Fashion venture that helps local communities

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 July, 2012, 12:00am

Thopdan Dorjee, 32, is the sales manager for Norlha, a not-for-profit operation that takes yak wool provided by Tibetan nomads and spins it into scarves and wraps that have recently caught the eye of fashion houses like Hermes and Lanvin Homme. So far, 120 nomads are taking part in the project. But running a business where social responsibility is more important than profit is a challenge. For example, while Thopdan Dorjee is proud of the jobs Norlha has given the nomads, he is worried about the environmental impact of the factory.

How did you get involved in the business?

I came to Beijing in 2005 to study English after graduating from a school in Qinghai province . I started working as a waiter in a hotpot restaurant. I could barely speak Mandarin at the time, so the first thing I learned was the names of different kinds of vegetable. It was a very interesting experience for me as I was raised in a village on the Qinghai Tibetan Plateau. In 2007, I worked as a sales assistant at a downtown hotel. Again, I was the only ethnic Tibetan on the staff. A close friend later told me about Norlha, a not-for-profit business that focuses on helping local communities. The basic idea was to allow nomadic farmers from the Tibetan Plateau to cultivate and sell yak wool.

That is quite a departure from your previous experience.

There was much to learn. The Norlha project was started by American anthropologist Kim Sciaky Yeshi in 2005. At first, many technical details needed to be sorted out. Yak fibres for instance are different from wool or cashmere, though they are basically handled the same way. We needed to do a lot of experimenting to test the strength of the fibre, to ensure it would stand up to the weaving. After I joined Norlha, I had to learn all the knowledge, bit by bit, as well as understand how to expand the market. We're now selling products to fashion companies, which means I need to devote more time to studying the design industry. It all takes time, but patience is what we have in excess at Norlha. We are not interested in making a fortune overnight; instead, we hope to produce quality products that benefit communities.

Are your products expensive?

I admit the price is not low. But that is partly because production is done purely by hand, to a very high standard. We don't want to sell low-end products that people buy out of a sense of sympathy or because we're helping local nomads. For instance, only 27 per cent of the yak fibres collected are suitable for spinning and weaving. They have to be long and soft. We're producing about 9,000 scarves or wool wraps each year.

What helps you win the participation of the Tibetan communities?

About 95 per cent of ethnic Tibetans believe in Buddhism. So it is necessary for the company to involve a person well-versed in Buddhist thinking. Norlha's workshop is a Tibetan village located in Gansu province, and sits at an altitude of 3,200 metres. It is only about 90 kilometres away from the famous Labrang Monastery. We're lucky to have a respectable scholar from the monastery involved in the project. Local villagers have great faith in him. Then again the company managers must have patience, because many of the villagers are nomads, with a low level of literacy. We started by teaching them how to read. It really doesn't matter how long it takes for them to master the skills for the work. For instance, the accountant spent more than two years gaining the necessary knowledge. And it took our local-born designer four years to learn those skills as the person had no relevant background knowledge. Because we want to fully involve local communities in the business, we are trying to teach them to work and manage themselves. That is how I understand sustainable development. The workshop now hires about 120 local villagers, offering them stable employment and income and a respite from the harsh demands of their nomad lives. They are also very proud of themselves, as they have jobs in a workshop and have some education. Even villagers from neighbouring areas are seeking opportunities to join Norlha.

Is Norlha making a profit?

Not really. The initial investment was quite big, though I don't really know how much has been put into the project overall. One problem we face is the inefficiency of using raw materials. As I've mentioned, only 27 per cent of the fibres can be used. But we're experimenting with other products which don't require such a high standard of fibre. And we also face challenges expanding what is essentially a small business.

And why is that?

Since last year, I constantly found myself caught between the dilemma of expanding the project and restricting its negative impact on the environment. Many people engaged in similar work have pointed out that damage to the local environment is an unavoidable challenge faced by small-scale textile projects like Norlha, as the dyeing process produces wastewater. There is always a trade-off between social benefit and damage to the environment. The scale of operations at Norlha is too small to afford a treatment facility, but without treating the run-off, the damage will accumulate. We had our wastewater collected and tested at a laboratory in Shanghai last year, trying to understand the amount of damage involved. We want to help local people, but not at the expense of the environment.