Seeds of Resilience - May Day 2020

Vichka standing in a rice field in Cambodia at sunrise wearing clothing by tonlé

Well, dear friends, it’s been a difficult (understatement) 2020 so far and every plan we had this year at tonlé has been thrown out the window or written over so many times it’s hard to count.

I know each person reading this is going through their own struggles so I won’t enumerate those here but, I’ll just say, I hear you and I see you. And I am holding a great deal of grief and loss as well, in my personal life, for my community, and for my team.


The intention we set as a business at the beginning of this year was to thrive. We wanted to explore, what does it look like when everyone involved in a business, from makers, to managers, to retailers, to creators, to final customers and our community, thrives?

Is such a business possible in the fashion industry, where exploitation of people and our planet has been the main way of operating since its inception? We had high hopes that this was possible – and as a team, we’ve been proud of the ways we had achieved this in some respects and wanted to grow more fully into this goal of making this business work for everyone on an even deeper level.


Members of the leadership team at tonlé at the Bayon Buddhist Temple in Siem Reap, CambodiaAn image of a members of the tonlé leadership team enjoying our team retreat before the global pandemic hit in full force 


Fast forward to today, and most of the world is in a state that is far from thriving.

Many of us reading this have probably felt like we’ve been existing in some form of survival state that is more about getting through than being able to consider the future or anything greater. As a business, we’ve already had to consider closing, and worked through some financial scenarios where that could have happened. Thanks to generous support from so many people on many levels, I’m relieved to say we’re not considering closing at this time, and we have hope that we can make it through this, as it looks like we are going to be financially stable enough to continue to weather this storm. In addition – we’ve been able to give most of our team in Cambodia raises and additional stipends to address the increasing pressure in their families and communities due to the Covid-19 pandemic and economic downturn, as well.  However, we are not completely in the clear financially as there are so many unknowns right now – and it still feels like we are operating as a business in survival mode. However, we are using this holiday to redirect that focus to cultivating resilience that will lead us to thriving, once more.


Today is May Day – International labor day, May 1st, a day that commemorates workers around the world and the many hard won victories they have made to push for more rights and better conditions for workers.

Not coincidentally, the US recognizes labor day on a different date – and due to corporate pressure that holiday has lost much of its potency in the United states. I don’t have time to get into a history lesson here, but the US has a long history of valuing corporations over people and the US’s government’s avoidance of this holiday ties neatly into that narrative.


We are well aware that many small and independent businesses are struggling and we are mourning along with so many of you important leaders in this community who have already had to dramatically reduce operations or closed down in the short term. While this is a devastating blow to the slow fashion community – I am in deep admiration and gratitude that a company like Elizabeth Suzann would choose to wind down rather than compromise their workers. Sadly, most corporations are choosing to survive right now at the expense of their people. I believe that in doing so – Elizabeth Suzann has set not only an important precedent and a very high bar – but also sewn seeds of resilience for this community and for her next chapter. May the rest of us be able to honor that work by doing better. I echo the sentiments of many of a feeling of both gratitude and grief.


May Day is also the holiday that historically is a celebration of rebirth and new life and the coming of Spring in many cultures.

In Cambodia, Khmer New Year (which happens at the end of April) is the beginning of the Khmer Lunar Calendar – and coincides with the end of the dry season, as farmers eagerly await the rains that begin to come in May and June to begin their planting.

Rice fields in Cambodia

Right now we’re planting seeds for our future, for the future of our community - seeds of resilience.

Cultivating resilience during the dry season leads to thriving in the harvest season. The planting gives us hope. We may not harvest these seeds for a while. Our growing season might be a bit longer. We may not be able to grow as much as we had hoped to. But we’re taking comfort in the seeds that we’re planting and that one day – what we are sowing will come back around.

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