Zero waste fashion: Q&A with US brand Tonlé

Meet Tonlé, the San Francisco-based womenswear brand made entirely from surplus fabric discarded by apparel manufacturers in Cambodia. The brand’s motto is “every thread matters”: the scraps they cannot transform into new clothing are cut into strips and individually hand sewn into “yarn” for new clothes. The scraps left after that are mixed with recycled office paper and sticky rice to make tags. Working in this fashion leaves 2-3 percent waste, compared to an average of 40 percent in a typical factory, the company claims on its website. Packaging is made from recycled paper and cardboard — except when wholesalers or warehouses specifically demand a plastic wrap.

Tonlé’s story also started in 2008, when Rachel Faller moved to Cambodia to do research on fair trade as a Fullbright scholar. Eventually, she decided to start a fashion brand reworking secondhand apparel. However, she kept coming across large amounts of textile waste from factories in the second hand markets. Cambodia is one of the most popular manufacturing countries for the fast fashion industry.

After opening a total of five boutiques in Cambodia, Faller reckoned she would have better opportunities internationally. Tonlé as we now know it was born in 2013. The company currently employs 30 people, mostly women, in its Phnom Penh workshop and partners with a weaving cooperative in northern Cambodia where 20 more artisans are employed. In addition, Tonlé has three staff in the United States, where it operates a physical store in San Francisco. Its focus, however, is wholesale: its network comprises 150 partners in the US, Europe, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, but the brand is aiming for more. 2018 saw a 30 percent growth for the zero waste label and Faller expects even better results in 2019.