere goat, grows a thick, warm undercoat, which is the source of Kashmir pashmina wool - the world's finest cashmere measures a minute 12-15 microns in fibre thickness. These goats are now domesticated, reared by nomadic communities called the Changpa in the Changthang region of Greater Ladakh. The Changpa communities are a sub-sect of the larger Buddhist Drokpa community in the northern Indian state of Jammu & Kashmir. These mountain regions are remote and cold in the snowy seasons, that’s the norm and the reason why the goats evolved to create these fine hairs to begin with. In Ladakh temperatures annually fall to as low as −20 °C (−4.00 °F). However, one year 25,000 Pashmina goats perished in India after the heaviest snowfall in decades. Why? Climate change, impacting on a whole community and infrastructure
Babar read about this, realised the authorities weren’t going to do much to fix it and decided he needed to step in. Quitting his $200k salary in 2013 to become a goat herder, he lived with the Kashmiri nomads. Unlike us, in the West, the goat herders he told Wired in 2016, know that however green the next pasture is, it will not stay that way forever. “When we grow up in our careers and life and are doing very well, we don’t know when to exit. A shepherd knows when to leave the pasture. That is where most of downfalls begin. Leaving the pasture is a very important lesson.”
The lessons learnt result in a NFP where luxury, sustainability and artisanal values meet. From the community whose fragile economy is based on the survival of the pashmina goat, in a location currently deeply divided with internecine conflicts, to an eco-system which creates a cashmere wool so fine that it literally defines luxury, all in remote mountains hit by the severe impacts of climate change, Babar is working to protect and safeguard these communities and supply chains.
Too often within the “sustainable fashion” space - linked to environmental work - we within the West use an exclusive rhetoric whereby sustainable fashion benchmarks are defined by us and our values. Who is missing from the conversation? The artisans/crafts people. Yes, the future of sustainable fashion is innovation; however, we must also look to the past and traditional artisanal workmanship for 360 solutions. This shift in the sustainability/environmental movement would make it globally connected, rather than a post-Colonial/Western benevolent approach, guided only by “our” principles. Inclusion of craft/artisan workers within the conversation generates an integrated understanding of the “other”: be that cultures, codes, perspectives and solutions. As we have seen with the #AidToo movement in the charity sector this year, we need to address and codify what help looks like and through whose lens are we the experts. For a supply chain to work transparently, it is our belief at Fashion Roundtable, that all voices need to be respected and heard.
My concern is that if we keep the definition of sustainable fashion to narrow terms, then we exclude the most vulnerable and the most impacted from the debate, missing out the opportunity of a global conversation. It is exciting that a plastic bottle can become a red carpet gown but its equally exciting when an artisan can make transform an intricate craft into sustainable fashion. One pashmina shawl can take between 3 months to 5 years to produce, surely that’s authentically slow fashion with a purpose.