This Fashion Company Is Doing Something About Textile Waste—Using It

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Tonlé uses only other companies' waste materials to create their line each season. (Photo: courtesy Tonlé)

Just like our food systems, clothing production can be extraordinarily wasteful. It's a disturbing and upsetting fact that at least as much energy, labor and raw materials that go into a meal we eat or a pair of jeans we buy is wasted on one that's trashed. Yes, we throw almost 50 percent of our food away, and it turns out that statistic is probably true for fashion, too.

Surprised? Remember that story about how Burberry burned millions of dollars worth of clothes? That's not uncommon in the fashion world — and that Burberry story doesn't even cover all the waste: "In the factories I have visited, I would guess that the wastage is more like 50 percent all told on CMT (Cut make and trim) alone," Rachel Faller, the designer of zero-waste fashion line, Tonlé, told me.

"I'm not sure how much wastage there is before the fabric gets to CMT, in milling, spinning, and dying, but I am guessing there's a great deal of waste there, too. Unfortunately, we don't even have good statistics yet for the amount being wasted, but from what I've seen, it's far higher than what most people have even estimated, and that is scary," said Faller.

A Business Model Based on Waste

A look from Tonlé's Autumn/Winter 2018 collection.
A look from Tonlé's Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. (Photo: Courtesy Tonlé)

But there is another way. Faller's design process focuses around using the waste that other designers throw away, and she's built a successful fashion line based on that idea. Her business is based in Cambodia, where her team combs through mountains of textile waste to find great quality off-cuts and remnants; large volumes of fabric are used in Tonlé's basics line, while smaller scraps are hand-knit and woven into next textiles. Not only are textiles removed from the waste stream, there's zero-waste with the waste — not a single scrap goes into the garbage can and even the small leftover pieces are made into hangtags or paper.

All this has meant that Tonlé kept 14,000 pounds of fabric waste out of landfills with just the latest collection.

If you think about it, waste is a human concept. In nature, there is no waste, just materials to use to make something else. When a tree falls in the forest, it's not garbage; it serves as a home for animals and insects, plants and fungi. Over time it degrades, enriching the soil with nutrients to support other trees' growth.

A look from Tonlé's Autumn/Winter 2018 collection.
Another look from Tonlé's Autumn/Winter 2018 collection. (Photo: Courtesy Tonlé)

Part of our "waste" problem is seeing stuff as garbage when in reality, it's inherently useful. It's just bad design for a fashion company to create so much waste that another fashion company can create an entire line with it. I talked with Faller in more detail about how that works

Creating the Tonlé Concept

MNN: Textile waste is becoming an ever-more-talked about issue in the fashion industry, and one that has gotten headlines in the past year in mainstream publications — but you've been utilizing it for years. How did you first learn about this problem?

Rachel Faller: I started the first iteration of my business in 2008. At that time, I was most focused on creating sustainable livelihoods for women in Cambodia, where I was living. But in a place like Cambodia, environmental issues and social justice issues are so intertwined that you can't tackle one while ignoring the other. Case in point is the fact that many of the fabrics that are wasted in factories end up polluting Cambodia's waterways, which are the backbone of fisheries and livelihoods for rural communities, or being burned and contributing to worsening air quality that directly impacts people's lives. And climate change has a very real and documented effect on social issues as well.

So initially, I started designing around second-hand materials, as there was a lot of second-hand clothing flooding into the markets in Cambodia. But while searching the markets for these materials, I began to come across bundles of scrap fabric that were being sold — which were clearly off-cuts from garment factories. Sometimes they were half-finished garments with the tags still in them. After doing a little more digging and speaking to many people in the markets, I was able to trace these scraps back to large remnant dealers and the factories that the scraps came from in the first place. It was around 2010 that we really switched our efforts toward working with these scrap fabrics, and 2014 that we were able to achieve a zero-waste production model with the scraps from other companies.

A look from Tonlé's Autumn/Winter 2018 collection.
This may not look like scraps — and that's the point. (Photo: courtesy Tonlé)

Can you detail how you use waste fabric within your design process?

We start with larger pieces of waste (often we get larger pieces of fabric that either were overstock fabrics or at the end of the roll) and we cut our dresses and T-shirts out of them. Small scraps get cut intro strips and sewn into panels of fabric, much like traditional patchwork with a modernist twist. Smaller pieces left over after that get cut into fabric "yarn" and woven into new textiles, which are made into ponchos, jackets, and tops tend to be our most unique editorial pieces. And lastly, we take the smallest pieces left from all that and make it into paper.

Sourcing Old vs. New Materials

Has anything changed over the years as you have worked with the textiles? Has it become harder/easier to source fabrics?

I think the amount being wasted is only increasing, so we haven't faced a shortage of fabrics, but we have gotten better at getting closer to the source and buying larger quantities at a time, which both allows us to recycle more and be a bit more strategic. We've talked to a few factory owners about working with them directly to source scraps, although there are some challenges with this. Ideally we could get to a point where we could work directly with a brand to design around their waste before it is even made (especially in the cutting process) and we are in talks with a few people about such collaborations, so that's an exciting next step!

A look from the editorial shoot for Tonlé, demonstrating textile waste.
A look from the editorial shoot for Tonlé, demonstrating textile waste. (Photo: courtesy Tonlé)

Do you think being a pioneer in creative textile waste utilization has been more or less challenging than designing with new materials?

That's an interesting question, because I can see it both ways. On one hand, there are a ton of limitations around designing this way. But at the same time, as an artist and creator, I do think that sometimes limitations force you to be more creative, and that's how I choose to see it. When you start with a blank slate, sometimes you don't have to think outside the box, and much of your solutions, or designs, might be a bit more standard, let's say. But when you have limited resources and materials, you are forced to come up with new solutions that perhaps no one has done before, and that's actually really exciting.

So all in all, I would say that it has probably improved my designs more than it has detracted from them — and it's certainly more enjoyable to design things that you believe in 100 percent and you know are going to make everyone feel good along the way, from designer, to maker, to wearer!

I'm glad that these discussions are finally coming to the forefront, because all of the issues with the garment industry are interconnected to waste. If we were able to produce 50 percent less fabric and still sell the same amount of clothing, at least that would reduce some of the human rights abuses and the garment industries' contributions to climate change as well. So tackling waste seems like an obvious place to start.