Commercial with a Conscience:
Rachel Faller Shows Us What 21st Century Sustainable Fashion Looks Like
Tonlé Designs is one of a new type of sustainable fashion business, that shows profit and ethics can co-exist comfortably, and running a successful business doesn't mean you have to sell your soul.
The challenge for many in sustainable fashion has often been they feel they have to choose between profit and ethics. And for sure, that’s a big challenge.
Bigger firms are constrained by pressing shareholder demands and a complex chain of suppliers, distributors and retailers.
Meanwhile smaller firms sometimes choose to limit business ambition as the price of ethics. This is often because the founders’ expertise or passion lies with the fashion and social aspects, and aren't matched by their ability to maintain profitability or scale growth.
But there’s a third group emerging who learn to straddle both sides of this. They’re commercially savvy leaders who could probably climb the ladder of big business if they want. Instead they choose to apply their ability to making a difference to the world around them - usually in smaller firms, often their own.
We profile one such leader, Rachel Faller. We see her as an example of what’s possible when someone intelligently challenges conventional wisdom, and does so with an appreciation of the reality of running and growing a business.
Why We’re Interested in Rachel’s Journey
Rachel is exactly the kind of person we’re interested in writing about at Zayah World - people who follow their own path, creating their own pictures of the future.
Rachel is part of a generation of entrepreneurs driven by a social need, but who recognise the best way to meet that need is through a successful business. People like Kenton Lee, the founder of “Shoes that Grow”. Of course it’s not the only way, but people like Rachel and Kenton are changing the way social entrepreneurship is done.
They face the same challenges as those who have come before, but meet them differently. The most important of these include how to balance the need to make money with the need to do good. In practice it’s all about knowing when to draw lines in the sand and when to make compromises for the greater good.
In the future, we’ll distil the lessons we’ve seen across the examples we’ve investigated. But for today, we’ll focus on Rachel’s unique story.
Where Is Rachel In Her Journey?
In a nutshell, Rachel has made sustainable fashion a reality in emerging economy manufacturing – in this case Cambodia. A very significant achievement in that is her zero waste factory.
She has also created a sound balance between commercial and social success, giving her and her partners a good chance of growing into a significant influence in an industry where money talks more loudly than anything else.
She has done this while still relatively young, so has the potential to build a career with greater impact in the future, as experience and success accrue. But she’s also been doing this long enough to show her achievements are real milestones on a longer journey, not just beginner’s luck or enthusiasm and good intentions. Another good sign we see as a positive is that it’s not been all plain sailing and uninterrupted success, and this isn’t her first business.
In case you didn’t see our mention of Rachel in our Guide to Sustainable Fashion, here’s a recap:
- Founder of Tonlé Designs – a Cambodia-based design house and manufacturing facility that employs around 50 local people and is a model of sustainable and ethical fashion.
- Tonlé was set up around a set of social priorities that include treating employees fairly, making minimal impact on the planet and its resources, and showing customers it’s possible to buy responsibly as well as stylishly.
- They design and make women’s clothes, in stylish designs that are intended to suit normal body shapes as well as traditional fashion industry stereotypes.
- Their factory is zero waste. This was a specific goal they approached systematically and professionally, so it can be replicated elsewhere. They put their values into practice by helping competitors reduce waste using Tonlé’s experience.
How Has She Got Here?
Rachel’s journey started on the East Coast of the US. Like many girls, her interests included art, fashion and eco-issues. In her case, these interests took her to Art college in Maryland.
So far so good, but not particularly different to many in today’s industry. The first divergence from a more typical career path was obtaining a Fulbright Scholarship. For those that don’t know, this is a programme that provides merit-based grants to support educational exchange between the US and rest of the world.
Of itself it doesn’t put people on a path to great things, but nevertheless its alumni include some impressive names from the fields of science, politics, arts and business. For example, Craig Barrett (business), Amar Bose (engineering/business), Sylvia Plath (arts), Joseph Stiglitz (academia), Nilofar Sakhi (social reform), Laila Lalami (arts), Tom Smith (arts) and Shirley Williams (politics).
Rachel chose to use her scholarship in Cambodia, to better understand sustainability and fair trade from an international perspective.
The second atypical step in her journey was her decision to stay on in Cambodia, putting into practice what she’d learned by creating her first fashion label - KeoK’jay.
Her aim was to employ a few women at home, and show that it’s possible to create beautiful clothes while treating employees fairly.
And so we come to the third step away from more conventional career paths, a trait we’ve seen in many successful leaders we’ve known from all walks of life and business: a drive to move forward and build on success, not be happy resting on their laurels.
In Rachel’s case this was setting up Tonlé, using the lessons from KeoK’jay to do more, and reach further.
In our view, her still-young company contains a number of benchmarks and practices that all 21st century fashion business should look to emulate in their own way – not just in Cambodia, but globally.
Let’s take a look at them.
A Closer Look at Tonlé
There are many things about Tonle that caught our attention, which we’ve grouped into five areas. Each by itself is noteworthy, and the combination is rare, possibly unique.
What makes this set of things stand out for us is that we can see a path for Tonlé to scale up without having to sacrifice the essence of what makes it already something special.
Only time will tell us if they make that step successfully, but they’ve given themselves every chance.
Zero Waste - Done Properly
Zero Waste is a term used loosely by many, and is more often an aspiration or approximation. Some seem to start from a position that it’s not really possible in practice, so they seem to think that if they reduce waste significantly that’s good enough.
But for Rachel, her education and experience had taught her a couple of things that gave her a different attitude.
Firstly, waste during manufacturing is one of the biggest sources of the Fashion Industry’s dreadful sustainability record, so is worth chasing.
Secondly, reducing waste in manufacturing is not something that the industry has really tried hard to do, so it’s not automatically true that it can’t be done. As she’s gone on to demonstrate.
Put it this way – if the industry put the same effort and ingenuity into zero waste as they did into reducing supply chain cycle times, folks like Rachel would probably be followers rather than leaders.
But it didn’t, and she isn’t.
Instead, she went back to first principles and created a factory which reduces and re-uses all its waste.
Sustainable Materials - Everywhere Possible
The second feature of the Tonlé approach we’ve picked out is the way they embrace the use of sustainable materials wholeheartedly.
For many, making fabrics sustainable is a technical challenge, and requires innovation from their suppliers. This might be new synthetic materials (like Pharrell Williams' Bionic Yarn) or in better ways of producing or obtaining traditional fabrics (like using local fairtrade suppliers).
For others, incorporating sustainable fabrics is more about re-use practices, like recovering yarn from discarded clothes.
What we like about Rachel’s approach is the understanding that both matter, building them into how the business has been set up from the outset.
In particular, one thing that few others can claim is the way teams scour local sources of discarded or waste fabric, which provide them with material to recover and use.
And rather than treating that as a constraint, it’s made into a positive, allowing a uniqueness of design based on available fabrics.
This approach goes well beyond the fabrics, with natural dyes, hand weaving and screen printing all reinforcing the sustainability of the end product.
Even the packaging follows these principles.
Employment Culture - Real Lives, Not Just Jobs
From the outset, the relationship with employees has been a priority for Tonlé, and fair treatment of staff is an intrinsic part of the company’s DNA.
So employees receive a variety of practical benefits that are based on their circumstances, as well as a generous wage. Staff development is a norm in most Western firms, and is treated the same way at Tonlé – not something its peers are often known for.
The best way to understand this is from their website, where the team members’ profiles connect you with a real person in a way no other manufacturer does.
Organisation Design - Banishing the Assembly Line
Management consultants have been redesigning organisations for decades. Ever since its earliest days they have been promoting the virtues of efficiency and productivity. Business leaders have embraced these as measures which directly improve profit by squeezing the most out of a set of costs. And the biggest cost is often the people doing the work.
The price of this, particularly in global supply chains like fashion, has been the adoption of production lines where people do the same small tasks over and over again, each person contributing one small piece towards a finished product.
But there are many other models for how you set up an organisation, and what we like about Tonlé is that they’ve looked afresh at how to balance efficiency, creativity and staff development. They recognise what an employee does all day strongly influences how they feel about themselves and their life.
The result has been an approach to the way employees are organised that’s every bit as innovative as any sexy technology.
Instead of assembly lines, staff are set up into teams that are responsible for different types of products. People switch roles and products, building a diversity into their experience. The teams are mini-business units in their own right, giving each team member a sense of achievement far beyond more typical structures. This also creates opportunities for career progression that just aren’t possible in more traditional setups.
By all accounts the benefits of this goes far beyond the workplace, and touches on much wider factors such as self-esteem and empowerment.
Branding & Customer Connect - For Real Women by Real Women
Finally, Tonlé takes many of its principles from the factory and re-applies them to the customer.
Today it’s a relatively easy win to sell a message of sustainability to customers, and obviously this is one of the key parts of the Tonlé brand.
What’s not so straightforward, and requires much more confidence in one’s values, is the acknowledgment that fashion is for real women, who are of regular shape and size.
So rather than images of airbrushed catwalk models, Tonlé’s online store uses untouched pictures of staff modelling the clothes.
We started with a view that the many people involved in Sustainable Fashion vary from lip service to fully engaged.
Rachel Faller is one of the most engaged of those people you’re likely to meet.
Of her many impressive achievements at Tonlé, for us the most compelling takeaway is actually none of the examples we've mentioned so far.
Rather, it’s the attitude and mindset that she’s carried with her along her journey, and the belief that what she’s set out to do can be done, regardless of what others say.
So her story tells us one thing above all else for anyone aspiring to make a difference:
The most important thing is what you commit to, and the strength of your commitment.
What also emerges is that you shouldn’t wait for all the answers to the “how” questions before you get going.
Because the path you end up following will almost certainly not be the one you thought you’d take. And getting to the end will be more about how you learn on the way than what you knew at the start.
Finally, it helps to seek out as many Rachels as you can. Find out about them, reach out to them if you can and adopt what you can from their experience.
Then create your own new lessons for those that come after you.