When you pick out a shirt to wear, it’s likely you’re thinking about how it looks with your pants, or if it’s un-stained/not wrinkled enough to be passable – not the amount of water, land, chemicals, and overall carbon footprint that went into making it. You probably aren’t thinking much about who made it, either — like if the factory workers involved in its production had health insurance, or if they were working in a safe environment for a fair wage.
It’s easy to become detached from the clothes we wear, especially when, due to the expansive nature of the fast fashion industry, you can get them cheaper and easier than ever before, with just the click of a mouse or a tap on your phone. Fast fashion seems appealing at first – it adds to our convenience, and it makes a wide variety of styles available at competitive prices. But when you consider the human and environmental costs, fast fashion doesn’t seem so pretty.
Textile expert Rachel Faller took those human and environmental costs to heart when she visited Cambodia in 2007. She met artisans who had similar ideals to her and began to realize that maybe sustainability and style didn’t have to be exclusive of one another.
Fast forward to 2017, and Rachel truly has made (and continues to make) an uncommon impact on the ethical fashion world. She employs a team of artisans in Cambodia and provides them with the fair wages and work conditions they deserve. Her stylish designs are made from all sustainable materials and with unique production techniques. In fact, Rachel and her team are now at the point where their processes are completely zero-waste, making use of every last bit of scrap material.
Read on to hear from Rachel directly about how she broke into the eco-friendly fashion world, how her clothes and accessories maintain their style without harming the environment, and how she sees the future of fast fashion vs. ethical fashion unfolding.
How’d you get involved in the fashion business, and what drew you to the ethical/eco-friendly side of it?
I was always interested in textiles and fashion – I think starting with learning how to sew from my mother and grandmother and crocheting with my aunt around age 8. But by high school, I knew about the problems with exploitative labor practices, particularly towards women in the fashion industry, and wanted nothing to do with it. I ended up studying textiles in college, getting a degree in Fiber, but I came at it from a sculptural and fine art perspective, rather than commercial.
It wasn’t until I visited Cambodia for the first time in 2007 on a trip with a family friend, where I met artisans who were trying to practice fair trade principles in textile and fashion production, that I realized there could be a happy marriage of my social justice principles and love of textiles. In fact, I began to see the huge importance of actually trying to change the fashion industry from the inside out by making more marketable products that were ethically made.
We’re so impressed that your pieces are made with zero-waste. Tell us more about how you achieved that.
After visiting Cambodia for the first time, I came back again a year later to do a research project on fair trade artisans. During that time I was inspired to start my own business, and my initial goal was to be able to start a small business that could employ a few people fairly and make beautiful clothes for every day wear, which I wasn’t seeing in Cambodia at the time or in the ethical fashion industry in general. I always knew that the materials needed to be sustainable though, because social responsibility and environmental stewardship, to me, go hand-in-hand. In Cambodia, I couldn’t find many materials that were sustainably produced, as few raw materials are produced there, so I turned to recycled materials. This was when I started learning more about the problem with waste in the garment industry.
In utilizing recycled and reclaimed textiles leftover from larger factories, we still had small scraps that were left over. Each collection, the design team and I would explore ways to use more of these leftover scraps, until we were left with very little waste. That was when we started making paper, so we could literally use every scrap that came out of our production. It took 6 years to actually achieve that goal, and it’s still a constant challenge to run a business that way!
Another big issue in the fast-fashion industry is the treatment of the workers behind the clothing. Who makes your clothing and accessories, and how are you supporting them?
Our workshop in Cambodia now employs about 50 people full time and we work with 20 independent weavers. We partner with non-profit organizations in Cambodia who often provide sewing training, but not necessarily jobs. Many of our team members have experienced extreme challenges in life, but they inspire me immensely with how resilient and courageous they are. At our company we try to create a supportive environment where people can thrive and their talents are nurtured.
Instead of a traditional assembly line, our workshop is set up with team structures where each person works on a variety of different types of products and also knows how to put an entire garment together, learning transferable skills, and getting opportunities to rise up into management positions. Such opportunities are few and far between in typical factories, where workers are kept in low wage jobs with no opportunities for upward mobility for most of their lives. In addition, we do not use excessive overtime hours and provide good holidays and benefits, which is again, something that should be expected but is not provided at many factories.
Talk to us about how your clothes and accessories are made. What techniques and materials are used?
Our process uses remnant materials, primarily jersey cotton, but also canvas, rayon, and linen remnants. We try to use natural materials as much as possible. We utilize hand screen-printing techniques with water-based inks. Some of our products are also hand-knit and hand-woven from tiny scraps of remnant fabric; this is a critical step in our zero-waste process. Our hand-woven fabrics are similar to rag rugs, but more finely woven. The process is incredibly time-consuming; not only actually cutting by hand every single pieces and re-weaving it, but even just sorting and picking out the right fabrics, and keeping all the scraps organized. It’s all part of a process that makes zero-waste production challenging, but also very unique – it yields beautiful products.
Reflecting on the creative side of the business, what are your more aesthetic goals? Do you think sustainability ever compromises the style of your pieces?
In some ways, yes, trying to be sustainable means you have to pass on certain fabrics, techniques, and processes. At the same time, I’ve always felt as an artist that limitations often force you to be more creative. If you start with a completely blank canvas, your options are endless, and sometimes it’s easier to choose the obvious ones. On the other hand, if you have limitations (which you do when using recycled materials) you’re forced to be more creative with those options.
We only use 4-10 basic fabrics in each one of our collections, fabrics we know we can always find in the remnant markets in Cambodia. With that, we have to be much more creative to create a new collection each season. So I think that we’ve really developed some nice things by focusing on what we do well and constantly tweaking it based on feedback that we get from our customers and supporters. In some ways, trying to be more sustainable has made us really unique, giving us an edge that many conventional designers don’t have.
Do you see more ethically made clothing becoming prevalent in the fashion world? Do you think consumers are growing more concerned about where their clothes come from, or is there more work to be done?
I do think there’s a growing collective consciousness in our society about ethical fashion, and that even big brands are being forced to make some changes. Especially as the world is becoming more interconnected through the web, it’s not so easy for companies to hide scandals in their supply chains, when their workers have cell phones with cameras, for example. But at the same time, while the ethical fashion industry is growing, fast fashion continues to grow as well.
We will reach a saturation point though, as the earth simply cannot handle this growth. And hopefully, as we as a society learn more about the practices that are enacted on our behalf in other countries, we’ll decide we can’t tolerate this either. That’s my hope, and every purchase you make supporting an ethical company is a vote for a different future for our people and planet as well.