KATMANDU, Nepal – In the foothills of the Himalayas, they're fighting the battle of the pashmina.
The enemy in this war: Inexpensive, imitation pashmina wool mainly made in China and India that producers in Nepal say has caused their own sales to plummet.
Pashmina wool — the soft, warm fiber from Himalayan goats — has become world famous over the past couple of decades, sold in boutiques from Manhattan to Paris, and bringing much-needed money to this impoverished mountain nation bordered by two Asian giants.
In 2000, Nepal exported $103 million worth of pashmina wool. By last year, exports had slumped to $18 million. While Nepal endured widespread political unrest over the past decade, traders say the main reason for the plunge was competition from inexpensive mass-produced imitations made from synthetic fabrics and cheaper wool.
"Pashmina has gone from being a luxury product associated with royalty to a cheap shawl or scarf," said Rebecca Ordish, an Australian intellectual property lawyer based in Nepal. Consumers now "associate pashmina with the imitation, cheap, low-quality product, so they won't be prepared to pay for the more expensive genuine product."
So the Nepalese government and pashmina producers have a battle plan. They have registered the trademark for Nepal's particular wool — called "chyangra pashmina" after its sub-species of the goat — in dozens of Western countries, said Manoj Acharya, a top official with the Ministry for Commerce and Industries.
Exporters will mark Nepal's pashminas with a "chyangra pashmina" logo to set it off from imitations, and the government is setting up a small laboratory in Katmandu to prove their goods are real, he said.
"Our hope is to separate Nepal's products from the others so that consumers are not fooled," Acharya said.
Mandu Bahadur Adhikari, head of an umbrella body of Nepali pashmina producers, said members would also be monitoring major wool markets in the West to make sure others don't use the "chyangra pashmina" label. Members will fly around the world, checking labeling at high-end stores that sell pashmina wool and organizing media campaigns. They'll also be updating importers and consumers about possible imitations.
Thousands of Nepalis are involved in pashmina production, from Himalayan herdsmen to wool processors to weavers to exporters. About half in the industry have lost their jobs or businesses over the past decade.
Pashmina sales made up just 3 percent of Nepal's exports last year. But they were the third-ranked export when it came to sales in hard currencies, such as euros and U.S. dollars, which Nepal needs to import things like electrical equipment. Most of Nepal's foreign trade is conducted in Indian rupees.
Nepal is not the only country to have faced pashmina troubles. Producers in Indian-controlled Kashmir also saw a steep drop in exports amid competition from cheaper competitors. Local officials there also began putting special stamps on their products, though it was not immediately clear whether that helped fight off imitations.
Sudarshan Man Singh, who owns the Himalayan Chyangra Pashmina store in the heart of Katmandu, said it has been extremely difficult to compete with the imitators.
"The imitation stuff are obviously of low grade and people who buy them will most likely not like them. It is hampering our reputation in the market and we need to act now," he said.