When I was travelling in Cambodia, I came across an ethical fashion brand in Phnom Penh airport called Tonlé. It really stood out. Each garment was beautifully made and inside, each item of clothing had a hand-stitched label telling you who had created it.
After a little bit more digging when I got back to the UK, I discovered that Tonlé was a sustainable fashion brand run by Rachel Faller. Rachel discovered that each year, the fashion industry throws away 100 million pounds in weight, worth of textiles. But the unique thing about Tonlé is it produces sustainable clothing from the waste materials of mainstream factories. This means the business has zero waste, yes ZERO WASTE, can you believe it? Plus it provides vital work for women in Cambodia, a place where much of the population face harsh working conditions and have faced a high level of exploitation and adversity in their lives.
Tonlé is, without a doubt, one of the most exciting ethical brands out there at the moment. So I was dying to speak to founder and CEO Rachel Faller as part of a Monday inspiration Q&A.
Over to you Rachel!
Hi Rachel. Tell us about Tonlé – what is it?
Tonlé is an ethical and sustainable fashion brand based in Cambodia where all of our garments and accessories are handmade, using scrap waste that we pick up from mass clothing manufacturers. Everything from the garment you buy to the tag we attach to your garment is made from recycled materials. We are one of the pioneers in the zero-waste fashion movement, which has been slowly gaining momentum.
Did you always want to get into fashion?
It’s kind of funny because I always loved making clothes (I made my first Halloween costume out of second hand clothing when I was in third grade!) and I began selling handmade items to my classmates when I was in 8th grade. But starting in high school, I was vaguely aware of the problems with ‘sweatshops’ in developing countries and I couldn’t imagine participating in the industry.
I studied textile art at university, (there are very few of us in the world who can say we hold a degree in Fiber). But it wasn’t until I came to Cambodia in 2007 for the first time – when I met a number of inspirational artisans working for fair trade organizations – that I saw an opportunity to merge my love of apparel and textiles with something that had the potential to change the fashion industry from the inside out.
How did you start the business?
After graduating with my BFA in Fiber from the Maryland Institute College of Art, I was awarded a Fulbright grant to do research on fair trade artisans and the products that they were producing. It was that research, coupled with meeting a group of women who were looking for good jobs and steady income to support their families, that inspired me to start the business. That and the fact that I was constantly searching for clothing that would fit my style and my values, and had a hard time finding it, so I decided to create it myself.
From that initial business, which involved a $500 per month budget and 4 women working from home, the business has evolved. Over the last 8 years, we’ve grown to employ over 50 people, with three shops in Cambodia and a number of international wholesale accounts. It has been an incredible journey and not what I would have imagined doing at all when I started out. Though now I couldn’t imagine doing anything different.
What was it challenging setting up a business in a foreign country?
In some ways yes, and in some ways there is so much more potential. The market in the US and the UK is so saturated with designers who want a chance at being the next big thing, and very few are ready to uproot themselves and move to a place like Cambodia.
In Cambodia I was able to work directly with artisans, dyers, weavers, sewers, and pattern makers, creating my own designs in collaboration with them, something I would never have been able to do (or afford to do) in the US without a lot of investment, as a 22-year-old.
Also, when I opened my first shop there, we were one of the few boutique shops in Cambodia selling eco-friendly fashion, and what we were doing really stood out there, especially with the tourists and expats. I was able to experiment, and learn, and fail, in a way that might have held much more risk back at home where everything is so much more expensive, the bar is much higher, and the cost of living is so much higher.
As the company grew we did run into some infrastructure challenges and resource scarcities, but overall I don’t think I would have been able to start a business like this from the states initially.
How did you find your employees?
We partner with a non-profit organization to identify women who are coming out of challenging situations but are looking for stable work and who are interested in what we are doing. They don’t necessarily need to have experience – as we believe that you can basically learn all the skills you need to make these products if you are interested and willing to learn. Many of our employees had no experience coming in and are now team leaders and teaching others how to make the products.
Do you use your brand to raise awareness of social problems in Cambodia?
Yes, and we don’t shy away from talking about the exploitation that many people in Cambodia face – many have witnessed genocide and war and have experienced tough working conditions. But we try to keep Tonlé positive because there’s a fine line between promoting a cause and exploiting people’s personal lives. We tell stories about our artisans in a respectful and positive way.
Did Tonlé have a sustainable philosophy from the start?
I’ve always believed that sustainability and social issues go hand in hand. Climate change is social issue, because the planet doesn’t care if it gets warmer, we do. If garment factories pollute the waterways around people’s homes and there is no longer clean water to drink, it is a social issue. So, it’s important to me to uphold a strong environmental commitment as much as a social one.
How did you push the environmental side of Tonlé?
When I started the first iteration of this business (which was re-branded in 2014 as tonlé) we used primarily second hand fabrics, but this became difficult as our business was growing and we needed more consistency. In visiting the second hand markets, I started to discover huge piles of fabric waste that were being sold in the markets, and after asking people where they came from, I learned more about the problem with waste in the garment industry.
So we started using these fabrics in our designs, and gradually started designing more and more pieces to use up the smaller scraps of waste. Gradually, over the years, we were able to close the loop on our production process. This has been a great marketing opportunity for our business, but it wasn’t what initially drove me to create this process, but just a desire to use up what we already had. I guess I can thank my parents for teaching me not to waste things and see the beauty in the stuff that others would throw away!
How do you source your fabric?
We work with remnant dealers who buy massive quantities of scrap fabric from the factories and dump sites. They process it, clean it, and sell it on. We’re hoping to purchase directly from the factories in the future, but we’re just not big enough to absorb this volume of waste yet.
How long were you in Cambodia for?
I lived in Cambodia for seven years full time and then I moved back to the States one and a half years ago. I’m now able to run the business from the States and travel back to Cambodia when I need to.
What do you love most about your job?
I love that in a small start-up company like Tonlé, I can work directly with artisans and can be involved in the making process in a way that you just wouldn’t get in a larger company. I love being in the workshop and making things with my team. These women have faced adversity, yet they have the biggest smiles and have big dreams. Being able to work with them is a huge inspiration.
What are the biggest challenges of running your business?
From a personal perspective, it became difficult living in Cambodia because my business consumed my life, and I didn’t have a lot of balance. Finding a good work/life balance has been key to my sanity! The fashion industry is also so up and down and is a high-risk industry, so it can be hard to balance sales cycles. We are a small team of only 50 people on our payroll so whereas larger fashion brands simply put in an order to their factories when they need more stock, we have to always be in full production to ensure we are making enough garments, which can be tricky.
What does your day-to-day working life involve?
It involves a lot of travelling – I travel to Cambodia 3-4 times a year and I visit trade shows to make important business contacts and promote the business. When I’m not travelling, I am working from my apartment in San Francisco, and sometimes I use some of the city’s co-working spaces. I try to spend as much time outside as possible, and take many of my calls and business appointments from somewhere near the water.
Often I have to work at night because that is when my team is starting their day in Cambodia, so I am not shy about taking a mid-day hike or bike ride. It’s unconventional but I am starting to find a better sense of balance that helps to keep me sane.
What is your tip for starting your own ethical or sustainable fashion brand?
I’d recommend you work for someone else before you branch out on your own. People don’t realise how difficult it is to start this kind of business – you have to wear many hats and do many things that you would never imagine you’d be doing.
As an owner of a small business, people often imagine that you get to do all the fun stuff, but it’s actually the opposite – you end up doing all the things no one else wants to do. Don’t get me wrong, there’s so much joy in it, but I think many people imagine that I sit around drawing pictures, when in fact I probably spend a total of 36 hours of my YEAR drawing.
I’d recommend offering your services to another start-up and help them design their products. Also, many people in the fashion industry immediately head to the fashion power cities of NYC and London. But I’d recommend opening your business overseas in a less developed country. Not only are you in a place where you can immediately start to provide jobs to people that need them, you will also find business opportunities that are difficult to find in the competitive cities like London and New York.
Thank you to Rachel for taking part in this week’s Monday inspiration Q&A. You can find out more about Tonlé at Tonle.com and follow them via instagram, twitter and Facebook. All pic credits © Tonlé.
Oh, and if you’re interested in reading about other sustainable fashion brands, check out this piece I wrote for Virgin.com.