Many innovators have shown that sustainable growth is possible, with ideas that not only help reduce carbon emissions but also generate profits, jobs and income.

Some of the most imaginative entrepreneurs make use of resources in ways that benefit local economies while also protecting the environment. Some seek out productive uses for natural resources found locally, others concentrate on local waste or increasing the availability of locally grown food. Others still turn local waste streams into valuable resources that reduce the need for unnecessary consumption, disposal and transportation.

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Rachel Fuller is one such entrepreneur. After graduating from art school, the American travelled to Cambodia with a grant to study sustainable fashion and fair trade. Her research led to her launching an ethical fashion label, Tonlé – the Cambodian word for “river”. The company makes clothes using surplus fabric sourced from larger manufacturers. Its stylish collections start out as factory castoffs, destined for landfill, before being rescued by Tonlé’s design team, who frequently scour Cambodia’s remnant material markets.

What’s interesting about Tonlé is its strategy. It not only engages in creative pattern-making to use almost 100 per cent of any given material, but makes new clothing from remnant materials. It certainly has the textiles to work with: according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, around 11 per cent of the fabric is wasted in the production phase. With so much readily available material, 90 per cent of the fabric Tonlé uses to make clothes is pre-consumer waste. The remaining 10 per cent is upcycled from local suppliers. And the two to three per cent of fabric that Tonlé is unable to use? Instead of discarding it, Tonlé turns into its own recycled paper – using small scraps of fabric, leftover office paper and natural glue – closing the production loop and reducing its waste to zero.

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You can see why the company could become a textbook case of a sustainable solution. By using recycled raw materials rather than virgin materials, Tonlé saves resources and avoids pollution. To prove its point, Tonlé provides a breakdown of the environment impact of making a T-shirt. A conventionally made shirt requires four square metres of land, 2,700 litres of water (about as much as the average person drinks in three years), and more than 150 grams of chemicals and pesticides. Add transportation costs, and the carbon footprint of a conventional T-shirt rises to six kilograms – about 20 times the weight of the T-shirt itself. By contrast, every year Tonlé reckons it diverts 10,000 kilograms of fabric from landfill, prevents 70,000 kilograms of carbon from entering the atmosphere, and saves about 175 million litres of water and 200 kilograms of pesticides.

Besides the environmental benefits, there are social and economic ones, too. Tonlé’s reuse-and-recycle approach means value is created from textile waste: as well as making stylish new garments, Tonlé’s employees have a higher standard of working conditions than is commonly found in the Cambodian garment industry. In fact, Tonlé says its employees are paid more than the local minimum wage, enjoy a comfortable and safe working environment, and are part of a flexible assembly line. That means they can develop different skills and advance from entry-level workers to the managerial level. As sustainable solutions go, then, let’s hope Tonlé’s proves to be as stylish and as fashionable as the clothes it produces.

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This innovation is part of Sustainia100; a study of 100 leading sustainability solutions from around the world. The study is conducted annually by Scandinavian think-tank Sustainia that works to secure deployment of sustainable solutions in communities around the world. This year’s Sustainia100 study is freely available at www.sustainia.me – Discover more solutions at @sustainia and #100solutions

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