It was an informative interview with Rachel Faller, Founder of tonlé, a zero waste, ethical fashion brand based in Cambodia. Through utilizing scrap waste from clothing manufacturers, accessories and handmade clothing are crafted in Cambodia and sent around the world. Rachel dives in to the current state of sustainable fashion, the reality of consumer challenges and how we can all do our due diligence to support true brands working towards zero waste.
You’ve been living and traveled to Cambodia on and off for over a decade. How did you start there?
I went to Cambodia in 2008 on a Fulbright grant about sustainability and fair trade. I worked with artisan groups and NGOs with social missions around how to build a sustainable model for craft.
I originally knew your brand as Keok;jay in 2012, and then donated to your Tonle kickstarter in 2013. How did tonlé begin?
During that Fulbright grant, I worked with a group of artisans who asked me to help start a business, which became Keok;jay. In 2013, I rebranded the company as tonlé with many members of my previous team.
What is tonlé’s mission?
In a nutshell, tonlé takes waste discarded by garment factories to create new, beautiful products. There’s so much waste produced before a product even gets to a customer, we strive to educate our customers about product waste and manufacturing.
The mission goes beyond what we do with tonlé. Our circular vision is about how we create products, and achieving a zero waste process to treat waste as a resource instead of something to be thrown away. Waste isn’t waste until you waste it. There are many things we throw away that are absolutely useful.
Going hand in hand with that is treating makers with fairness and respect. It’s not just about giving opportunities to people, but also creating a space where makers are part of the team and collaborating with the fashion industry. They’re not disadvantaged women we need to help, they are our partners. Our team works full time in Phnom Penh and we work with a weaving cooperative in Preah Vihear, which is individually run. Everyone earns fair wages and benefits with as much transparency into that as possible.
For those who don’t know much about Cambodia, what do you usually tell them?
Cambodia has a long, complicated history. A lot of energy is focused on the past, specifically the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot’s regime. But there’s a lack of understanding about all the other powers that were at play at the time. The United States in the 70s was bombing eastern Cambodia without anyone knowing, while in Vietnam. Restorative justice for Cambodia would include ourselves and the effects of French colonialism as culpable players who have negatively affected Cambodia today.
Recent globalization has opened up fair trade in Cambodia, with China taking over most of the economy, unregulated. With a dissatisfying government, and a lack of involvement from other countries, China has filled that void.
As an outsider to Cambodia, how was it been to start a business there, knowing the effect of globalization, imperialism, and general outside reliance on aid?
Cambodia is in a complicated place, and as a person coming from the outside, the best thing I can do is provide good opportunities for people, and they can choose what they want to do with that. I have to be careful with how I enact change in the world. I don’t assume what people want or need in Cambodia. I think about that a lot, the colonialist mentality, and there aren’t a lot of easy solutions. The important thing I have found is to build long relationships, have dialogue, and listen.
In the beginning, our team discussed having a co-owner structure, but if the makers in Cambodia wanted to run a business, they have no money to invest or to lose. My community in the US buffers my risk if I take out a loan. In the long run, I’d love to have a buy back, but for now I don’t want them to take on any financial risk themselves.
Do you think that the tonlé model of zero waste products could be used in other places or with other products? Can large corporations be sustainable? Is it scalable?
This is a complicated question. Can it scale? Yes. There is a huge amount of waste currently being created and already created that we can utilize. We not anywhere close to a point at which we could possible use all this waste. In addition, there are ways to partner with brands to reduce the waste that they are already creating. If we solved the waste crisis in the fashion industry, we could pivot to working with the most sustainable and waste minimizing fabrics and techniques.
That being said, we have way too much clothing in the world, and people should focus on using what they have and reducing their personal consumption. I see the way forward for tonlé as evolving and continuing to exist as a brand but also as a platform and resource for information to create change in the larger industry.
With a brick and mortar in San Francisco, how have you found navigating social media and digital messaging to drive business?
Today, we mostly rely on wholesale to independent boutiques. We originally had most of our customers come through organic traffic on social media, and the people who wanted to find us could find us, but now that business for good and sustainability are buzzwords, big corporations are capitalizing on it. When companies like H&M talk about sustainability, it buries companies that are doing good work. Unfortunately, the trend for the industry at large is that people and companies who have very little to do with sustainability now control the message about it.
There is also pressure to compete with online brands and digital native brands. For instance Everlane, which cuts out the “middleman” to provide affordable prices while still selling high quality items. They make the middleman out to be bad, but they’re really just putting small shops out of business. The markup for products who have brick and mortar stores are the funds needed to stay in business and keep employees employed.
That’s a tough pill to swallow as a consumer, on the one hand I’d love to support companies that are doing the best out of everyone else, but that information isn’t readily available. And as you say, nor is it regulated information.
To know all of this isn’t to make consumers feel guilty, but to encourage companies to be held accountable to standards. We see now with social media platforms and political campaigns and false advertising, can advertisements be checked for other industries too? Will the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) step in on products who claim to be zero waste, and check for themselves?
In Sweden, H&M was called out by the government for calling their products sustainable, but that hasn’t happened in the US yet.
What about the cost of sustainable products? It’s not something everyone can afford all the time.
The cost of fast fashion versus slow fashion is the cost of employing robots or humans, ethically. We need to figure out as a society what we value. Is it treating people fairly, then we can’t cut costs. If people examine fast fashion, it is poorly made. If we buy slow fashion, we can buy less clothes and use them for a longer period of time, becoming more affordable to shop. It’s years of marketing that has taught us to believe that we need to buy new things or can’t wear the same thing twice.
What are other brands that you are inspired by or think are doing amazing work in the ethical and sustainable approach to fashion?
It’s hard to compare ethical standards, for instance human rights to carbon footprints? Think about leather, leather lasts a long time as a plastic alternative, but then you have your animal rights aspect. We don’t have a standard of ethics across cultures. But, I would point to Good on You, Remake and Trestle as three organizations that do vetting of brands and are resources for finding out more information on who's doing the good work.
Today, we live in an unsustainable system, so you have to do the research, find the best option you can, and don’t lose sleep over it.