This post was written by tonlé co-creator - Rachel Faller, with guidance from other members of the tonlé team and external consultants. Rachel uses “I” statements when referring to decisions she specifically made, vs. “we” statements when referring to collective decisions and/or values.
As the global fashion supply chains started to unravel in March 2020, many people started questioning the greater systemic issues that led to the current crisis in the fashion industry. As a team at tonlé, we were internally discussing our own history and direction, and what we wanted to do better. This naturally led to a conversation about our brand's vision and values, and we decided that it was time for an update. Revising our about us sections on our website and the texts that we use to talk about our work has been a process that included extensive internal dialogue as well as consultations with advisors. We reflected on how tonlé shows up in the world and the changes we can make both internally and externally to better align with our values. While we’ve recently released these updated texts on our website, we see this as just one part of an ongoing commitment to living our values fully.
"Do the best you can until you know better, then do better." - Maya Angelou
This quote describes how we feel about this process. While this exercise has helped us define, name, and be proud of what we are doing well, it has also given us a path for improving. We can't promise to always get things right, but we can say that we will keep moving towards full values alignment, owning up to our mistakes along the way. In the spirit of not erasing our mistakes, we want to tell you about some of the areas we’ve identified where we need to grow, what we have changed, and what we are still working on.
The overarching theme of our new brand focus is addressing systemic issues as opposed to treating symptoms.
The consistent root causes of many of the fashion industry’s problems stems from colonialsm, where a white supremacist ideology empowered white Europeans and their decedents to go around the world, stealing natural resources and cultural property, imposing cultural hegemony, and committing genocide and enslavement against people who refused to comply. Capitalism is a modern iteration of colonialism, and the fashion industry is one of the largest and most profitable capitalist systems, using primarily white designers as the champions and evangelists of that system. As a white designer and the primary owner of tonlé, before I can even begin to participate in rectifying some of these wrongs, I need to acknowledge where many of the problems come from and my role in perpetuating them. Most sustainability focused brands fail to acknowledge this, and for a long time, I did not do enough to publicly address those root causes in how we talk about our work at tonlé and it’s significance. Our team has been working to treat the symptoms of systemic injustice for the last several years, but I’ve now come to realize how important it is to first and foremost acknowledge harm created, and work to make amends.
Thinking about systemic change can be very overwhelming, but when you start to move away from the capitalistic obsession with founder-worship style hierarchy and generating wealth for a select few at the top, you realize that “impact” is not a competition.
Impact does not scale like a business, as my friend Manpreet Kalra often says.
No one brand or individual or non-profit can create systemic change. We all have to do as much as we can, as often as we can to create change; it will require all of us, working together, to create systems that benefit everyone and heal the earth. A business, like tonlé, can hopefully design a structure that supports mutual thriving and community care, and that is what we are working to do. But within a system where the playing fields are not equitable to begin with—and some will continue to face greater adversities than others—no business can create true equity and justice alone.
I truly believe that tonlé can be a model for working towards this better system. We will also fight for change in other parts of the system while doing so. We will not promote conscious consumerism as the only way forward. tonlé can be a platform for talking about these important issues—and creating clothing funds that work. But at the end of the day, tonlé was never about just selling clothing.
tonlé has always been about creating a community and working towards a better model.
It has been about customers who wanted to put something on their bodies that they could really feel good about wearing. Our model has evolved over time, our thinking has evolved over time, and as a team, we give ourselves space to learn and grow and change. Our new texts and vision statements reflect many people’s ideas, values, and contributions—both within and outside of tonlé. tonlé is a community project through and through. So one of the things we are working on is to share multiple voices and perspectives as part of our marketing. When I’m using my own voice (and using I statements), it’s because in that case I feel that as the white owner of the brand and co-creator it’s important for me to take responsibility in cases where I have benefitted from that privilege. But when tonlé uses “we” statements in our marketing, those statements represent the shared values and contributions of our team. And when we are reflecting the values or ideas of specific individuals who have contributed to tonlé in some way we will do our best to quote them directly and give credit as often and as much as possible.
White Saviorism to Non-Hierarchy
While I’ve been aware—and in some cases talked openly about—the white savior dynamic within the fair trade world for a long time, I’ve learned I need to speak more actively to deconstruct the white savior narrative. Without me actively saying anything that narrative is often layered upon myself and the brand due to its prevalence within fair trade and sustainable fashion (read more in our recent Black Lives Matter statement). I’ve seen the harmful nature of white saviorism as it plays out in the aid community in Cambodia first hand; in many cases, more harm than good is done as organizations attempt to provide solutions without addressing the role of colonization in creating those problems, or stepping aside to prioritize locally-led solutions. Founder worship and hero narratives in the so-called social impact space creates hierarchy and white cultural dominance, rather than creating solutions with a true focus on equity and justice which we need to create true systemic change. While it can sometimes feel easier to explain or handle marketing opportunities myself due to the complexities of international communication, time zones, and language barriers, I am working to do better at honoring the many people who have contributed to tonlé successes through making sure their voices are represented in our marketing and storytelling—without tokenism. Additionally, we are working to make our leadership structure less hierarchical within all aspects of our business, including implementing a plan for distribution of profits to contributors and co-creators, which I’ll be sharing more about soon.
Lastly, I am moving away from calling myself the “founder” of tonlé. While I am still the primary owner of the business structure, many people have contributed to tonlé’s success and I reject the idea that just because I own the business and was able to gather and redistribute funds to help make this business run, I am inherently more important than anyone else within our community at tonlé. Press and other gatekeepers who I felt could open doors for our team have often wanted to talk to the owner/founder/designer at a brand—who is presumed to be some kind of creative genius, without whom nothing would run. I’ve contemplated for a long time whether I should be called the founder of this brand, because even though in many (capitalistic) conventional definitions I would be considered the founder, still, so many people have contributed to what tonlé has become today over the years that considering me the only founder doesn’t seem right. I’ve mentally justified this title because it opens doors and opportunities for revenue and further redistribution of wealth through well-paid jobs and long term sustainability of our business. However, I now see the fundamental injustices that have allowed me as a person carrying a certain amount of privilege to have these opportunities, and believe it’s important for me not only to focus on redistribution of wealth through our business but also redistribution of power.
This capitalistic and white supremacist ideology of founder worship leads to wealth hoarding by those whose ideas are supposedly more “valuable,” often simply because they were born into wealth.
tonlé rejects this ideology: our business, design, and collections at tonlé do not reflect a singular voice, but instead are a product of collaboration and community and that is what makes them beautiful. I am personally working to redistribute power, resources and opportunities in every way that I can across the business; while this is a process that we have been working on for a while, we still have many steps to take. I am recognizing myself as a co-creator at tonlé, along with several other people who are co-creators/co-founders. For the ways in which I have not given enough credit in the past—or used my position or privilege to take up space or opportunities—I am sorry and I am working to rectify this. I am so excited to share more about the incredible people who have contributed to tonlé on our team page here. (coming soon.)