On what it means to be truly zero-waste in fashion, redistributing power as a White-owned brand, and the role of anti-racism in the larger industry.
It’s a problem I’ve talked about at length in the past: the whitewashing of sustainability that glazes over the colonial structure of the fashion industry, and often perpetuates a narrative that positions BIPOC communities as the victims of predatory production cycles, without engaging with the historical— and contemporary— systems that maintain this oppression.
tonlé presents a refreshing change: a brand that has been a zero-waste fashion champion for the last two decades, and whose founder, Rachel Faller, continues to grapple with what redistribution of power looks like as a white woman in the sustainability space.
Catch our Q&A below.
I love that your approach to “zero waste” exists both in how you source materials and how you design.
Tell us more about this process.
There are generally two approaches to making zero waste fashion: creative pattern making that uses 100% of a given textile, and creating garments from reclaimed materials. The approach we feel best honors our commitment to lighten fashion’s footprint is a marriage of the two. Not only are we diverting waste generated by others, but we strive to use every scrap of textile that comes into our workshop.
Our design team scours the remnant markets in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where pre-consumer textile waste from large garment factories is collected and resold. Back at our sewing workshop, makers and designers work together to create designs from the larger pieces of reclaimed fabric. The small scraps leftover from making those garments are cut and individually sewn into yarn.
The yarn is then handwoven and knit into new pieces—this process creates our iconic twice-recycled fabric pieces. The small amount of textile waste that remains from making our garments is mixed with used paper from our office and pattern making to create our own handmade paper. By being purposeful each step of the way, we are left with zero material waste.
Our process shows that waste is only truly waste when it gets wasted.
There are generally two approaches to making zero waste fashion: creative pattern making that uses 100% of a given textile, and creating garments from reclaimed materials. The approach we feel best honors our commitment to lighten fashion’s footprint is a marriage of the two.
Not only are we diverting waste generated by others, but we strive to use every scrap of textile that comes into our workshop. Our process shows that waste is only truly waste when it gets wasted.
As a white woman, how do you see your role in anti-racism work and decolonizing the fashion industry?
I agree and I really admire the work you’ve done to help decenter the white savior narrative in sustainable/ethical fashion and center BIPOC work and voices.
When I started my business, I came to Cambodia as a learner and felt truly privileged by being able to work with incredible artisans who had been able to make a living creating beautiful, sustainable textiles. It was not my intention to stay and start a business, but to help foster local solutions that could be financially sustainable without my involvement. But what I saw in that first year in Cambodia is that this country has such a long history of extraction, cultural theft, and violence, many parts of which are a product of colonialism and the wars that sprung from that period (the American war in Vietnam – which affected all of southeast Asia, which originated from the French colonialism of the region – and helped give rise to the Khmer Rouge).
And today, American and European corporations continue to use Cambodia as a source of cheaply produced goods and labor – while dumping waste in the country that consumers will not have to see. The first step was seeing how my own culture and privilege I was born into in many ways caused the poverty and extraction that I saw in Cambodia. So there’s an element of guilt that I admit to feeling to want to fix some of the problems that I know my own community has caused – but I also think it’s very important to make sure that you work to repair harm does not center you as the hero.
I truly view my team as heroes and leaders in this space – and my goal is to center their voices as the change-makers. Growing tonlé has taken quite a lot of financial risk which I see as leveraging the privilege of my community and helping to redistribute wealth – but over time I believe we have started to shift more of the power and decision making to our makers and leadership in Cambodia as well and will continue to work on shifting this power dynamic. For me, changing this industry is not just about paying slightly better wages, but having conversations about how we shift power dynamics across the entire industry. The power that brands hold (mostly American and European brands controlled by white people) and their suppliers and therefore garment workers (mostly BIPOC) – is 100% a legacy of colonialism and rebalancing that power dynamic needs to be priority #1 to see any real change in this industry.
Additionally – many BIPOC leaders have spoken eloquently about circular systems, mutual care, reciprocity, and regeneration – things that I think BIPOC communities need to lead on as they have often been living in much more sustainable ways whereas white folks like myself have a greater deal of un-learning to do that makes us often less capable of leading these systems. Personally, I am trying to leverage my privilege where I can to help re-distribute this power – through both monetary and non-monetary ways – and uplift and support and listen to the leadership of BIPOC whenever I can. This is more of a process than a one and done thing – and I know it will be a lifelong process of learning and unlearning.
Absolutely. I think the first step in repairing harm is acknowledging what the root problems are – acknowledging how you might have benefited from them and created them. Specifically for white customers or white-owned brands, we have had an outsized role in creating these problems that stem from this history of colonialism, and we disproportionately benefit from that legacy.
If large fashion companies – or even small ones – want to be a part of the solution – they, at the very least – really need to acknowledge what the problems are and again I think that is mostly about unfair power structures. Truthfully – I don’t see any of these large companies doing that any time soon – sure they might use organic cotton or become 5% more sustainable in this or that way – but without radically questioning the capitalist system of extraction in which only a few people at the very top thrive while everyone else suffers – they will not make any real change. If they could first acknowledge their role here, then, if they truly want to change, from a practical standpoint we need to be re-thinking the contract and relationships between brands and their suppliers – by revisiting these contracts and creating a more fair and just distribution of risk and reward (who makes profit and who is taking on more risk) that would be the next practical step.
Brands could also do this by running their own production and actually taking responsibility for what goes on there. If they ran their own production and valued how hard it was, do it well and correctly – they might actually make less stuff and make it better quality. As it stands – by outsourcing production they can put all of their risk on the suppliers if anything goes wrong, as well as getting all of the upside (read: profit) when things go right. Investors have a big role to play too – no one likes to talk about how their insatiable greed to make piles of money while taking on zero personal risk leads them to invest in the companies that can reap more benefit with none of the personal risk.
I think for our systems to change, true “impact investors” should be thinking about their investments as wealth redistribution to the people who are coming up with the best solutions to make sure we have a planet to live on in the future. At this point – no one has time for baby steps – this capitalist system is really causing all of us to suffer and of course to different degrees – except for a very privileged few. To change this – we need to look to people who have knowledge of circular, regenerative, and reciprocal systems and follow their leadership in creating new models where everyone can thrive. (And of course, vote, and get active in other ways, because these companies are truly not going to regulate themselves.) I do see fashion as a space where you could have businesses that are created on a culture of care and reciprocity where everyone can benefit. Hopefully in that future we’ll produce a lot less stuff but the things that we do make will enrich our lives so much more greatly because we’ll be able to feel the care for the earth and the people around us imbued into each and every garment.
To be transparent it is quite hard to run a business like tonlé because we are going against the grain in many ways and there are no easy paths. I have been doing this since 2008 and there have been many ups and downs and many changes. There have been years where it took every bit of mental and emotional energy just to keep the bills paid and make sure everyone got paid on time.
During some of those times, I don’t know that we always got to focus on the bigger picture and the loftier goals that we had in mind as a team – but our community’s primary request was fair wages and benefits so that had to be my first priority. On the other hand, there have been seasons where we’ve been able to rise above it a bit more and invest in bigger goals both climate and social justice wise. As the business has become more stable – the thing I am most proud of is the local leadership that has risen up in our team in Cambodia.
Living in Cambodia for 7 years – there was a lot about the international aid industry that bothered me – it was an extension of colonialism as well. As a white person – I often questioned what I was doing there – and had others question me too – that was fair. At the same time, there were people (buyers, press, customers) who put the white savior narrative upon me, and lately, I’ve tried to become more vocal about how that is not what we do – but I am sure I’ll make mistakes in this process.
As I have worked to redistribute some of the power and resources I’ve been given – I am starting to also be more vocal about my role in this and I think it’s important that I share more about this process. I think there is a role for white women in this space – but as supporters, co-creators, and learners – until we can foster more of a mindset of reciprocity and co-creation – of cultural humility and mutual respect – we often need to take more of a backseat role and listen to the leadership of BIPOC folks. It’s also important that we acknowledge our unequal role in creating and perpetuating these problems before we can become part of the solution.