In the unforgiving landscape of the Gobi Desert, isolated Mongolian goatherds grow some of the finest cashmere in the world. Their hardy livestock are able to survive winters with temperatures as harsh as minus -40 degrees, thanks to their thick woolen coats. The very juxtaposition of environmental extremes and intuitive natural adaptation makes the goatherd’s cashmere the foundation of sustainable fashion company Naadam’s approach to the industry.
Co-founded by Matthew Scanlan and Diederik Rijsemus in 2013, the company has always put people before profits. After spending time living among the Mongolian herders, Scanlan was inspired to “democratize cashmere” by supporting the needs of the herders and their communities. His aim was to disrupt the industry through new approaches that empowered the people raising these animals. Since the herders are responsible for cultivating the precious fibers that will ultimately end up in the hands of customers, their wellbeing is tantamount to the success of the company.
Naadam takes a holistic approach in working with their herders, providing veterinary care and livestock insurance for the animals, as well as facilitating healthy breeding programs, and promoting animal and human welfare.
More than this, Naadam listens to the issues that concern the nomadic herders. The company has taken a proactive approach to circumvent the potentially detrimental cycle of overbreeding, overgrazing, and the depletion of valuable grazing lands in the desert. By paying their herders a fair wage, Naadam ensures that they don’t overbreed, allowing the herders to instead focus on producing the highest-quality cashmere possible.
Naadam does more than protect its people and animals in the desert, however. Scanlan’s company also utilizes ethical and sustainable production processes, constantly auditing their manufacturing facilities for sustainability and using biodegradable dyes in the creation of their heavenly cashmere sweaters.
While the designs are modern, Naadam’s couture is the result of over two thousand years of nomadic herding tradition, preserved through their purchasing patterns and ethical wages. Each sweater produced by the company is created from about four goats’ worth of hand-combed fibers—a time-consuming process that results in a sweater that feels good physically and ethically. We were able to catch up with Co-founder and CEO Matthew Scanlan to get a feel for the ways in which sustainability influences Naadam’s silky-soft final products.
Why did you decide to found Naadam? Was it meeting a specific need?
Naadam has a unique story because I didn’t come from fashion or non-profit work but ended up in a bit of both. The company grew from the simple idea that all people are equal, that it is our similarities that define us, not our differences. That’s why we not only build equitable trade circumstances in our prices, but celebrate the people we work with, and have developed a transparent supply chain that makes ethical and sustainable cashmere at the world’s fairest prices. It’s something that really hasn’t been done before and we’re happy to fill this need on both the supplier and consumer side.
How is Naadam different from other cashmere companies?
Naadam makes high-quality, sustainable, and unbelievably soft cashmere at never-before-possible prices. We go straight to the source of the world’s best cashmere, the heart of Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, and partner with herders who help us create the holy grail of softness while treating their goats with care and respect. We never work with traders, brokers, or buyers. Ever. That means we can pay our herders 50% more and what we get in return is the highest quality cashmere at the fairest prices.
Why is sustainability an important consideration for Naadam’s production process, and what are you doing to be sustainable?
Whether it’s how we audit our manufacturing facilities to managing our logistics to carbon offsets to using non-toxic dyes—we view our sustainability work as good for business. I’m not saying sustainable business practices are easy but companies shouldn’t see it as a choice, it’s just how great businesses are built.
What is the connection between sustainability and Naadam’s support of the nomadic herders?
The largest impact we have is within the economic sustainability we’ve created through our purchasing behavior, and we also support what we do with non-profit work. We’ve created a closed-loop system where our non-profit work fortifies a symbiotic relationship we have with the nomadic herders and has led to some of our most impactful environmental work. Our investments are a partnership. We talk to the communities we work with and they let us know what their needs are. For example, the community approached us about issues they were having with desertification, which is when grasslands turn to desert and then animals cannot graze and become unhealthy. They requested fencing to section off areas of land to allow it to rejuvenate. We worked with the community to implement a lands management strategy and brought in enough fencing to circle Manhattan. The result? We’re now able to protect an area the size of New England against desertification.
What does it mean to “democratize cashmere”?
Democratizing cashmere is about equality. It’s about doing things equitably. We practice equitable trade circumstances not only between ourselves and the herders we work with but ultimately between ourselves and the end customer. By creating a simplified supply chain that cuts out middlemen, we bring the herder closer to the customer. This allows us to do the right thing for our customers, for our business, and for the people we work with.