A Cambodian and American have joined forces to launch a social business that recycles second-hand clothes to keep them out of landfill.
Yen Chenda, 40, is from Phnom Penh and Amy von Diest, 43, is from the United States. Von Diest moved to Cambodia in 2016 and they both have had a background in the field of community development with international organisations.
They both met in India eight years ago through volunteer work at the Sangam World Center and have been firm friends ever since.
Sangam is one of five world centres run by the global movement World Association of Girl Guides & Girl Scouts (WAGGGS).
They opened ស្នួរខោអាវ៉ “ or “Clotheslines Resale Boutique” in August 2016 with the purpose of empowering people with their personal identity and self-esteem.
In addition, it aims to recycle waste so items can be used again, not being thrown away. Products instore include second-hand clothes, books, shoes, bags, kids' stuff, small furniture, household goods and handmade crafts. The store also features locally-made products, such as soaps, coconut oil and handwash, to promote home-grown eco-friendly products as well as promote women's businesses.
“Cambodia is a country with a lot of factories that work around the clothes and exports goods,” said Chenda. “At the same time, we see that a lot of second-hand items come from other countries.”
Located in a quiet alley behind Kampuchea Krom Boulevard, Clotheslines Resale Boutique can be found nestled in between coffee shops and restaurants. Outside, visitors can find clothes and objects placed in front of the colourfully painted small house-shop. Two customers walked in, their eyes focused on the objects in front of them.
“We believe in the same thing. When we were talking about how we can walk from home and put our energy into the community. What can we do? What are the things we need to do?” said von Diest. “To come to work every day and feel like you have a job where you learn as much as you can. We mostly do all the jobs here. We work non-stop.”
The dynamic duo said that most of the second-hand products in Cambodia are imported waste from other countries. However, their secondhand products and clothes in their shop are locally-made or donated by local people.
“There is so much waste from the clothing industry and we, as a country that produce a lot of clothing, should be working on minimising our waste,” Von Diest said. “The less we are shipping things around the world and buying things from China or shipping things from the United States, the better because all of that is making a big environmental impact.”
Once Chenda and von Diest receive donations, they carefully hand-pick products by sorting out what needs to go to where. They even stitch and use torn clothes to be hand-crafted into other usable products.
They said 80% of their products are for the community, while 20% of it goes on sale in the shop.
They said they sort each item and decide where it can do the greatest good. Items suitable for rural families or people in need will be donated and items that are more suitable for Phnom Penh will be put on sales, with profits ploughed into social good.
Worn out shirts, bedding and towels are saved for veterinary Animal Mama’s spay/neuter clinics.
They also work with NGOs by donating clothes, or have projects that work directly with them. People, especially youths, can also volunteer to work with them and learn to make DIY crafts.
To date, they have worked with Licadho, Voice Cambodia, Girl Guides of Cambodia and Rainwater Cambodia. They also have projects that work with rural communities, providing them with clothes and other things that people may need.
When they first launched the venture, they faced family disapproval, finance issues and trust building from the community. They had to persuade their family to understand what they were doing, start with very little finances, be transparent and show people what they were doing to earn their trust and support.
It took six years of hard work to finally see success, they said.
For Chenda, the two-year struggle during the Covid-19 pandemic was a time for her to learn and be positive.
She added they also took the opportunity while everyone was struggling during the pandemic to build the brand. She enrolled on a class with SHE investment, which stands for support for her enterprise project, a social enterprise that designs and delivers the first and only gender-focused and culturally tailored business programmes for women in Cambodia.
She said that’s where she had met other women business owners that have the same struggles and they could help support each other by giving each other ideas.
“I learned a lot and got to share a lot too. I have also built a lot of networks with people,” Chenda said.
For Chenda and von Diest, customer support is key, and that is what keeps them moving forward. According to Chenda, their customers are aged 21 to 45, and 80% are regulars. The main focus for their customers is to learn about their style and needs, as well as build trust and form a bond with every one of their customers.
“In making our business survive, Chenda and I had to be very strong in supporting each other. We are a community-based shop, which makes it feel very different from other shops because we work hard to suit our customers’ needs. And all that's because they support us. We have customers who keep coming here. They find things they love and also believe in what we are doing” said von Diest.
Chey Rasmey, programme coordinator at Rainwater Cambodia, said she has known Chenda for almost 20 years and that the donation she got from Clotheslines has made a huge impact on the rural community that her organisation works with.
“I have requested to bong Chenda for some clothes, as well as school supplies and some amount of money for schools and people in the rural and remote areas. Even though those items are not expensive, it was very meaningful for them. They are happy to have it.”
Hilyah, 56, who travelled to Cambodia last year, said she discovered Clotheslines through their Facebook post and was impressed with what they are doing. As a person who loves second-hand products, coming to this shop is like a happy pill for her.
“I love to shop second-hand. The thing I see here is that even if it's second-hand, the things they sell do not look second-hand. It is not pricey either. So, why not support them?” Hilyah said.
Chhay Kimheng, 17, spotted their posts on social media. “I came here a second time now. I like the unique kind of stuff they sell. Those things are very interesting.”
Chen and von Diest have future plans for their shop. They want to open a small eco-friendly coffee shop in front of their place as well as their own second-hand designer brand.
“Soon, we are starting a sub brand that focuses on designing products that are sourced locally so that we can sell them at a higher value because then we can actually get more impact,” said von Diest.
“Currently, we are underselling things. The coffee shop is about promoting how an eco-business can really look. There are many coffee shops that promote less use of plastic but they tend to be expat and in the expat community prices are high. We want to bring that to our local community and show that it’s not just an expat thing.”