City: Phnom Penh
Ethical fashion starts to be more and more trendy, especially after Rana Plaza and other accidents which made people aware (or rather forced them to see) what was obvious since a long while – that the fashion market exploits people from the Global South so products can be cheap and more accessible for customers from the Global North. But an ethical fashion created from recycled materials and following the zero-waste philosophy? That’s something really new!
It started here, in Phnom Penh – says Kaitlyn Telge, marketing manager at Tonle. Everything is done ethically in our factories in the city. We try to hire ethnic groups from all over Cambodia. At the same time we use for our designs recycled materials from large factories, creating from them for example t-shirts. The leftovers are used for scarves and other accessories. The leftovers from them are used to produce paper for notebooks or postcards. Totally zero-waste.
Zero-waste means simply that there is no waste, not even one scrap cast away. Every single piece is used one way or another. Thanks to numerous bloggers, the zero-waste philosophy starts to be quite a popular life-style, although there is not many fashion brands which tries to introduce this concept to the production of clothes.
We don’t throw anything away, we keep it and we will use it when we figure out how. A lot of products which you see here, in the shop, you will not find on line. When we see the fabric, we say: o! we have this scrap, let’s make a little bag, or a little scarf and put it in the store. But it’s difficult for e-commerce to photograph it and put on the website.
This is how we work, although at the end this kind of production is quite challenging.
And it’s not the only challenge Tonle has to face.
Having a business in Cambodia is not really an easy task. There are a lot of difficulties. And in general, in social start-ups cash flow is always an issue. The fashion industry additionally is very competitive. Finding our niche market around the world is not easy. The market here is different than in the USA or China, figuring out product which will work for everyone it’s quite challenging.
The way to face this challenge is to listen to customers, build relations, educate people about fair and ecological fashion. Plus, strong personal belief and involvement.
Rachel Faller, the founder of Tonle, started with five women in her living room. She was trying to figure out how we can make clothes as environmentally friendly as possible.
We can use organic cotton and other materials, but the point was that still a lot of materials are thrown away and it causes incredible environmental destruction. She decided that the most eco-friendly way is to reuse materials instead of creating new one. That’s how it started. Now we have 45-50 employees, we sell on line internationally. We pay more our workers than other factories, and offer them bonuses. We want to create an environment where they are challenged creatively and have the chance to learn and grow, not just work 8-10 hours per day.
Although even finding employees is not that easy.
Sometimes it’s easy, but it can be difficult too. We work with a lot of non-governmental organizations, which give sewing training to people. They come to us with basic knowledge. But a lot of NGOs keep the best sewers for themselves. At the end we manage, a little bit through NGOs, a little bit through word of mouth. 95% of our staff is Cambodian and 97% are women. We have just few foreigners, working in the management team.
What make foreigners, including Kaitlyn herself, to work so far away from their own country, changing lives of people from completely different culture?
I think travelling and exposing yourself to different kind of living, cultures, issues… Once you see how the world is working, it’s difficult to not involve. I can’t imagine working for ZARA or other shops like that after seeing how workers in Cambodia work and live. I think going out of your comfort zone, see how other people live, give you no other choice than looking for ways you can contribute.
And once you decide to contribute, just start doing.
Don’t be afraid and believe in yourself. Build a network of people around who can support you not only financially but also emotionally when difficult moments come, and they come for sure, especially if you want to do social business. So make sure you have good people around to be there for you when it gets tough.
More about Tonle: tonle.com