Design for biodiversity

DesBio_Blog_RCuoco copy

Illustration by Renee Cuoco

I would like to begin this post with a little story I like to call –

The Chiru and the Snow Leopard

High up in the open alpines of the Tibetan Plateau lives the Chiru, a shy and untamable creature whose fur is more valuable than gold. The Chiru’s fine fur can be spun into shahtoosh – the ‘king of wools’ as it is sometimes known. The Kashmiri people have been spinning and weaving shahtoosh since the 16th century, handing down their incredible craft and skill from generation to generation. For hundreds of years the Kashmiris lived in harmony with the Chiru, building livelihoods and creating an extraordinary textile tradition bound to their local culture. The women spinning, and the men weaving, together they developed the lightest and warmest wool in the world.

Then, during the 1980s luxury boom, shahtoosh became so sought after that people were prepared to pay over £4, 000 to get their hands on just one shawl. It became the most luxurious fiber a person could own, more than any fur or mink. This growth in demand led to an increase in trade, which led to illegal poaching, which led to a fast depletion of the Chiru species. Coming close to extinction, a trade ban was finally enforced worldwide in 2000. So there you have it, a proud tradition spanning over 500 years, undone in less than two decades.

But the story continues.………

After the trade ban, 45, 000 families of shahtoosh weavers were at a loss, and so the Kashmir government began to promote an international market for pashmina shawls in an effort to find alternative livelihoods for their people. Wool made from goats, which can be domesticated, pashmina is far less monetary rewarding, but can be produced much quicker. As the international trade for pashmina boomed, numbers of livestock increased across the Himalayas, and the grazing from the herds began to wipe out food sources for local wild herbivores. In turn, the native snow leopard, reliant on this wildlife, was driven up the mountains into sub-optimal conditions. The farming of pashmina livestock on what was the snow leopards natural habitat pushed this already endangered species further into decline.

This story is an illustration of the complex relationships, which exist between our economy, culture and biodiversity. Fashion has an incredible ability to drive creativity and economic activity, but it remains very reliant on our natural resources, and the degradation of these resources is a major challenge across the industry. Not only is there an environmental and (I hope) moral drive to protect our natural world, there is a long-term economic need to understand and embrace sustainable use of our ecosystems.

We have been collaborating with the Responsible Ecosystem Sourcing Platform (RESP), to find ways in which design, business, science and policy can together create ecological, cultural and economic resilience. Through the Design for Biodiversity project we are working with RESP member brands, Burberry, the LVMH Group, Mulberry and Giorgio Armani (to name a few), along with scientists, producers and suppliers to bridge the gap between scientific data and design, and to develop design practices which realise the true value of our natural resources.

Keep an eye out for more on the Design for Biodiversity project soon….