When the average person thinks of clothing made in Cambodia, they see images of massive warehouses with thousands of seemingly anonymous workers. Clothes are stitched together en masse and put on a plane for Western markets. The rejects pile up in landfills or are simply burnt.
But a small corner of the industry is trying to reshape this image, reinventing the process of designing and making clothes in Cambodia. While using eco-friendly techniques and giving their employees good wages and benefits, these companies are increasingly able to sell their goods both at home and abroad.
The newest entrant to Phnom Penh’s ethical fashion scene is Good Krama, a company specializing in casual urban wear that is riffing off of the Kingdom’s most distinctive item of clothing: its iconic checkered scarf. Despite the name, the company does much more than sell scarves; it designs t-shirts, trousers, hats and dresses, all of which in some way use the Krama pattern.
“Pretty much our idea is to blend traditional weaving techniques with modern design, all inspired by the krama,” says co-owner Katia Nicolas, who is French but spent much of her childhood in San Francisco. “We wanted to be authentically Cambodian but it’s also a very classic print.”
With a degree from the University of California – Berkeley in environmental economics, Nicolas has applied her knowledge of sustainable design to the fashion world. For every company in this sphere, the definition of “ethics” varies, but for Good Krama the focus is mostly on sourcing. When possible, they use hand-woven silk and natural dyes, made mostly by a woman named Somnang in Takeo Province. When not sourced locally, they import natural fabrics, like Tencel, a fiber made from wood pulp using cutting edge technologies.
Manufacturing clothes in an environmentally friendly way has its difficulties, Nicolas admits. It also has costs, which are reflected in the company’s prices. As much as possible, they use “upcycled” materials, meaning they reuse what is left over from garment factories. This means that it can be difficult to get enough of one particular fabric to make a consistent design.
Although the company only began selling its clothes in January, Nicolas says that they are already receiving orders from abroad, especially from the West Coast of America. “There’s a growing trend of people asking where their products come from,” she says. “They’re also realizing the impact of fast fashion on the world.
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While Good Krama is open about certain limitations in its sustainability (for example they admit their snapback hats are made in China), the Phnom Penh-based fashion brand Tonlé has managed to create what is called a “closed-loop” production system, meaning that they found a way to ensure that every part of their process is environmentally friendly. Tonlé, which in 2013 grew out of a brand created in 2008 by American Rachel Faller, uses only upcycled materials left over from garment factories.
After looking into clothes production on an industrial scale, Faller began to grasp the massive waste inherent in the system. “I started realizing that it’s 30 to 40 percent of waste,” Faller told the podcast Greenblut in 2014. “That’s from the milling, cutting, and quality control at the end, or sometimes brands placing orders and rejecting them. This process creates a huge amount of waste.”
Some of this waste is dumped into landfills, which then releases carbon, while some is burned because of potential intellectual property issues with the design. So Faller and her team decided to become “zero waste”.
This they take to an extreme. Not only do they recycle factory rejects, they even use the small scraps that are inevitably discarded in the process of making clothes in their own shops. They either knit them together to make bags and other accessories or use them to make paper, which is then sold in their stores. The company estimates that they re-use more than 10,000 kilograms of fabric every year, offsetting 154,000 pounds of carbon.
While Tonlé now has global recognition as a leader in the slow-fashion world, the business still makes up just a fraction of the country’s garment industry. On its website it lists 31 employees, the vast majority of which are local; combined, Good Krama and another slow fashion company called Dorsu employ several dozen more, directly and indirectly. By contrast, the garment industry in Cambodia employs an estimated 700,000 workers.
This fact is not lost on Hanna Guy, who founded Dorsu in 2008 with Kunthear Mov, a former garment worker. While trying to be as sustainable as possible, the pair decided to focus primarily on providing a good working environment for employees, and to teach skills that could help residents in Kampot Province find alternatives to manual labor. The company has grown slowly over the last eight years, and is now planning to open a second store and new workshop in Kampot. Guy says that the company tries to be as environmentally friendly as possible, but in every decision comes a trade off. Even using up-cycled material has conflicts: customers don’t know if it comes from Taiwan, Korea, China or elsewhere, nor do they know the conditions it was made in. “We’re trying to make some decisions about the miles [traveled] for fabric that is certified free trade,” she says. Is it better to fly in a better product, or to use what’s already here?
One common denominator these brands have is the openness with which they make these decisions. The process is laid out on their websites, as are the inevitable thorny “ethical” sacrifices. Whereas the garment industry has largely been a closed supply chain for consumers, more companies in Cambodia are lifting the veil on their processes. Overall, Guy says that the pace of development in the country is heartening, but that companies like hers are not enough to address systemic problems.
“I’ve got to admit that it’s still incredibly disappointing that the number of people in garment factories is increasing every year,” she says. “It’s rad to see the number of designers and small jewelry makers are rising every year, but fast fashion is growing alongside it as well.”
You can find Dorsu on Old Market Street, Kampot. Tonlé has two stores in Phnom Penh: at the corner of St. 110 & Sisowath Quay and 59C St. 155.
Good Krama’s clothes can be found online and at Paperdolls on Bassac Lane.
A Tiny Toones Organization dancer with a limited edition Good Krama shirt designed by street artist Chifumi. Photo: Katia Nicolas