Ethical consumerism

Upcycling: Growing sustainability and diversity in Cambodia’s garment sector

Upcycling is a seemingly win-win initiative bringing old adversaries the environment and profitability together. While in its nascent stages in Cambodia, does a circular economy offer potential for the badly hit garment sector to diversify and increase sustainability?

Tom Starkey
May 20, 2020
Upcycling: Growing  sustainability and diversity in Cambodia’s garment sector
Garment workers walk to their factory in Phnom Penh. Photo: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP

Cambodia’s remarkable economic development in recent decades has been driven in large part by its garment industry, accounting for nearly 16% of the Kingdom’s annual GDP and over 80% of exports. 

However, events in recent months have also shone a light on the dangers of this success, with the fragility of the Cambodian economy as a result of lack of diversification becoming starkly apparent. 

The garment sector has been rocked by a string of disasters – from the partial withdrawal of the EU’s Everything but Arms trade privileges due to what the bloc labelled a deterioration in democracy and human rights, to the more recent global economic downturn caused by Covid-19 that has resulted in factory closures and job losses en masse. 

Cambodia’s economic stalwart is in danger of being severely compromised – this could be an opportunity for upcycling to fill some of the void. 

A term first coined in the 1990s, upcycling is in essence to make something new out of something old, unwanted or discarded. It closes the loop between production, distribution, collection and re-manufacturing, thus creating a circular economy in an industry infamous for its wastefulness. 

The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) estimates that 10% of global emissions are from the fashion industry, 20% of global waste water is from fabric dying and treatment, with the industry also consuming over 93 billion cubic metres of water annually. 

As a way of building sustainability into the sector, independent upcycling designers are emerging like Charlotte Bialas and Christopher Raeburn, as well as fashion retailing powerhouse Asos moving into the market with its own ‘reworked vintage’ section.

With the fragility of the Cambodian garment sector exposed for all to see, industry insiders, as well as government officials, are increasingly mulling the benefits of implementing a circular economy in the Kingdom. 

In 2018, senior Cambodian government delegates attended talks about the benefits of circular economy at the Second World Circular Economy Forum in Japan

At the meet, Nick Beresford, country director at UNDP Cambodia, remarked: “If a circular economy model is applied in Cambodia, instead of being disposed, waste would be treated as ‘new products or energy’ to be reused and recycled, to add new economic values for the economy.”

Katia Nicolas, CEO and founder of Phnom Penh based ethical ‘slow fashion’ label Good Krama, says a circular business model is possible, but it is currently hampered by a lack of access and transparency in the garment industry. 

“For just over four years, Good Krama has been making ethical clothing from garment industry excess, rejects and deadstock. Throughout those years, the major problem for us is our inability to work with factories directly to source fabric for upcycling,” she told the Globe

“This is because brands do not own the factories to which fabrics are imported and have little visibility or interest in the type or amount of fabric that gets left over.

Women in the Weavers Project Village, where a team of weavers create a range of textiles following ancestral techniques for Cambodian ‘slow fashion’ brand Good Krama. Photo: Iléna Thea Kim Levy/ Good Krama Facebook

“Picture warehouses full of excess fabric, with no system in place with which to deal with it as brands only care about their product. It’s a barrier for companies like us as we want to be transparent about our products and their environmental impacts, something which our customers care about.”

A Cambodian garment sector insider working for a global brand, who did not want to be identified, agreed that there should be better systems in place for waste, but said that currently there is a lack of incentive. 

“Industrial waste management from some 1,000 factories here [Cambodia] is a major problem and until recently, only one company was licensed to collect this waste and it was taken to landfill. 

“One big problem is that it’s simply cheaper in many cases to dump waste, rather than upcycle. The fees for industrial disposal are so low that there is little incentive to segregate waste, find dealers interested in collecting and then finding facilities that can process it.” 

The problem, he said, is that the symbiotic collection and processing infrastructure doesn’t exist, with these issues telling of a sector that has long focused on high volume and low production value, fuelled by growing demand for ‘fast-fashion’ in the West.

The industry insider added that “there are a number of ethical clothing brands in Cambodia that make use of deadbolts”, however “they buy in too small a quantity to be significant”.

Reverse Resources, who operate a global platform connecting textile waste producers with buyers, are an example of an organisation trying to unlock business opportunities of a circular economy within the textile industry. 

“[Opportunities in textile recycling] are improving and brands are becoming more engaged, but it is still a slow process, due to the fact that the awareness is still low on what is waste and what are the possibilities with it,” said marketing manager Marieke Koemans-Kokkelink.

“It’s a complex process due to legislation which is different per country. The current technology is growing but not scaled yet, the alignment of all stakeholders to transition takes time, effort [and] investment. However, the circular economy approach is in our eyes still the ultimate route to follow.” 

The Economic Research Institute for Asean and East Asia (Eria) analysed circular opportunities in industries across Asia in 2017. The research found that the adoption of circular economy principles could lead to economic growth of around $324 billion, with the potential to create 1.5 million jobs in Asia over the next 25 years. 

What’s important is that [upcycling] provides not only more jobs, but people learn new skills and make new connections. It opens doors for people who wouldn’t get those opportunities just working for factories

Samphas Him of Nomi

Indeed, successful circular economy initiatives in the garment industry have been seen in Asia before and where better to begin than the world’s largest textile producer, China. In response to the damaging effects of the textile industry, China’s State Council passed the 2008 Circular Economy Promotion Law which required the textile industry, among others, to develop a circular value chain. 

This benefitted both private and third sector parties wishing to capitalise on the newly incentivised textile recycling sector. A report by The Netherlands Embassy of China in 2019 said: “The largest company in China that is working in [the textile recycling] field is Flying Ants, and from 2015 to 2018, the number of clothes that the company collected rose from 1000 tons to 40,000 tons, a significant rise.”

Flying Ants were reported as saying the rise in clothing recycled occurred due to “growing awareness among Chinese consumers and the door-to-door pick-up service”.

The report also said that upcycling companies such as UseDem and The Squirrelz had benefited from increasing textile recycling awareness, the latter saying in an interview that “import-export agents from the United States and South American countries responded very well to their wholesale project”.

Samphas Him, a production and merchandising manager from non-profit economic development agency Nomi, who among other initiatives employ survivors of human trafficking in Cambodia to produce upcycled goods, says a circular economy offers more than economic benefits.

“There are many private companies and NGOs that are involved in upcycling, it is definitely a growing industry. What’s important is that it provides not only more jobs, but people learn new skills and make new connections. It opens doors for people who wouldn’t get those opportunities just working for factories. 

“As news spreads, we find people are choosing to buy upcycled garments from ethical sellers because they know the money goes to something positive. In our case, they want to buy our products because they are supporting the fight against human trafficking while boosting employment in the Kingdom.”

The current view in the garment sector appears to be that to solve current import reliance, and to strengthen the ongoing political relations, cotton mills will move from China to Cambodia, which could in turn cause further environmental damage in the Kingdom. 

But with the severe depletion of Cambodia’s garment industry following the events of recent months, the Kingdom now sits at a crossroads. The question remains whether its focus on short term, high volume, low-value production and fast fashion dependence is going to remain feasible in the post-Covid and EBA future. 

Upcycling and the handful of small companies and NGOs operating upcycling initiatives in the Kingdom cannot currently serve as the antidote to the mammoth waste issue in Cambodia’s garment industry. However, they offer an insight into alternatives, shining a light on the potential of waste recycling and evolving consumer attitudes towards ethically made, environmentally conscious products.

In a changing world, it remains to be seen how long the fashion industry can continue to hang out dirty laundry; with this question taking on particular urgency in Cambodia. 

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