In conversation with Dr. Susan Kask from Himalayan Wild Fibers
by Demiral Ikram | Jan 09, 2023
“In conversation with” is a series of interviews by Green Story with leading fashion brands, sharing their stories, what sustainability means to them, the challenges they face, and how they communicate their green stories. Read on and get inspired!
Tell us a bit about yourself and the story behind Alpine Group.
I have my PhD in environmental and natural resource economics but have evolved into an ecological economist over the past 30 years. I was an academic for 35 years teaching economics and conducting applied research on environmental and social issues measuring impact. I began working on sustainability measurement and decision-making in the 1990s. After an academic career, I decided to work directly with companies helping them become sustainable businesses bringing about on-the-ground change. I started a company Values2Action and met Ellie Skeele, the founder of Himalayan Wild Fibers (HWF).
HWF caught my attention because sustainable economic development is key to their mission. So often business sustainability efforts focus on the environment and ignore people. HWF focuses on people and planet.
Currently I am on contract as the Chief Sustainability Officer for HWF where I manage all aspects of sustainability, especially verification and impact measurement. I also provide general support to the CEO, always keeping the mission and guiding principles front and center for the company. That is an important characteristic of HWF that also attracted my attention. HWF’s mission and principles are always on the table guiding everything they do. Of course, as a business they must pay attention to price, costs, profit, quality, and customers; the mission guides choices around all of these. That is why I am committed to and passionate about the company.
In the 2000’s Ellie founded Himalayan Wild Fibers LLC to sell a textile fiber into global markets bringing cash income to subsistence farmers in the Himalaya’s, some of the poorest people in the world. HWF’s raw material purchases provide economic development in rural mountain communities, by providing an opportunity to earn cash income during farmers off season sustainably harnessing their natural resources. Ellie refers often to this quote from Paul Polak and Mal Warwick:
“The most obvious, direct, and effective way to combat poverty is to help poor people earn more money.” The Business Solution to Poverty
HWF developed a proprietary process to improve a fiber processed from the wild Himalayan Nettle (HN) plant to export quality. HN is a wild abundant renewable non-timber forest product. This plant was already harvested for local use and although artisan products were for sale in Nepal, they did not yield sufficient global prices given the effort required to produce them. Instead, improving the fiber to export quality for global markets provides much greater impact. So, HWF developed a global market for the improved fiber. The market has caught up to HWF’s vision; demand for HWF’s beautiful Himalaya™ fiber is growing as brands recognize the importance of using sustainable materials in their products. There is now retail product in denim and knits made with HWF’s fiber on the market.
When HWF reaches scale, global fashion dollars will provide consistent, reliable cash income in the tens of millions to mountain villages across Nepal - year, after year, after year. This is important as often economic development involves one-time projects. HWF sales yield long-term supplemental income supporting Nepali mountain communities. This income is generated from the sustainable harvest of a wild growing renewable natural resource. No exploitation, no harmful extraction. Development doesn’t get any better than this. That’s why I work with HWF to help create a profitable company that has real impact on the ground for communities most in need through the opportunity to work for fair pay while protecting the planet. Business with a purpose for people and planet at its best. It can be done. I’m glad to be a part of it.
HWF’s fiber is derived from the abundant wild Himalayan Nettle plant growing in the Himalayas. The mission and principles for sourcing this material are clear - fair payment to harvesters and sustainable harvest of Himalayan Nettle bark ribbon. Since HN only grows at certain altitudes in the Himalayas, our options for sourcing are also clear. We must buy from those who have rights to harvest and that includes primarily the 22000 Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs) who comprise most of Nepal’s Community Forest system. That’s where HWF’s sourcing begins.
We work with agents who aggregate the Himalayan Nettle bark ribbon harvests from CFUGs. Currently we are piloting our Responsible Sourcing Program where we intend to partner with organizations that will manage the aggregation as well as verification and monitoring of sustainable harvest and fair pay. This approach is built upon a partnership of collaboration and trust with shared responsibility instead of a relationship rooted in power and policing.
Nepal’s Community Forest system has an excellent record of sustainable forest management significantly improving forest cover and biodiversity since its inception in the 1980s. Decades of research demonstrate this. Community Forest User Groups have rights to forest resources and the responsibility to manage those resources sustainably. HWF’s raw material sourcing has therefore been fundamentally sustainable since its inception. Currently, building upon this system, our sourcing program is rooted in:
1. Respect for Nepal’s CF system and their success.
2. Support CFUGs where needed
3. Verify our sustainability and impact.
HWF’s primary challenge is verifying the excellence of the Community Forest system in Nepal and providing support to suppliers where it is needed. Access to CFUGs and raw material in the rural mountains is challenging for monitoring and documentation. Navigating the logistics of fair pay and direct pay also pose challenges. HWF seeks to work with partners who are willing to share responsibility to meet these challenges. A further challenge is to find the right partners to establish long-term, transparent, shared responsibility relationships based upon trust, both with suppliers and buyers.
HWF’s buyers’ understanding that their fiber purchases protect Nepal’s forest system and support rural mountain communities is essential. HWF communicates this through sharing our story with buyers. My background as an academic ecological economist is helpful to document HWF’s sustainability and impact since I have spent 35 years measuring the environmental/social benefits and costs of economic activity.What are your top priorities for the upcoming years in terms of sustainable materials and their impact?
Bringing our responsible sourcing program fully on board for all our raw material supply is our top priority. Measuring impact both on the forest and mountain communities is also a priority in the next few years.