How many of us are sure that our clothes were made without the use of slavery or significant and needless damage to the environment?
Many of us are well aware of the exploitation happening around the world in the fashion industry, but we may feel at a loss for how to change it.
Rachel Faller decided she had to do something about it. After studying fair trade for her Fulbright Scholarship in Cambodia, Faller stayed to open her own factory and set a new norm. Tonlé, an ethical fashion company, was born.
Tonlé means river and symbolizes movement, change, growth and potential—qualities she wants to see for an industry she loves for its creativity, but despises for its damage.
“The garment industry is actually the second largest polluting industry in the world,” she explains. “It has polluted over 70% of China’s waterways, for example, with toxic dyes and chemicals. Tons of carbon are being emitted into the atmosphere. Half the world’s textiles are actually made out of petroleum and when you burn that, or put that in a landfill, it obviously has devastating consequences.”
In fact, brands with recognizable patterns or trademarks will burn fabrics so no one else can use them.
“In addition to all that pollution,” Faller adds, “about half of the materials created are wasted in the process of getting them to us as final products. So, imagine if we were able to cut that waste down. Imagine if we were able to cut that production down in half by just not wasting as much.”
Starting out, Faller considered sourcing organic cotton—important because the worst of the exploitation is at this level—and working from scratch to ethically produce clothing. But even with her drive and expertise, she couldn’t find a sustainable source.
“I was contacting organic cotton companies, and they couldn’t tell me who made it or how much their workers were paid,” she says. “I couldn’t buy it.”
Instead of relying on discovering the perfect silver bullet, Faller found a practical entry point to build her business. All the garments are made from remnant materials sourced from factories that would otherwise throw them away or burn them.
The large scraps are sorted by color and made into clothes. Even the smaller scraps are spun into yarn and made into totes, scarfs, jewelry and other designs. No lack of creativity on behalf of the tonlé team, which employs mostly Cambodians (around 40) working in small factories. Their bios can be seen on the tonlé site, and each maker signs the garments they make. Even the smallest scraps are turned into paper, making tonlé the only completely zero-waste fashion company on the market—and that translates to a ton of benefit for the planet.
How many tons? 11 tons—the weight of two Asian elephants—does not enter a landfill or get burned. This prevents 77 tons of carbon from entering the atmosphere and spares the use of 46 million gallons of water.
“Hopefully, with zero waste everyone will adopt it, and it won’t be a differentiating factor,” she says.
Tonlé contracts with other designers to help them get on board with zero waste efforts. They sell online, in four stores in Cambodia, as a wholesaler to retailers (mostly boutiques) and are hoping to scale up their wholesale output to expand across the US and other countries.
“I believe the role of the small brands like us is to prove that it can be done, and then if customers see that then they’ll demand that,” she says. “I do think the market share for the smaller ethical fashion brands will grow, but for bigger changes, the bigger brands have to get on board and they’ll just be slower to do that, but it’ll happen.”
A version of this post originally appeared on UNREASONABLE.is.
Author: Cayte Bosler / Unreasonable Institute
Editor: Renée Picard
Images: via Rachel Faller, used with permission from Tonlé