Cambodia is known for its garment sector but an alternative movement that takes on the fast fashion industry is gaining momentum in the country. Editor Marissa Carruthers looks at the rise of eco-brands across the Kingdom and how these are helping to revive traditional techniques. Photography by Enric Catàla.

Hordes of women packed into the back of trucks like cattle is a familiar sight on the outskirts of Phnom Penh as Cambodia’s mass of garment workers are shipped to and from the factories that today dot the country. It is evident from these mass convoys that the garment sector is big business in the Kingdom.

As the global appetite for fast fashion and cheap clothing rose in the late 20th century, Cambodia’s garment sector was booming by the late 1990s. Figures from Better Factories Cambodia show that today the industry employs more than 700,000 people and makes up 80 percent of total exports – about $5 billion.

This growth has come coupled with tales of exploitation, safety concerns and sexual harassment in the workplace, and deadly protests over wages, long hours and fair working conditions.

The last decade has seen tireless campaigns from workers, trade unions and other organisations to improve factories, working conditions and wages, which now sit at $140 a month. And while progress has undoubtedly been made, there remains a long way to go.

Figures from the International Labour Organization reveal in 2015, the fashion industry employed more than 60 million people across the world and indirectly more than 120 million.

Meanwhile, the Global Slavery Index cites it as one of the biggest employers of slave labour. A White Paper published in 2015 by global movement Fashion Revolution also shows the fashion and textiles segment is still failing to pay a living wage and, after oil, is the most polluting industry in the world.

“The fashion industry is huge and it reaches all corners of the globe,” says Walk Sew Good cofounder Megan O’Malley, who has started a year-long walk across Southeast Asia with Gab Murphy in search of positive fashion stories. “The fast fashion model has steered this giant industry in a direction that exploits people and the planet in favour of cheap, speedily-produced clothing. It’s not sustainable and it doesn’t make any sense. There are so many alternatives out there that people are working hard to create.”

As the world wakes up to the dark side of fashion, a handful of designers and brands are taking it into their own hands to prove the industry can take steps towards cleaning up its act and create ethical alternatives. And in Cambodia, a fashion revolution is stirring as more designers tap into its rich history of weaving, silk making, tailoring and design skills to fill the slowly rising demand for eco-lines that are produced in a fair and sustainable way.

Fashion Revolution

On Apr. 24, 2013, the fashion industry was forced to make drastic changes when the Rana Plaza building containing multiple garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,135 people.

The country’s worst industrial disaster sent shockwaves across the world as details of the appalling working conditions started to emerge. This sparked a huge outcry for increased safety and improved conditions in factories across the globe, while putting pressure on companies and consumers to take action.

In the wake of the disaster, social enterprise Fashion Revolution formed with the aim of shaking up the industry, promoting transparency and urging consumers to change the way they shop for clothes. Cambodia became one of 90 countries to have its own dedicated team of volunteers.

“Cambodia was already home to a multitude of entrepreneurs and NGOs working to change the industry for the better,” says co-organiser James Happell. “In a sense, the goal of Fashion Revolution Cambodia has been to not only promote the values of Fashion Revolution, but to shine a light on the already fantastic work being done by people and organisations here,” adds fellow organiser Emily Lush.

To mark the Rana Plaza anniversary, a Fashion Revolution Week was held globally this year, with the Cambodian chapter hosting a string of events, culminating in an evening of discussions with industry representatives from trade unions, factory assessors, global fashion brands and local clothing brands.

“This event was the first of its kind in this country and one that will hopefully continue to grow alongside all efforts to redefine garment production, promote sustainable practices and ensure the safety of workers in Cambodia,” adds co-organiser Ellen Tirant.

Two women who are also throwing the spotlight on the region’s diverse solutions to fast fashion are O’Malley and Murphy, who set off in November on their 3,500km walk across Southeast Asia in search of stories to tell the world. To date, they have visited Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos. During their trip through Cambodia, they stopped off at a string of suppliers, shops, designers and brands, including Good Krama, Beekeeper Parade and Goel.

“Cambodia was really unique,” says O’Malley. “Fashion manufacturing is such a big part of the country’s economy and walking into and out of Phnom Penh it was hard to ignore the scale of it. While the fast fashion manufacturing industry obviously looms large in Cambodia, we found there were more people creating businesses to combat the negative effects of the industry than in the other countries we visited. There is definitely a growing ethical fashion movement in Cambodia.”

Eco-Cambodia

“We hope this is an interesting demonstration that we can move beyond people just sitting in a factory and engage people in their work, offer them good conditions and do something beyond making $2 T-shirts,” says Anneliese Helmy, who launched garment manufacturing business Fairsew in central Phnom Penh five years ago.

Growing from one employee who could sew and do pattern making, Fairsew today comprises of nine sewers and pattern-makers who create everything from dresses and skirts, to bags and shirts for brands – mostly with a fair trade focus – across the globe.

“I felt it should be possible in fashion for people to work for you and get proper rates of pay and acknowledgement that sewers have good skills,” says Helmy. “If you have girls who can sit down and construct a garment from start to finish, that’s high-level skills. Our staff can all do that. It’s important to show you can make clothing for reasonable pricing and pay staff properly, have proper leave, public holidays and health care.”

Dorsu is another design house that operates with a clean fashion conscience, with all clothes designed and produced in their Kampot production studio.

Clothing is made using remnant fabrics from suppliers in Phnom Penh, with Dorsu mopping up the mass amount of waste material left from factories, leaving as close to zero waste as possible.

When companies estimate a production run, they ship containers of fabric to Cambodia, with often huge amounts of waste remaining. Hanna Guy, Dorsu co-founder, cites an example of an order of 85,000 to 100,000 garments leaving about 600 to 700kg of left over rolls of fabric. These are passed onto wholesalers, who sell the fabric on at a local level.

“There is an entire sub-economy that comes out of the garment industry,” adds Guy. “I’m very honest about the fact we use this but we’re still using fabrics that already exist rather than creating demand for new material.”

Extra elements are incorporated into designs to ensure they are as environmentally-friendly as possible, such as making packaging from fabric scraps, printing tags on 100 percent recycled card using vegetable ink, and using no harsh chemicals onsite and chemical-free cleaning products.

Employees are also offered a wage

that exceeds the legal minimum,

bonuses, holiday and sick pay and a working environment that adheres to

legal requirements.

“Eco fashion is hip right now. I hope it’s here to stay,” says Guy, who runs Dorsu with Cambodian business partner Kunthear Mov. “But it remains in the

hands of consumers to ask where

their clothing has come from and to demand transparency.”

Reviving Traditions

“These skills are dying because of the factories,” says Alan James Flux, founder of A.N.D. a fair trade brand that uses materials and crafts from local artisans in its designs, referring to weaving, which was once prevalent across the country.

“We have fantastic hand weavers at this moment but the children of those families are going into garment factories, where conditions are getting better and so are salaries. Nobody wants to sit down and weave this beautiful ikat [an intricate woven pattern] any more. It’s an incredibly skilled and slow process, and you need a lot of patience.”

As with many of Cambodia’s traditional textiles, ancient techniques are on the decline. Many skills passed down through generations were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. Since then, the demise has been fuelled by post-war poverty and a lack of demand for quality goods, taking away the incentive to keep these traditions alive.

“If you try to sell a scarf in a local village, you’ll get 2,000 riel,” adds Flux. “No one is going to put all this effort in for that. They’ll go into nylon or thread, which is much cheaper, stronger and easier to weave. You could go into that and get a very small return, or take up the seductive offer of a garment factory where you’ve got 10,000 new friends overnight, you’re getting a living wage – not great but improving – and a guarantee, of sorts, of work.”

The British trained fashion designer came to Cambodia in 2008 to work with the Voluntary Service Overseas alongside Artisan Association of Cambodia’s members in remote villages.

It was during this time that he came across talented minority weavers, ceramics craftspeople and basket weavers in Preah Vihear, Rattanakiri and Mondulkiri. “The skills and products were incredible but they weren’t maximising their potential,” he says.

“They didn’t know what colours or quality foreigners are looking for, how to make for the export market or how to market themselves.”

Five years ago, he opened A.N.D. which works with skilled artisan families across the country who provide textiles, and a team of six tailors in Phnom Penh to produce clothes and accessories for export as well as supply its local bouiques.

“I think we’re just scratching the surface of the potential here in Cambodia,” Flux says. “I wish we had time to go out into the villages and find that weaver who really does things differently.”

“There are many products in Cambodia that are great; many different ways of weaving, many different types of tie-dying, jewellery and wood carving; the potential is endless.”

Designer and owner of Lotus Silk, Vannary San, has also made it her mission to revive Cambodia’s once-famed

golden silk and sell it to the world in an ethical way.

Using a sustainable business model, she employs farmers in Kampot to grow mulberry trees using organic fertilisers, weavers in Kandal, Prey Veng and Takao, organic cotton growers in Battambang and dying communities across the country, with each stage of production traceable.

“Silk is part of our heritage but it’s disappearing,” says San, whose Golden Silk Collection recently made its debut after she started the pilot project three years ago.

She already has orders from South Korea, Australia and Canada.

San, who is working with the government to develop a Silk Strategy to revive and reshape the industry, believes that by creating quality silk and silk products, that are 100 percent made in Cambodia in an ethical, transparent way, will help raise incentives locally and increase the standard of lives for many communities, while reviving a tradition that is teetering close to the edge of extinction.

“We are Cambodian and we can create these beautiful items,” says San, who plans to open a government-endorsed silk museum in Phnom Penh next year. “Not only is it an important part of our history, it is these quality, ethically-made products that offer potential in the future.”

With Cambodia’s roots steeped deep in the garment and textile trades, hopes are high that the ethical fashion movement is here to stay and can help steer the industry as a whole into a new and improved chapter, while reviving traditions and elevating the lives of locals.