tonle’s founder Rachel moved to Cambodia in 2008 with funding from a Fulbright grant to research sustainable and fair trade textiles. After working with several artisans groups to learn about best practices and opportunities, she quickly realized there was a gap in market for affordable, sustainable and ethical fashion.
Believing that fashion could mean more than exploitation of people and resources, Rachel was inspired to start her own brand with these goals in mind. She opened her first store in Phnom Penh in 2009 that catered to the travelers and locals seeking fashion that was responsibly made in Cambodia. This evolved into 5 boutiques in Cambodia and over time grew into partnerships with similarly minded retailers around the world.
The goal of the Rachel’s first brand was to employ people in Cambodia at fair wages and provide a comfortable and safe place to work. That mission has not changed in the slightest. From the start it was evident that sustainability and ethics must go hand in hand. Cambodia is no stranger to the impact of pollution and climate change; air and water pollution have very tangible effects that are felt first hand in the communities often doing the manufacturing of products that are sent overseas. Very few raw materials are produced in a sustainable way in Cambodia, so Rachel’s research led her to seek out recycled materials. Starting first with second hand textiles and clothing, Rachel discovered piles of factory waste turning up in the second hand markets, which is when she began to realize the scope of the problems with waste in garment manufacturing. Factory waste soon became the primary source of raw materials for Rachel’s designs.
At the end of 2013, Rachel restructured her original brand into tonlé with many of the same artisans and team members. 2014 was the birth of tonlé’s 100% zero-waste model, and with it tonlé became a pioneer in the zero waste movement. Through several seasons of iteration, creativity, and hard work, the tonlé team creates every collection without wasting a single scrap in the process.
Currently tonlé directly employs 30 people in our Phnom Penh workshop that earn fair wages and benefits, including a generous vacation package, free lunch, training opportunities, and team retreats. Team members are trained in many aspects of the production and have the opportunity to rise up into management positions - rather than staying stagnant in an assembly line style workflow. Tonlé partners with a weaving cooperative in northern Cambodia which also employs 20 artisans, most of whom are full time. These talented weavers have been perfecting their craft for over 20 years and we are proud to have them working on tonlé’s exclusive textile designs. tonlé also has a retail boutique in San Francisco and we sell to over 100 amazing retail partners around the world. See a list of where we stock our products here.
Tonlé is recognized as an industry pioneer for an ethical and sustainable approach to fashion. The brand has been featured in numerous press outlets from the Huffington Post to the BBC. But the goals for the brand remain fair and simple: Creating a new vision for changing fashion from within, making clothes that our customers and supporters feel good about wearing on every level, and providing the best employment opportunities for our team and others who would be working in the garment industry.