This week I am thrilled to showcase the work of tonlé, an ethical zero waste fashion label based in Cambodia. From sourcing high quality remnant fabrics, to inviting staff to model the garments, to searching for sustainable locally made buttons and buckles, it is clear that this label has built ethics and sustainability into all aspects of tonlé’s design, manufacture and marketing practices.
The beautiful collection is manufactured using 90% high quality remnant fabric that has been discarded by other clothing manufacturers in Cambodia. The remaining 10% of materials (buttons, buckles, beads and so forth) are sourced from local artisans using traditional natural and recycled materials. The label has impressively achieved a 100% zero waste process in their manufacturing, where even the tiniest of fabric scraps are used in paper-making for swing tags and packaging.
Bucking the trend of poorly paid exploitative working conditions for garment workers in Cambodia, tonlé offer safe working conditions, pay wages that are well above minimum wage, and offer extensive training and career development opportunities for their staff.
Commitment to ethics can also be seen through their approach to garment modelling, where label staff are used to model the label’s products and all images are entirely un-retouched. This promotes healthy natural beauty standards and positive body image.
Here are a few of my favourites from the current collection:
To give you a greater insight into the the motivations behind tonlé, the label’s founder and lead designer Rachel Faller took the time to answer a few of my questions:
1. Cambodia is one of my favourite places in the world. Can you tell my readers a bit about what drew you to the country, and why you wanted to your label to be based there?
Cambodia is also one of my favourite places! It’s beautiful in so many ways and the people are even more beautiful. I initially went to Cambodia with a family friend who wanted to start a business there, and because I felt quite inspired with the fair trade movement that was happening there with a number of small craft groups. The beautiful textiles and warmth of the people really drew me in. I wanted to go back to investigate further so I applied for and received a grant to research on the subject of sustainability through fair trade. This allowed me to do in depth study with a number of these small organizations for a year, which in turn inspired me to start my own business.
2. It is clear in every aspect of your brand that ethics and sustainability is of the utmost importance to you. Can you talk a bit about your motivations for this? Why did you feel driven to go completely against the grain of ‘business-as-usual’ with your fashion label?
From a young age I always had this love hate relationship with fashion. I was fascinated by it (having been interested in art since I can remember and learning how to sew from my mother and grandmother) but also repulsed by the conditions that were necessary to produce such cheap clothing. Growing up around one of the largest textile centers of the industrial revolution in the US (Lowell, MA) I learned about the conditions in those factories in the 1800’s, and later that things had not changed much, just that we had moved those conditions overseas where we could not see them. So I struggled with getting involved in fashion, until I learned that there was a movement afoot (with fair trade) to try to change this. When I came to Cambodia, I saw that many of these fair trade organizations were doing some great things socially, but were not able to produce a product that could compete internationally or scale. This pushed me to build an alternative concept; something with international appeal, affordable prices, but that respected the people making the products and the environment in which we all live.
I’ve always felt that environmental concern and social responsibility must go hand-in-hand and you really cannot have one without the other. So through the process of building our social enterprise it has also always been important to try to find the most eco-friendly solutions possible while maintaining transparency. While our production methods are by no means perfect, I believe that recycled fabric is the most eco-friendly option available for producing clothing, as even “eco” fabrics use large amounts of water, carbon and energy to produce, not to mention are sometimes not produced in fair conditions. So once we started working for recycled fabrics, we realized we still had some waste left over from our own production. Myself and the tonlé team continued to develop new products and ways to use these scraps, until we were able to widdle it down to a complete zero-waste process.
3. One of the things that I believe makes tonlé unique is your collaborative approach to design, where, rather than only following patterns to make your clothing, your artisans/makers are active participants in the design process. What do you see are the benefits to this, and what unique challenges does this approach present?
Actually we do use patterns and a production process, but we are different from a traditional assembly line in that our staff have clear pathways for growth, they are able to try a range of different skills, and move around to different jobs. We do have a design and pattern making team that contributes to the design of our products, who are all Cambodian, but not all of our staff participate in the design process.
4. What role do you see for small independent fashion labels such as tonlé in changing the fashion landscape? Are small players there to lead the way- to prompt large fashion multinationals to take more sustainable actions? Or do you see a multitude of small independent labels an alternative model for the fashion economy?
I definitely think the fashion industry at large is not going anywhere any time soon – there will always be a demand for cheap clothing and frankly it is more economically efficient to produce this way. But I do believe that small brands (like tonlé) can make a difference in setting examples and pioneering new techniques, that can hopefully be adopted by large brands in some ways. For example over the last year I have seen a few larger brands (Patagonia and Esprit) using recycled fabrics in their production or practicing zero-waste pattern making, and that’s really exciting. Right now “eco-fashion” accounts for only 1% (barely) of the market share of the whole fashion industry, so if mass produced fashion were able to improve by even 5% as a whole, that would make a lot bigger difference for our planet and our people than by doubling the entire eco-fashion industry right now. So while yes, I’d like to see more and more small scale brands come out and provide alternatives, I think it’s also important that we remember the advocacy part of our roles that includes providing an example to the larger fashion industry that there is a different way to do things.
Thanks to Rachel for taking the time to answer my questions. I was also delighted to be gifted* this beautiful bassac necklace
to style for this post. Ceramic beads have been crafted from hand-dug local clay, and strung upon fabric twine that has been handmade using fabric scraps from other garments.
A beautiful sustainable piece that combines zero waste design practice with traditional artisanal crafts. I think the necklace goes beautifully with my organic cotton People Tree
dress, don’t you think?
The online store is currently available to Australian and New Zealand-based customers, and will soon be launching in the United States. If you are looking for beautiful affordable fashion that takes ethical and sustainable practice to the highest standards, you would do well to shop with tonlé
*I was gifted the necklace to style for this post. I only accept products for review that strictly uphold my standards for ethical and sustainable production. I will never accept a product and label for review that does not fit within the ethos of tortoise & lady grey.
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