… one sack at a time

Yangyel Lhaden   

May 25, Saturday, 11:30am: Under the scorching Thimphu sun , the Gola-Gola Bhutan team arrives in Olakha. A woman carrying a huge sack approaches the parking lot. One team member says, “Dari ngyeltsho na nyam tshay yi mo la? (You had to take the trouble even on a holiday.)

The woman sighs in relief and replies, “No, no, you have been a great help. This sack of clothes has been lying in my house for months, and I didn’t know where to donate it.”

Gola-Gola Bhutan, a youth group, collects and donates  second-hand clothes to rural communities. Their objective is simple, yet profound: to bridge the gap between those with excess and those without access to clothing.

The clothing industry is a major contributor to pollution, producing 10 percent  of global carbon emissions and sending 85 percent of textiles to dumps each year, according to Business Insider,  a business news website. Between 2000 and 2022, global fiber production doubled from 58 million to 116 million tonnes, according to Vogue Business. The main drivers of this pollution are dyeing and finishing (36 percent), yarn preparation (28 percent), and fiber production (15 percent), according to Quantis International 2018. 

“We want to address cloth waste with global production being between 80 and 100 billion new garments yearly,” President of Gola-Gola Bhutan, Phuntsho Wangchuk Rinzin said. “We see stacks of clothes  in many households because they were too good to be thrown away, but never found the right opportunity.”

Phuntsho said that Bhutanese prioritise the environment, compassion, and human connection and when some have excess and others are in need, that is where Gola-Gola stepped in to help. “While helping those in need, the issue of overproduction and unnecessary dumping of clothes takes care of itself.”

Although there is no national data on cloth waste, the National Waste Inventory Survey 2019 reveals that households generate about 81,000 kilograms of solid waste every day. About 65 percent of households do not have access to waste collection service.

The co-founders of Gola-Gola Bhutan were also dealing with cloth waste at home. While attending Jakar Higher Secondary School in 2022, three students pitched their idea to the Loden Foundation, which was seeking student business ideas. Motivated by the piles of clothes at their own homes, they thought, “If we have this much cloth ourselves, imagine the amount in our dzongkhag and in the country.” They pitched their idea, got it approved, and received Nu 7,000 in funding to start their venture.

 After two years, as college students now and with six active members and about 200 volunteers, the team has donated clothes to Bemji (Trongsa), Changzamtog (Thimphu), Dungna (Chhukha), Drukjegang (Dagana), Tsakaling (Mongar), and Tshochasa (Punakha) so far.

The Saturday clothing collection is part of Gola-Gola Bhutan’s collaboration with SHIFT, a campaign accelerator by Save The Children office. Under the SHIFT campaign, the team plans to donate clothes in Lhuntse, plant trees during Social Forestry Day with Royal Thimphu College, organise a fashion design competition, and launch the Gola-Gola store in Thimphu to address cloth waste issue.

The team has partnered with Drukride for transportation. Every Saturday, they collect clothes and on May 25 they collected clothes from 10 individuals in Thimphu and two from Paro and Bumthang.

“Being college students, we have to juggle to manage Gola-Gola and our studies, but this is our passion project,” Phuntsho said. “Funding is challenging and we have to constantly write proposals to continue our work.”

What keeps Gola-Gola going?

“Seeing people’s faces brighten with smiles when we give them clothes keeps us going,” Phuntsho said. “We have met kind donors, happy recipients, and good people ready to help us, which makes us content.”