Next time you find yourself holding your breath as you jog along riverside, sweating through your cotton fabric in a gym with no air-con or just making that Friday night dash for your favourite bar stool (mine is in Red Bar, back off), take a look at the label at the back of your soaked garment. There’s a good chance it will have been made right here, in Cambodia.
But was it made in horrendous conditions, with disgustingly low pay and no employee benefits? Was it made with materials that contributed to the destruction of Cambodia’s forests? Was it in any way environmentally responsible? Was it ever even meant for sale here in Cambodia, or destined for an outlet thousands of miles away?
Cambodia offers a ton of perks to textile and garment companies looking to set up shop inside the Kingdom. There’s a stable economy, government incentives, duty-free access to regional marketplaces and even a string of Special Economic Zones. And the garment industry has been good for Cambodia, too: the sector has provided thousands of jobs and helped reduce poverty overall.
But it’s also an industry plagued with tales of inhuman working conditions, unsafe factories, long working hours, a lack of worker protection and low pay. These exploitative conditions are often seen as the inevitable trade-off for cheap and disposable fashion.
More and more, we’re all realising we need to be asking hard questions when buying our clothes – pressuring the industry for more sustainable, responsible options. While secondhand and vintage shops throughout the city supply some of our finest frocks, dresses and hideous shirts, they don’t necessarily help fix a troubled industry. And sportswear (which, let’s face it, no one wants second-hand) is often overlooked.
Well, one brand is trying to address this.
Yekowave was formed by Tunisian-born, French-educated, sports enthusiast, Dhikra Yagoubi. After racking up two master’s degrees in Business and Quality Management, she took off to launch a career in the garment industry in China… but the experience opened her eyes to the “sad reality of working conditions in factories”.
Instead, Yagoubi explains, she swapped China for Cambodia and became a fitness and dance instructor right here in Phnom Penh. Her brand new business emerged from her combined love for sport and sustainable fashion, she says.
“Starting Yekowave in the Kingdom is all about passion for sports, promoting a healthy lifestyle and respecting people making our clothes,” says Yagoubi. The company creates what the team describes as “functional and sustainable activewear”: environmentally friendly workout wear that aims to be soft, breathable and quick drying. All pretty vital for this humid wee patch of ex-jungle that we call home.
Encouragingly, Yekowave seems to take the “sustainable” label pretty seriously.
The company produces nylon from a combination of recycled materials from fishing nets and garment waste, and their Tencel is made from non-toxic material sourced from sustainably-certified forests (FSC). Each item of sports clothing is then supplied in an entirely recycled polybag that can be completely dissolved simply by pouring hot water over it, leaving absolutely no micro plastics behind.
“It took 6 months to find the right fabrics and the right supplier,” says co-founder Christoph Arathoon. “Our challenge was to find good quality fabrics for sport products that are made respecting the environment and the people.”
Yekowave says it prioritises treating the workforce with respect, too. Employees are paid a living wage and provided with health insurance, free operations and dental care, as well as English and literacy classes. Their garment factory may well be the only one in Phnom Penh to boast a library.
A sustainable brand, made right here, for customers right here, and that actually treats their workers well? We’ll take that over Nike or Adidas any day.