Is yak the new cashmere? A spotlight on Shokay
When Carol Chyau discovered yak down during her travels to Yunan, China in 2006, she knew that the best way to help catalyze the growth of social enterprise in China was to start one of her own. Chyau founded Shokay, a textile company which crosses disciplines and geographies to bring premium yak down products to market and social change to the communities behind them.
Yak fibres are sustainable alternatives to cashmere and wool — they are 30% warmer than wool, 1.6 times more breathable than cashmere and have a fine, smooth texture. As a comparison, an individual yak fibre is 18-20 microns with a length of 30-40mm, and cashmere is between 14-30 microns and 20.5-90mm long.
Taking inspiration from the qualities of the yak fibre, Shokay has developed an extensive range of fabrics, yarns and hand-knitting yarns in 100% pure yak down for luxury outerwear, as well as in unique yak blends composing of wool, organic cotton, in-transition cotton, hemp, Tencel™, and recycled PET.
Animal fibres often get a bad reputation for having high environmental impacts due to land use, water consumption, animals feed and chemicals required for production (EAC “Fixing Fashion”, 2019). More importantly, animal farming for textiles brings up several issues surrounding their welfare, ethical treatment and effects on biodiversity.
However, with sustainable practices, government policies, and international support on-the-ground training for local herders in place, animal fibres can be a sustainable choice as they have high-performance technical properties and very low end-of-life impacts on the planet (compared to other natural fibres such as conventional cotton, or synthetic fibres such as virgin polyester).
Shokay’s social enterprise model leaves a positive social impact which empowers young Tibetans and the livelihoods of Tibetan herders. The yak fibres used in Shokay’s products are sourced directly from Tibetan herders, enabling them to earn a living while preserving their traditional herding and community lifestyle.
The boom of the animal fibre industries has led to overgrazing and grassland desertification in many areas across China and Mongolia. As yak fibre enters the fashion industry, sustainable herding practices must come hand-in-hand with economic growth.
Currently, yaks are farmed on a small scale, and as the demand and awareness for yak fibres grow, Shokay’s efforts in building sustainable practices for yaks and the herding communities now will allow the yak market to scale in a healthy manner.
Yaks are low-carbon emission animals. They are currently raised by Tibetan herders with a semi-nomadic lifestyle, which prevents overgrazing of land; their tongues are short, therefore they do not pull grass from the root when feeding which is beneficial for grassland conservation; the hand-combed method used during harvesting is not harmful or invasive for the animals; the relationship between yak and herder is personal and animals are treated as an extension of family and livelihood.
One per cent of Shokay’s sales revenue goes towards their Community Development Fund, empowering the communities in their supply chain. Over 800 herders in Western China have benefitted from Shokay’s healthcare programs. A projected 500 tonnes of yak will be sourced in the next 3 years, with the opportunity to positively impact one million Tibetans. In addition, Shokay plans to facilitate and invest in workshops for animal husbandry and land conservation in order to develop the knowledge and skills of the community and future generations.
Carol Chyau’s social enterprise has drawn attention for its vision — in 2006 her business idea won first place at the Harvard Business Plan Competition. She was selected as an Echoing Green Fellow in 2008 and a finalist for Cartier’s Women Initiative. Chyau was also named one of Forbes’ Top 30 Entrepreneurs under 30 and one of Top 5 Social Entrepreneurs at the Chivas Venture Competition.
Shokay believes that yak can really play a part in the future landscape of materials. Since yak is not yet commercialised, the company has spent several years developing a traceable supply chain for their yarns and fabrics, even creating the first yak grading system. By working closely with their supply chain and industry association partners, Shokay aims to set the standards for yak collection, segmentation and processing to facilitate sustainable scaling and prevent negative practices that might disrupt a sustainable yak fibre supply chain in China.
The company believes that the fashion industry needs to address our pressing environmental and social challenges by integrating change at every level of the supply chain: from sourcing sustainable raw materials, to working with certified mills, and audited garment factories, to marketing campaigns with other leading sustainable fashion brands that educate end consumers regarding the urgency and importance of knowing where your products come.
As for what’s next, Shokay has been busy collaborating and adopting holistic approaches to the way they source fibres and develop products.
Last year, Shokay signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ICIMOD. Based in Nepal, ICIMOD is an intergovernmental organization that works to develop a sustainably-sound mountain ecosystem in the Hindu Kush Himalayan (HKH) region that can help improve the living standards of mountain populations and sustain vital ecosystem services for the 1.3 billion people living downstream. Shokay is exploring opportunities to build best practices for the livelihoods of yaks and the herding communities, coupled with land preservation in the mountainous areas. Shokay became a member of Textile Exchange and exhibited at the Future Fabrics Expo by The Sustainable Angle.
The company also launched Shokay Lab, a community of brands, designers, and manufacturers that share resources and jointly develop products that are thoughtfully made. The creative social enterprise also has plans to launch an accelerator program to empower material innovation.
Seems like a strong contender for the future of fabrics.
Shokay will be presenting a joint masterclass with The Sustainable Angle on 9 May 2019, from 9:30-12: 30 pm in our London Showroom, W10. Registration details TBC.