Norlha is a sustainable luxury brand started in 2007 by mother and daughter Kim and Dechen Yeshi. Its mission is “to bring exquisite hand-woven Akniu khullu products from the Tibetan Plateau to the world, while improving the lives of former nomadic and Tibetan communities”. In the process of scaling up by developing a B2C business model from a former exclusively B2B model, Norlha’s sustainability efforts reflect not only embedding sustainability in internal operations, by sourcing all things organically and training employees and paying them well, but also promoting sustainable consumption through their marketing efforts. They do this by communicating their story to consumers at a deeper cultural level. Norlha is a successful example of sustainable luxury and their operation worth replicating in the luxury industry.
University of Nottingham Ningbo China
In modern society, luxury and fashion brands need to assume more ethical and environmental responsibilities. Norlha focuses on building a sustainable luxury brand, including innovation that is not only brand-focused, but also has a positive impact on the natural environment and local communities.
Norlha attaches great importance to the ethical and environmental aspects of the textile production process, which is why its products are made entirely of yak wool, or khullu. Khullu fiber is derived from the down or undercoat growing under a yak’s hair. One of the many advantages of this entirely natural fiber is durability: it retains its original shape, is resistant to pilling, and lasts long enough to be passed on to the next generation.
However, there are two main difficulties in working with khullu. The first is the need to dehair, which means separating the rough hair from the down, and untangle it, which requires the use of carders. The second difficulty is the shortness of the fiber, which makes it more difficult to spin. In order to find efficient ways to dehair that wouldn't ruin the fiber, Norlha was able to find machines that both preserved the fiber and did the job without losing too much. For the spinning, Norlha turned to Indian chakras, which are used in India and Nepal to spin cotton, which also have short fiber.
Norlha has a sense of responsibility for its employees as well. Norlha employs 34% of the local workforce and has built strong trust relationships with the local community. Since its establishment in 2007, Norlha has spent more than 40,000 hours training local nomads in vocational, managerial and textile production skills. Its founders believe that only with a satisfied and happy workforce can they truly sustainably produce high quality products.
In terms of the external innovation, Norlha takes a different approach to marketing. The advertising models are all Tibetan workers in their workshops. Norlha insisted that their employees have photo-opportunities not only because of the expression of herdsmen's unique plateau lifestyle, but also to make them feel involved in this land. At the same time, they believe this approach helps educate their customers and encourages them to make the right purchasing decisions. This promotional method connects customers with workers who make Norlha products, where consumers and producers become a common group with shared ethical values.
Norlha also intends to lead consumers toward a simpler and more restrained lifestyle. The fashion industry produces beautiful clothes, as well as endless desire, but behind the gloss lies a truth: massive pollution of the natural environment, the exploitation of the labor force at the bottom, and piles of discarded products that become a burden on the planet. Norlha hopes to change that, with hand-crafted, durable, natural fabrics that consumers will learn to cherish for a long time.
Compared with other luxury products, Norlha's products are more in line with ethical fashion and the trend of green consumption, and its innovation can also promote the change and development of the entire luxury industry.
Growing up in a Tibetan household, Dechen Yeshi (CEO and Co-Founder of Norlha) has a Tibetan father and a textile-loving mother, Kim Yeshi, President and Co-Founder of Norlha, who has always talked about how yak wool has the potential to be a high-end fibre. Deeply influenced by her roots and encouraged by her parents, Dechen visited Tibet for the first time when she graduated from university. She then decided to stay and start Norlha, an atelier that employs mostly former nomads to create fabrics of exceptional quality. As Dechen has explained, with a story to share, Norlha is a lifestyle brand that makes connections with customers and employees through shared values, beliefs, and creations.
The company and its products have positive impact on the world by focusing on the SDG 1 (No Poverty), SDG 4 (Quality Education), SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption And Production) & SDG 15 (Life On Land).
For local workers in Norlha, the transformation from herders into skilled artisans provides them stable and well-paid jobs. Thus, they become eligible for loans to fix houses and spend more disposable income on better education for their children. Take Wandi’s family as an example: before Wandi started working at Norlha, he and his mother were struggling to make ends meet because they had not received an education and owned very small herd of animals. Today, Wandi is the head dyer at Norlha and lives with his mother, wife and two children. They have renovated their house, bought a car and are one of the wealthiest families in the village.
Norlha's operation is also beneficial to the environment. When local herders started working at Norlha, they began to rely less on herding and, with the declining herd of animals, pasture erosion has slowed.
Besides the positive impact on local people and the natural environment, as time has passed, more far-reaching effects can be observed in the region: more shops and restaurants have opened and more money is spent on communal and cultural activities, supporting the continuous flourishing of culture. For example, the contributions backing up the local monastery and various festivals became more frequent and increased in amount. Moreover, singers, poets, artists, and craftsmen gained wider support and appreciation with the increase in demand for ceremonies and cultural or artistic events.
Norlha’s business started with partnering as a supplier with large luxury brands, such as Yves Saint Laurent, Balmain and LANVIN in 2008. At that time, many consumers, hit by the global financial crisis, started rejecting large brands and searching for more sustainable goods. Although being the supplier meant that Norlha’s name could not be recognized by the end-consumer, the long-term partnerships helped Norlha understand what consumers want and how to make products with high luxury quality. Furthermore, it also brought increasing financial income to Norlha, which facilitated expanding both its production line and employee base. At the very beginning, they were only able to produce scarves with 40 workers, but now they have 130 employees and have extend their production lines to also include accessories, clothes and homewares.
After 7 years of working with large luxury brands, Kim, the founder of Norlha, realized that it was the time for Norlha to directly tap into the market, signaling Norlha’s shift from B2B to B2C through developing its distribution channel. Following the idea of establishing a local presence first and then going further out, Norlha expanded its market by degrees. Initially most of its customers were from China, reflecting a strong local presence. Gradually it expanded into Europe, which is now its second largest market. Germany, France and Switzerland contributed to the majority of online orders, while a small proportion of sales came from Italy and Spain. In the near future, Norlha is also looking forward to extending its presence in the US and Japan.
First, from the perspective of “No Poverty” (SDG 1), one of the key objectives for Norlha is to provide stable jobs and adequate disposable income for the local people. Most of Norlha's employees were former nomads or members of nomad families whose income from herding was volatile, making it difficult for them to get by. Norlha has created stable employment opportunities for its employees, and pays them competitive wages, thus giving them an easier means to make a better living. Until now, more than 4 million US dollars have been paid in salaries, indicating Norlha has helped alleviate poverty and create a more financially secure life for many.
Furthermore, in terms of “Quality Education” (SDG 4), Norlha commits to take responsibility for employees through professional training. It has spent more than 40,000 hours training indigenous employees, including not only in textile and management skills but also software skills. Norlha also focuses on gender equality (SDG 5) in education since 72% of their employees are female. Those women for centuries had to get up at 3 am to start milking and could not stop until midnight. In comparison, Norlha's work provides them an opportunity to access literacy education and technical skills and gives them freedom to develop themselves. In summary, Norlha helps to achieve inclusive and equitable quality education, to which women have equal access to further their competencies and financial independence.
The third one is “Responsible Consumption And Production” (SDG 12). In the manufacturing process, the raw material of Norlha products called yak khullu is produced with zero waste and pesticides, and all dyeing products are made with low-impact non-toxic dyes. From a marketing perspective, Norlha educates customers on the significance of sustainable consumption and highlights its environmentally friendly approach to production to promote its products. As a result, Norlha has reduced wasteful consumption and utilized natural resources efficiently, which helps to protect affected communities and the environment.
Finally, as for “Life On Land” (SDG 15), Norlha has been taking a humanistic approach in sourcing its yak wool with care and respect. As local people no longer take animal husbandry as the main source of income, positive results gradually emerged as the grazing quantity of yak and sheep was controlled, the depletion of grassland was prevented, and the sustainability of grassland resources was improved. Moreover, yaks contribute to maintaining the fragile ecosystem of the Tibetan Plateau by feeding on flora and fertilizing the soil. All in all, Norlha protects and promotes sustainable use of the planet's resources and alleviates biodiversity loss.
Kim Yeshi, president & co-founder
Keep this story going! Share below!
Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu, CN
Business Website: https://www.norlha.com/
Year Founded: 2007
Number of Employees: 51 to 200
Norlha is a sustainable luxury brand, a social enterprise, and a certified B Corporation situated in the Tibetan Plateau. “Norlha” means “Wealth of the Gods” in Tibetan. This name is a reflection of Norlha’s commitments to the natural environment and Tibetan communities. As a strong believer in sustainable fashion, its founders hope that customers will truly value Norlha’s products and its social and environmental contributions.