Featured Maker: Rachel Faller of Tonlé

Quinstance: First off, what brought you to Cambodia? Why Cambodia?

Rachel Faller: I had a friend who wanted to go there originally. She asked me to go with her in 2007. Ultimately, she decided against it, but I applied for a grant to study the crafts there.

Cambodia has a lot of fair trade organizations. I applied for a Fulbright grant to study there. I got it and went back in 2008. I worked with a bunch of craft organizations, learned what was working and not working. A lot of the crafts were interesting but did not have the right designs to appeal to an international market. That is where I started--looking for comfort and style, looking for stuff you can buy more ethically. It really was hard to find something in between fashion and ethics. And so we started with one small boutique in Cambodia, appealing to locals and tourists. This gave us a chance to test what worked and what didn’t work. And that’s how it started.  

Q: How did you start Tonlé? What obstacles did you face? What obstacles do you continue to face? What cultural barriers did you or do you have to overcome?

RF:Finding the right people for your team is always hard, no matter what. A lot of the women had never held a city job before. How do you balance the ethical component--creating a comfortable, safe environment--and still hold people accountable for standards and efficiency? We worked it out though. It’s balancing cash flow with market demand. Everyone is on the payroll, and we want people to be paid consistently, not just by orders. So we have to struggle through the slow months.  

Q: Who are the women who work for you? What are their lives like?

RF: There are, basically, two professions available for non-educated women in Cambodia. There is garment work, and when garment work slows or shuts down, there is a rise in sex work. There is a dearth of work available. If you want to change the options they have available to them, you need to change how things work in the garment industry. There is an emphasis on human trafficking but we need to stop buying from low cost garment factories.

Q: What is the process like for designing and producing one of your items? How is it different from the typical production process?

As you know, we are a zero-waste company. It presents a challenge to both design and production. We look at what is already on the market, rather than just having an idea and going from there. We look at what is available now, what we can find, which changes we can make, and we have to be flexible based on what is available. We try to use every scrap of our waste. Really we are negative waste, since we use others’ waste. We take scraps and sew them into panels. The smallest pieces get turned into yarn. You have to balance basically between what is made from larger pieces and what is made from the smallest.

Q: Speaking of being zero waste, what challenges do you face being an ethical company?

RF: We could cut a lot of corners and make more money, but that isn’t what we want. For us, it’s about supporting ethical production. It is challenging making sure everyone gets paid and yet not overextending ourselves. Some months we have to turn down orders because we don’t want our staff to work crazy hours or overtime. As we smooth out our processes, we will balance more stuff out. It is especially challenging as a small business.

Q: How does fair trade connect us? How is what you are doing in Cambodia affecting the people here in Massachusetts?

RF: I think that, if you think about how thing were 150 years ago, most people bought products from makers maybe 15 miles away. You’d buy local wood or textiles, and textiles are really valuable because of how much work goes into it. So you’d only buy a few dresses you’d wear the whole year round. You’d know the maker. As we now have the means to mass produce, we’ve separated ourselves from how things are produced. Even in the ‘50s people knew how things were made. Fair trade is trying to reestablish those connections that we’ve lost. We need the people who make our clothes as much as they need us. And if we knew our makers, we’d value them more. If people realized someone sat behind a machine and cut every piece of their clothing, they would have much more respect for their clothing. More connections might also mean we don’t buy as much and don’t waste as much. Better for the planet.

Q: What can consumers do to help further better production conditions? Or to reduce factory pollution? How can people become better informed about what they are buying?

RF: I think that it is important for people to do their research. There are guides for which companies are doing a better job environmentally and ethically. Not For Sale did a bit on slavery in the garment industry. They also showed what the working conditions are like in those factories. Even among large companies, there are some that are better than others. Even just doing a little bit, doing the research, is a huge step forward. Also, buying second hand contributes ethically and environmentally. You can also support ethical clothing brands as much as possible, and buy things you will take care of and value.

Clothes are cheaper now than ever, and it is a race to the bottom. They are fragile and people are getting paid less. Those are some of the most important things to think about.

Q: What is next for Tonlé?
RF: What is next? We’re building up production in Cambodia and the U.S., and we’re working with others to reduce their waste by buying and using it. We’re working to be more ethical.