How trash becomes treasure: The origins of tonlé's zero waste garments

To tell the story of where tonlé's fabrics come from, we wanted to do an editorial photoshoot showcasing the beauty of tonlé products against the backdrop of the fashion industry waste from which they originate. Many people see this completely usable fabric as trash, but we see things differently. It takes a bit of creativity, a unique process, an incredible team, and a ton of support from our friendly, family, and fans to turn these mountains of waste into beautiful new garments. Each part of this zero waste puzzle is uniquely beautiful, and indispensable. Not a single scrap goes into the trash, and every person involved is critical to our vision of creating a different future for the fashion industry and the people who work in it. 

tonle - zero waste fashion made from recycled garment factory scraps

There is so much to be done to not only recycle the waste created by the fashion industry but also to make sure it doesn't happen in the first place. Luckily there are many people working on it - and hopefully together we'll see a new future for fashion - one where so much perfectly good material is thrown away. With your help we've recycled over 35,000 pounds of fabric in the last couple years - and we couldn't have done it without you, so thank you for joining us on this journey. You can learn more here about the impact of each piece of clothing that you purchase from tonlé. Each piece purchased really does make a difference! 

tonle - up cycled garment factory scraps turned into zero waste clothing

When we found out the Dylan Maddux was going to be visiting Cambodia - we immediately wanted to get him on board to do this shoot. Hailing from the Bay Area and previously having lived in Cambodia as well - his work highlights contrasts and ambiguities in our world in a masterful and beautiful way. Dylan also had done tonlé's first ever photoshoot in 2013 and we were so excited to be able to work with him again on this shoot. 

tonle - piles of garment factory scraps turned into zero waste clothing

Anyone who follows tonlé might recognize Vichka Vantha as a familiar face in our work - We love working with Vichka not only for her quintessential Cambodian beauty but also because of what she stands for - a leader in sustainability and natural beauty products in Cambodia with her company Dai Khmer

Black and white zero waste fashion kaftan made from recycled fabric by tonle

Thanks so much to Dylan and Vichka for collaborating on this shoot with us, and of course to the entire tonlé team for their work and creativity to create such beautiful pieces out of waste. 

up cycled garment factory waste made into zero waste dress by tonle

A few people have asked about how we source our fabric. Most of it currently comes from markets where scraps are sorted by remnant dealers who purchase this in bulk from the garment factories at the end of every season. We also get some scraps directly from factories. There are generally three reasons why fabric ends up in the markets pictured here: 

1. Cut waste - actual pieces of left over fabric from the cutting process
2. Quality control failure - fabric and half finished garments that don't pass quality control for some reason. Often this is because of a small defect that can be cut around if you are cutting small pieces. 
3. Overstock - factories over order fabric in case of larger orders coming in, and in case of issues with quality control failure. This is often sold off at the end of the season. Most factories plan waste into their system - so some have raised the question of whether using this overstock and dead-stock fabric is actually "sustainable". Read on for our thoughts! 


At tonlé, most of the fabric we source is actually cut waste and quality control failure - so it is very much actual waste and not simply planned waste. Some of our fabric is dead stock and overstock as well. This is a complex issue without many clear answers and it is something we are considering. While we are trying to recycle as much waste as possible (and currently trying to avoid petroleum based textiles) - but we are also looking for ways to eliminate waste before it occurs which includes being careful about supporting a market for planning waste into the textile industry. We have also pioneered a zero waste design processes to eliminate any waste from our own production - which we hope will inspire others to reduce waste further upstream. And, we are working on some initiatives to help customers deal with the end of life of their garments. (Again, stay tuned!) All of these steps are part of a journey to making our brand more circular and encouraging others to do the same. As always, we welcome questions and suggestions, and appreciate all your feedback along the way! 

zero waste clothing by tonle made from garment factory waste

Vichka is wearing tonlé's srey crop top - handwoven from tiny scraps of fabric - and chloe trousers cut from larger scraps. 

long zero waste kaftan in neutral colors made from recycled garment factory scraps by tonle

 Srey long vest in neutral color palate, handwoven from small scraps of twice recycled fabric

comfortable wrap dress made from garment factory up cycled scraps by tonle

Comfortable rangsey wrap dress made from garment factory off-cuts

Long handwoven zero waste black and white kaftan made from garment factory scraps by tonle

 handwoven srey long vest made from small scraps of up cycled materials. 





1 comment

Hi Rachel, I was wondering what is the smallest size scrap that you would rescue from a factory (not your own factory)? I ask because I recently visited a factory where there could be a scrap just a few square inches in size. Even though they were so small, I still wanted to rescue them and figure out a use for them. After all, the fabric was new and also a good quality cotton twill. What do you think?

Catherine August 30, 2018

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