Monday, February 16, 2015

Business Spotlight: Tonlé

Kaitlyn Telge is the reason for this blog. About a year ago, when I was teaching yoga, Kaitlyn was a frequent student.

One day, she told me she was moving to Cambodia to work for an ethical fashion manufacturer. At that time in my life, I felt chronically uninspired; Kaitlyn whipped me into shape.

Kaitlyn works for Tonlé, a company based out of Cambodia that uses recycled materials and excess fabrics from garment factories to make clothing and accessories.

She took some time to answer some questions about her work. I am honored and so very excited to share her responses. Enjoy!

Tell me about your job!

As the marketing assistant, I help with all things public relations, social media, and website development. I get to help style Tonlé shoots, create social media content, plan local events and handle customer service.

Why Cambodia?

I wasn’t originally looking to move to Cambodia, but when the opportunity arose, I jumped. I was inspired by Tonlé’s mission and deeply rooted commitment to their ethics. I quickly fell in love with Cambodia’s deep history, incredible charm and beautiful culture, not to mention the friendly people and amazing food.

What was most striking thing you have learned about the garment industry working for Tonlé?

The most striking thing I’ve learned about the garment industry since living and working in Cambodia is that the solution is much more complex than simply paying workers more. After taxes and overhead it is actually quite expensive to manufacture in Cambodia relative to other developing countries, which puts immense pressure on the factory owners. The owners are also feeling the strains of fast paced Western deadlines, and pressure from the government to keep costs low to incentivize business. If the factory owners simply raise wages, brands will have to either move production elsewhere or increase prices. If they increase prices, the brands risk losing business from customers who have become addicted to fast fashion. In the end, both outcomes would end up hurting the garment workers. The issues are complex, and change will not come overnight. Compromise needs to happen between the brands, governments, and factory owners, but above all, consumers need to use their purchasing power for good and demand change in the garment industry.

Tell me about the most difficult day you have had at work

My most difficult day of work was during my first week. I was an hour outside of the city interviewing staff members in our Toul Sambo workshop. This community, displaced by the government over land disputes, now has limited access to jobs and education. I was there to tell their stories through the Tonlé website. Still being new to Cambodia, my body hadn’t quite adjusted to the food I was shocking my system with, and revolted while I was equipped with nothing more than squatter toilets. Did I also mention this was during the rainy season? Yea, not the greatest day. But in the end I was able to connect with the employees in this community and record their stories, making it worth it.

Now tell me about the most rewarding day?

The most rewarding day at work was also another difficult day in the beginning. I had the opportunity to join our fabric sourcer on her weekly trip to the remnant factory market. I was not prepared for what I was met with on the other side of town. The literal tons of discarded fabric were extremely overwhelming and saddening. Everyday, perfectly good fabric is thrown away by factories who deem the materials unusable because of a small hole or misshapen pieces. At Tonlé, we’re able to save 10,000 kg of materials from landfills each year, which is a small but noble amount. Knowing that we’re at least making a dent in the amount of chemicals ad toxins put into the earth was a rewarding feeling. It also motivated and inspired me to encourage people back home to think about how and where their clothes are made.

How has this job changed the way you buy clothing?

I have re-evaluated the word “need” since living and working in Cambodia. I used to think I “needed” new outfits every season. In college it was a cardinal sin to be photographed in the same outfit two weekends in a row. Now, I basically rotate the same ten or so outfits and the world continues to revolve. I try to buy less and shop ethical whenever possible. I also try to support local or emerging designers and shop second hand.

Why is it important for us to care where our clothes come from?

One of the most valuable lessons I've learned while living in Cambodia is that we’re all connected. You may not be able to trace a direct path between a 20-something-year-old in Austin and a 50-something-year-old Cambodian garment worker, but I promise you, there’s a link. What Tonlé has taught me is that we need the people making our clothes just as much as they need us, and there should be a level of mutual respect in between. Respect means safe working conditions, fair wages, and adequate hours for a quality product at a reasonable price. As consumers we have more power than we realize, and change begins with us.

Show us your Tonlé pick!

These are my all-time favorite pants-super comfy and perfect for traveling. They can also be dressed up with heals and a cute top.

It’s safe to say if I disappear, I moved to Cambodia to pester Kaitlyn.

Conscious Pieces:

Dress: Tonlé


Shoes: Madewell

Learn More about Tonlé here

 Quick Video about Tonlé from their past Kickstarter Campaign.

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