In this episode, Ayesha Barenblat, the founder and CEO of the ethical fashion non-profit Remake, is breaking down:
- What led to the success of the #PayUp movement and what the current status of this campaign is;
- Why fashion has for too long left out the people side of sustainability, and how harmful this is to the ‘sustainable fashion’ movement;
- What types of transparency we need from fashion brands to actually hold them accountable;
- How we can be allies for the people who make our clothes and center garment workers in conversations about sustainability;
- The power imbalances between workers, factories, and brands, and what can be done to fix this;
- If paying living wages is REALLY as difficult as brands say it is;
- What types of legal reforms we need to transform the industry;
- And more!
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app.
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The transcript of this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast is below.
ELIZABETH JOY: You’re listening to the Conscious Style Podcast, where we explore what it will take to build a better, more sustainable, and equitable future for fashion. I’m your host, Elizabeth Joy.
Now let’s dive into today’s episode. Hey, there, and welcome to another episode of the Conscious Style Podcast. Today, you are going to hear all about the groundbreaking PayUp Fashion campaign from Ayesha Barenblat the founder and CEO of Remake, an incredible ethical fashion nonprofit pushing fashion to be a force for good for people and the planet.
In this episode, you are going to hear Ayesha talk all about:
- What the PayUp Fashion campaign is, what made this movement so successful, and what the current status of that campaign is;
- Why fashion has for too long left out the people side of sustainability, and how harmful this is to the sustainable fashion movement;
- What types of transparency we need from fashion brands to actually hold them accountable;
- How we can be allies for the people who make our clothes and really center garment workers in conversations about sustainability;
- The power imbalances between workers, factories, and brands, and what can be done to help fix this;
- If paying living wages is really as difficult as brands say it is and what it will take for us to actually get there; and more.
So this episode is really packed with information that I think you’re going to find really valuable.
And, there’s a lot of realism and honesty in this conversation with Ayesha talking about what sorts of sustainability efforts aren’t going to cut it and what we really need to push the industry forward.
And this is the kind of stuff that you’re not going to hear from quote-unquote mainstream sustainable fashion conferences or events funded by these big fashion brands.
So I think this is a really important conversation.
Before we get into it, though, I just wanted to quickly remind you to make sure that you are subscribed to or following the Conscious Style Podcast so that you aren’t missing any of these weekly episodes!
And if you are liking the show so far, taking a moment to give a rating and a review on Apple Podcasts can really go a long way in helping this show reach more people. Thank you for your support, and I so appreciate you tuning in to this podcast.
Okay, now let’s get started with Ayesha sharing her story, why she started Remake, and what Remake’s mission is all about.
AYESHA BARENBLAT: I’m Ayehsa, the CEO of Remake, and I have been fighting for the rights and dignity of the women who make our clothes, fashion most essential workers, for some 15 years.
For me, this is really a life’s calling, and not just a job.
As a Pakistani American, I really feel like I need to be using my platform to elevate the voices of the women who are often hidden from our consciousness, that happens to mostly be in the Global South.
In terms of background, I spent a long time on the inside of the fashion industry, both working with brands, and also on the policy side, and realized that there was a seat missing at the table.
And that was all of us as everyday citizens who care about how and who makes our clothes, and where they end up. And that’s really Remake’s founding story.
Our mission is to make fashion a force for good, and we do that in three very concrete ways.
The first is education. There is so much misinformation greenwashing out there and so we really just help break it down.
So anyone who wants to understand, hey, what’s the connection between gender justice, climate, justice, and fashion? We make those free educational resources available on our platform, Remake.World.
The other thing that we do is a lot of transparency work.
People, even when they want to shop their values, when they want to support the better brands, they are often very confused because every brand claims to now be ethical and sustainable.
And so we have a searchable directory where we score brands, we know that you know sustainability is a journey, it can’t be a finite score.
And so we’re constantly looking at whether or not brands are supporting or hurting people and the planet.
And so that transparency work is a way for us as everyday people to hold the industry accountable.
And lastly, which is really the heartbeat of our work that I know we’re going to spend some time talking about is our advocacy efforts.
We know that for so long the fashion industry has just relied on voluntary efforts.
There isn’t a lot of regulation for this very fragmented supply chain, which has meant a race to the bottom, and really, the people who make our clothes working in often dangerous conditions without living wages.
And so a lot of our advocacy work is supposed to hold brands accountable, but also to get politicians to do their job and pass smart regulation so that this industry really can be uplifting a generation of women out of poverty.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, totally. So there is clearly so much that needs to be done to clean up the fashion industry.
And Remake, as you explained, is working to address these issues and make fashion a force for good in so many ways. And one of these ways is the PayUp Fashion campaign.
So could you tell us why you and Remake created this PayUp movement and what it’s all about?
AYESHA: Yeah, you and I have something in common, right? We love fashion.
And when we talk about, cleaning up the industry, it’s about an industry that we greatly love that sells us this beauty and aesthetic, and a way to make us look and feel.
When you look under the hood and things are just not the way they’re supposed to be.
And I think COVID really cracked wide open the injustices and inequities that are baked in the fashion system.
So last year end of February, early March, all of our worlds changed, right?
Many of us were just trying to understand what this pandemic is, offices started to close, we were sitting at home, if we were lucky enough and not essential workers, working from home.
And what that meant was that retail stores panicked, brands — whether European or American — essentially recognized this is something they had never seen before and that with stores closed and likely anticipating sluggish online sales, they didn’t want to bear the burden of dealing with any product coming their way.
So what most brands did, and really this was a unilateral decision across the fashion industry, was to cancel orders. And cancel orders, which the women who work in garment factories that had already spent untold hundreds of hours putting together, where many factories were already out the fabric liability to have bought the product.
Some of the product was either in process or on boats already headed to the US and the UK and other markets.
So for us at Remake, we realized that, if the brands weren’t going to honor these contracts, knowing that garment workers already live paycheck to paycheck, this was going to be the biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime facing fashion’s most essential workers.
And so we launched PayUp with a very simple demand. This was not about charity, but about good business practices.
For all of the years of fashion brands talking about sustainability and ethics, what they had to do was the right thing here, honor the contracts and pay up so that garment makers could be paid, especially as COVID started to spread around the world.
And the rest is history in terms of it has been the most successful labor rights campaign of my career.
There were so many civil rights organizations, unions, who worked on it, behind the scenes to hold the brands accountable.
But also it was people like you and our ambassador community, influencers using their platform for good, holding the industry accountable, pushing the brands to do what’s right.
Anytime a brand tried to have a flash sale on Instagram, our community would take over and say, no, no, no, we’re not going to buy anything, unless you pay up.
And I think therein lies the collective power of what all of us can do when we come together as a movement.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, it’s such a powerful movement, as you explained, and I would love to kind of dissect or unpack the PayUp Fashion campaign and explore the seven main action items that have been laid out.
And so action number one is that brands must pay for unpaid orders, as you were talking about all the orders that were canceled when the pandemic hit over a year ago at this point.
So could you tell us what progress has been made in recovering those unpaid bills and stolen wages? And then what the current status is?
AYESHA: Yeah, as you laid out so eloquently, the demand is very simple. It was like, look, you ordered this stuff, you’ve got to pay for it.
Just because you don’t want to deal with the economic fallout, you can’t push that risk on the factories and in turn onto fashion’s most vulnerable workers.
And the pressure worked.
At the start of the pandemic, really, I’d say end of March, early April, when we’re seeing a lot of cancellations, there were a few brands that came to the table.
By the fall of last year, we had 25 brands who agreed to pay up, which, based on UPenn University’s research, has meant that we unlocked $22 billion of that initial $40 billion in canceled orders.
And I’ll say it again, like half of that stolen money in contracts.
And we know from talking to factories that that meant payroll was made. And for our community, it was really a galvanizing moment of what everyday people can do when we stand in solidarity with unions and workers.
So that was incredible. But the work is not yet done.
One of the things that have really been keeping me up at night is, in some ways here in the US, we have vaccines, things are slowly but surely opening up.
I think a lot of us are feeling like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.
But unfortunately, when you look at India and Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and Cambodia, a lot of places where our clothes come from, that is not the case.
COVID is currently ravaging these communities and we are now getting fresh information of older cancellations in India, partly because product won’t ship on time, because people are getting sick. Factories are hotspots for COVID.
So it seems in some ways, brands have learned nothing from the first bit of the campaigning.
Some have committed to not canceling orders through the length of this crisis.
But we continue to chase a long list of brands on doing what’s right here and hoping that with conversations like this, to get people to pay attention.
Because Asia is really in the throes of COVID right now, and it’s where a lot of our clothes are made, and workers have this untenable situation of deciding between their life and their livelihood.
If I don’t go into the factory, I don’t get paid, and then I can’t afford to eat.
But if I do get it, go into the factory and get COVID, and I’m sick — there’s no infrastructure, there are no hospitals, there are no oxygen tanks.
So it’s a very difficult situation.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, ugh. It’s so sad that here we are over a year later, and brands are still canceling orders, still leaving their suppliers scrambling, still not supporting the garment workers that are making their brand’s clothes.
And then meanwhile, we see so many brands — sometimes even the same brands — turn around and advertise their sustainability efforts.
Whether that’s using recycled and organic materials, having a take-back program, using water-efficient dyeing technology, or whatever.
But they’re leaving out the people part of that sustainability equation.
And as action number two of PayUp Fashion outlines, which is the Keep Workers Safe action, the fashion industry must protect the garment workers’ human rights and labor rights.
So what is the danger of leaving out people-centered issues in sustainable fashion?
And then how can we get these big brands to think about people in their sustainability initiatives?
AYESHA: I’m so glad you asked this question.
In our community, I think we really recognize how intersectional these issues are.
You can’t talk about the planet without talking about people because it is intrinsically linked.
And one of the reasons that fashion brands often talk about the environment, but really say nothing about people is because there are some environmental efforts — at least when it comes to energy efficiency or water efficiency — that you’re saving money.
But when it comes to living wages, it turns out that that actually costs you money.
And so for too long, as long as brands have owned the sustainability narrative, it has been centered on environmental — and really incremental environmental inroads — but not really looking at people.
And for us, [sustainable fashion] has always been intersectional.
COVID has taught us the people at the frontline of supply chain shocks and ruptures are the very people that are working on the factory floor.
These are the same communities that were just grappling with a cyclone in India, flooding is common in Bangladesh. You look at the unprecedented heat levels in my hometown of Karachi, Pakistan.
The essential workers who make our clothes are also in the frontline of climate shocks.
And so we have to have the fashion industry focus on this in an intersectional way.
And that’s really what our Keep Workers Safe campaign demand is all about.
It’s the 8 year anniversary of Rana Plaza, and we currently have only two brands, Asos and Tchibo, who have publicly committed to renewing their commitment to the Bangladesh Accord.
For those listening, it was a landmark agreement for brands to really have skin in the game.
[The Bangladesh Accord is a] binding agreement to keep the workplace and buildings safe, and we can’t see that agreement expire.
But even given the recent wake of industrial accidents, fires in other places, we know that we need to be extending the Accord to other places to Pakistan, to Cambodia.
First and foremost, when we think about safety, it’s about the physical building safety.
Because often the infrastructure is not there, the buildings have been built very quickly, and fire hazards, industrial accidents are par of the course to this industry.
But beyond just the physical building, as we have seen in COVID, garment makers have no safety net.
We were talking earlier about, you’ve got to decide whether you risk getting COVID and go into work, it’s because you are living paycheck to paycheck.
And even though brands have signed some very public commitments with International Labor Organization, and USAID, here we are 15 months later, and there has been no substantive direct relief.
Even though order volumes are shrinking, and in some places vacillating, and workers, unlike here, they don’t have unemployment; they don’t have social safety nets to catch them.
And so part of our campaigning is, look, you need to be protecting the workers in this crisis now.
Where is your philanthropic efforts when you talk about COVID relief? Why isn’t it actually getting to the people who are making your product?
And in the long term, you need to put money towards severance.
Because this is the thing that garment workers get hired on short-term contracts; they get hired and fired.
And there is no ability if you get pregnant if you get sick if you get hurt, anyway for you to be protected.
So safety, the way we look at it is in a very holistic way.
We need binding agreements.
We need to assure that unions are recognized, that there isn’t union-busting activity happening in factories.
Because only when you have workers feeling safe in a workforce is when they are more treated as an asset, rather than a cost center, the way the industry currently treats them.
ELIZABETH: There was so much there, but something that really stood out to me was when you said that brands are “owning the sustainability narrative.”
And I think that points to some of these power imbalances in the fashion industry that these brands just because they have huge budgets — not because they know more about sustainability, or that they are in it for the right reasons — but just because they have those millions or billions of dollars to push into the marketing, they’re able to kind of control that story.
ELIZABETH: And its concerning.
AYESHA: Completely. Like for those of us who’ve been working for years and years on this, right?
I mean, 15 years ago, Elizabeth, nobody was talking about sustainability.
And in some ways, we now have sustainable fashion become more mainstream.
But the brands again, look at this as a marketing opportunity to sell more product and have in many ways co-opted the movement versus we’re here to say no, no, no.
If you want to go about sustainability, it’s very simple.
We want you to know about gender justice and climate justice.
And if you’re not centering on those two areas, then really, it’s just greenwashing.
And we do see that greenwashing happening all the time in the industry.
If listeners do want a bit more background on what greenwashing is, and how you can identify it in the fashion industry, I do have actually an entire podcast episode dedicated to that very topic.
It is episode number four if you wanted to go back and listen to that.
But yeah, generally, I’m just very skeptical of any sustainability claim from these big brands for many of these reasons that you mentioned Ayesha.
And that’s why I think action number three of the PayUp Fashion campaign is so important.
And action number three is all about going transparent, talking about the need for transparency from brands in fashion.
So I would love to know, what types of transparency do we need from brands?
And then how can we make sure that it’s actually trustworthy information being shared because we know that what these companies are sharing is not always the most truthful or accurate.
AYESHA: Yeah, it’s so difficult, right?
And the thing is, if you look at a corporate social responsibility report, you know what… they’re like 60, 70, 80 pages long?
I talked to our everyday citizen community, and they’re like, we don’t know what to look for. We don’t have time to be digging through these reports.
Nothing is comparable. It’s hard to compare what substance versus what’s just pretty language.
And so we sat down with experts to say, okay, fundamentally, what are the things that we need?
Because we know sunshine is the best disinfectant. And that transparency is a first step in starting to clean up the supply chains.
Through that, our transparency focus is really on three things.
The first is, well, we need to know where the product is made. And there has been some progress where some brands will tell you where at least the product is cut and stitched.
But as you’ve seen in recent stories, with the crisis of the Uyghurs being essentially in forced labor, human rights detention camps in China, where a lot of our cotton comes from.
We know that a lot of the human rights abuses and conditions are not just where the blouse or the top may be cut and stitched, it has to go all the way up to raw material.
So, first, we want to know, well, where is it? Where is the stuff being made?
We don’t just want to know the country. We want to know the farms, we want to know the factories.
And that’s really important for regulators, for activists, because then we can triangulate when we get complaints or hear from unions about what’s happening.
Because often workers aren’t necessarily able to tell us who they’re sewing for.
So, from a transparency standpoint, we need that traceability across the supply chain.
The second — and this is something no fashion brand ever wants to tell you — is wages.
It’s like, if you talk to any labor organizer, union leader, they’re like, it’s not that complicated.
If a brand says they’re committed to the well-being of the makers, of the people who make their product, then share how much you’re paying.
We know, the data is out there that almost no factory workers today make anything close to a living wage.
And so again, if the brands were to put wages in the public domain, it would be a first step towards then looking at well how much does the executive make? How much does your CEO make? And then why does the average maker in Bangladesh or Cambodia make the low poverty line wages?
And the final thing is that as the industrial disasters over time, different issues have captured press attention, or citizen attention, there’s been this entire private sector complex.This like, multimillion-dollar industry of auditors.
So these are people who are going into the factories looking for human rights concerns, they write up reports, they write up, what the brands must do to correct these issues.
But the problem is that there is no transparency there.
And lot of these auditing firms are for-profit, they’re on the payroll of brands, the reports are only made available to the brands.
For workers, it’s very hard to know, well, based on what’s reported, are things going to get better?
And so outside of knowing well, where’s the product made? How much are you paying for it? We want brands to put that information in the public domain.
Because that’s the kind of good information where then you have a way to measure, do you have these many safety violations? Or you have this much overtime in your factories? Is it getting better over time? Or is it getting worse?
Because currently, the brands get to cherry-pick what sustainability information they’re putting out there. And guess what? If they don’t reach certain goals and milestones, they just change the goals.
And then there’s no one there to hold them accountable.
Remember when H&M made the living wage commitment, and then that just sort of went away?
So that’s why we push for consistent information on wages, on factory audits, and on the entire list of where the product is coming from.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I mean, that example, with H&M’s failed living wage campaign where they got a ton of free PR for saying that they were going to ensure living wages, and then their self-imposed deadline came…
And they could not prove that anybody in their supply chain was earning living wages and that campaign just quietly went away from their website.
I mean, that’s what happens when we let brands lead the way. So that’s not how we’re going to create a better future for fashion.
As action number four of the PayUp, Fashion campaign highlights, fashion needs to center garment workers if we are to build a truly equitable industry.
So then why do you think that garment makers are all too often left out of the conversation?
And how can we be allies for the people who make our clothes, the world’s clothes, making sure they’re centered and represented in a really meaningful way?
AYESHA: Yeah, for me, this was always very puzzling.
As someone who has spent most of her career in production hubs, in factories, in mills, I have had the pleasure in my career to get to know, meet with, have meals with, the incredible, fierce, resilient women leaders who bring their clothes to life.
And, I have always been struck from Haiti to Cambodia to Sri Lanka, on how clear she is. And I say she because we know 80% of this industry’s workforce, particularly at the cut-sew level is women.
And just how clear she is on what she needs in order to not just do her job well and productively, but to be safe and to take care of her family.
And even though brands have dabbled with hotlines or audit data here and there, often, it’s just very extractive.
It’s sort of they’re doing this for their image, they take take take from workers in terms of input, but they’re not really giving them an active seat at the table.
And similarly, it’s been fascinating, you go to all of these very glitzy sustainable fashion conferences — Copenhagen Fashion Summit, or the BSR conference, or anywhere in the alphabet soup of the multi-stakeholder efforts that are really for-profit institutions a lot of them — bringing together brand voices, but she’s largely absent.
The very people that these efforts are supposed to be professing to address. She’s just not there. Not on the plenary stages, not in these multi-stakeholder initiatives.
And so that’s why our fourth demand is about giving garment makers center stage. And, I think this is something that each of us can do in our work.
Often, when we at Remake, get speaking engagements — right now it’s on zoom — our request is, look, we need a union leader voice or a garment maker voice, otherwise, we have to politely decline.
Because I’m an ally, right?
I can speak of the issues, I can look at the data, I can use my platform to amplify her voice. But at the end of the day, we have to go to the source.
And so if there are influencers listening in, if there are brand representatives, if there are sustainable conference planners, I think this is one way for us to start to chip away at this brand led narrative is to give these plenary stages, these multi-stakeholder efforts, this conversation to assure that garment makers have equal representation, leadership representation.
Because otherwise, we are simply not going to elevate her demands. And that’s just not how you make progress.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, and that’s something I think Remake does so well. I love how you are always incorporating garment workers.
So for listeners, I am a Remake Ambassador, and so I attend these meetings that Remake holds each month and you often bring in garment makers, union leaders, and make sure that their voices are heard.
And I think the first time that I really did attend a panel or an event where garment makers were speaking and so..
Oh, that makes me so happy. That’s amazing. That makes me so happy.
ELIZABETH: Yeah! And it inspired me to think about that in terms of guests for my podcast.
And I’m really excited that I’m having Nazma of Awaj Foundation on the show, for instance, and I look forward to having other union leaders and organizers and current garment makers or former garment makers.
So it is making a difference, I think what Remake is doing and leading that discussion because it was something really lacking in this sustainable fashion movement, I would say even.
And just wanted to say that that you definitely are making an influence. You influenced me. So I’m sure you’re influencing tons of other people.
AYESHA: [Laughs] That’s wonderful. And Nazma is a force of nature, she had a big hand in writing these seven action points.
She will tell her own story, but as someone who really grew up on the factory floor, it’s going to be a treat for your listeners to be able to hear from her.
I’m really looking forward to sharing that conversation with everybody. So one of the ways that the power imbalances in the fashion industry play out is through these lopsided agreements with brands and factories and workers.
And action number five of the PayUp Fashion campaign is all about signing pro-worker and enforceable contracts.
So could you tell us what is wrong with the contracts now in the industry? And how do they need to be better?
AYESHA: Yeah, when we started campaigning around, PayUp, we had a lot of everyday people very confused.
They were like, well, how can this be? What do you mean to cancel the orders? Can they do that?
And it turns out, as you start to dig through the contracts, that the asymmetry of power, as you pointed out, is absolutely there.
The entire fashion industry, first and foremost, operates on debt.
So it’s the factory’s job to get the fabric, to run the materials, to pay the workers, and ship the product.
And in some ways, the brands are hedging on this bet of depending on what sells and then paying the factories with it being standard to not pay for 60, 90, and in some contracts that I’ve seen even 120 days.
So the contracts are written in a way where the brands are essentially pushing all of the financial risk onto the factories, who in turn are pushing all that risk onto workers.
We similarly saw this with the bankruptcy proceeding with COVID. JC Penney, there were a number of iconic or traditional retailers that entered bankruptcy proceedings, and you see how suppliers are really last in line in terms of getting paid.
And so part of our action and work is around for brands who say, we’re committed to improving our purchasing practices and committed to sustainability is, well, it first and foremost starts with contracts.
And why is it that you have a supplier Code of Conduct — so almost all brands would have these very long contracts where they’ll tell factories, you will not do overtime, you will not hire children, you will ensure health and safety — but there’s no such thing as a Buyer Code of Conduct.
And I think there shouldn’t be, right?
If this is a true business partnership, then there should be some skin in the game on the brand side as well on you will put a percentage of money down when you sign the contract.
If there are, forces that play like a global pandemic or a future climate shock, then you’re not going to leave the factory and the orders high and dry.
And it’s also industry practice right now that because of this force majeure contract clause, that regardless of what happens, a lot of the brands can just make the unilateral decision to cancel contracts.
So, we are calling upon having the types of payment terms so that workers are not left high and dry as they were in the pandemic.
The final thing here really is around — we often talk about wages, but there’s another piece of this puzzle…
And that’s around how erratic, especially with fast fashion brands and ultra fast fashion brands, how erratic the production planning and delivery schedules are. Brands want things sooner, faster, cheaper.
And that has a very real cost, on not just the wages, but also the physical and mental health of garment makers.
So what we’re wanting to see in contracts is better planning and better delivery schedules so that workers can have a humane pace of work.
The last bit in this from a contractual standpoint has become very trendy in the industry to be talking about automation to be talking about robotics, and AI and all of these ways that this is going to become a more mechanized workforce.
But what we are wanting to see is also some language around responsible transitions.
Countries like Cambodia and Bangladesh, very heavily rely on the garment industry. And if that industry is to shrink, or change, or the workforce, you’re going to need less, what’s to happen to these millions of women who this is predominantly their livelihood?
And in COVID, we’ve seen that she’s been left high and dry, right? Like protesting out on the streets, asking for her wages, left without safety nets.
So if this is really a moment to learn, and build back better, we want brands to start having these conversations with their strategic suppliers about responsible transitions so that they can’t just pull out without warning.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, you pointed to two really huge important things that we need to be keeping in mind.
The impact of climate change-driven or exasperated natural disasters and weather occurrences, as well as the rise of automation.
I mean, both of these things will, and even are already having a huge impact on garment workers. So, these are things that we have to consider and more reasons why we need those legally binding contracts that will hold brands accountable.
Because as the pandemic proved, brands will just leave their factories, leave the garment workers that they relied on for so long, they’ll just leave them high and dry, in order to protect themselves, to shore up their own profits.
And then, of course, another huge issue in fashion when it comes to protecting garment workers is wages.
We’ve talked about this already, but I would love to dive into this topic a bit deeper because a lot of brands and retailers say that paying living wages is quote-unquote, difficult.
AYESHA: Of course it is because it’s gonna cut into the profits!
ELIZABETH: Right, exactly. And some excuses might be that they do not own their own factories, or they do not directly employ garment makers.
s it really as hard to ensure living wages for makers as brands say it is? I think I know what you’re gonna say, but I would love to hear your answer.
AYESHA: We have been stuck for more than two decades of brands saying we’re doing pilot projects, we are doing research.
Every conversation I’ve had with a major fashion brand, it’s always in a pilot phase.
And the truth is, we have a race against time to assure protections and living wages for garment makers, especially as the industry consolidates, and with contracts, as we were talking about earlier.
So the truth is, it’s not hard to calculate a living wage for garment makers.
You understand the weekly expenses, what the real data is, how many humane hours they’re working…
There are living-wage studies out there and the thing that has been most easy for me to understand in all the research is that it’s something like $1 more on a $20 t-shirt.
So it’s less about the research and more about the implementation. And frankly, putting wages front and center in this conversation.
So many brands today have these faux feminist pilots. They’re talking about “empowering” women by teaching them about health and sanitation or teaching them how to better read their paycheck.
The truth is, any garment maker, any union organizer that you will talk to will say, we don’t need training, we don’t need you to teach us how to [be empowered], we will empower ourselves.
All we need is to be paid more.
And so for us, it’s really just increasing the drumbeat around: it’s about wages.
And, for brands to year over year, report to us how they’re making progress towards real living wage targets, rather than some of these wellbeing and other efforts.
These may be nice, but they don’t get to the substance of what is going to leave these women whole.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, it distracts from the real issue.
AYESHA: Completely. So distracting.
And really, the other piece of this is the prices.
So one of the things that brands will never share — because they say it’s competitive information — is how much are you pricing a good for?
And knowing that everything else is getting expensive, with the way you ship product, the prices of commodities, thinking about transportation, the one variable cost that brands want to continue to squeeze and squeeze — which is why they operate in places like Ethiopia, where you really don’t have a minimum wage — is assuring that workers are making subhuman wages.
The business model is built in this way.
And so I believe the reason we haven’t made progress with living wages is because brands continue to put downward pressure on the price of garments themselves in terms of what they pay factories.
And so it’s clear that the voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility initiatives and all of these sustainability pages, these confusing sustainability reports coming from brands are not really leading us anywhere.
And so the final action, number seven, of the PayUp Fashion campaign is demanding that brands help pass laws to hold the industry accountable.
So what types of legal reforms do we need in fashion to make it a more equitable industry?
AYESHA: I mean, you nailed it.
In some ways, we ordered these in terms of importance. With seven being, in some ways, the most important thing that we have to make progress towards.
Because look, here we are 30 years of codes of conduct, of voluntary efforts, of private sector audits, and yet we are talking about the exact same issues.
And so we know that, brands from the goodness of their heart — especially if they’re publicly traded companies that have to turn a profit for the investors, for their shareholders — that it’s a myth that we need to debunk that somehow they’re going to take care of people and planet and think about climate limitations and think about the workforce that brings their product to life while also paying their executives handsomely and growing year over year to keep enriching their shareholders…
Like it just doesn’t work, this notion of the triple bottom line.
So the thing that we need to do is get some of the other actors at the table — really, frankly, politicians to do their job.
This is a mostly deregulated industry.
It’s astonishing to me how little regulation there is in the fashion industry, but I’d say that there are some bright spots.
As you know, we have been very heavily involved in building a business coalition and assuring the passage of the Garment Worker Protection Act here in California, and in some ways, good regulatory reform should start right here at home.
And, why California?
Well, it’s home to the largest base of manufacturing [in the United States]. Some 46,000 garment makers that today make upwards of $2.68, on a piece-rate system.
So this bill, the Garment Worker Protection Act, would essentially say, look, you want productivity targets, that’s great. But we have to make sure that the baseline of a $15 minimum [hourly wage] is paid.
And that we’re holding multilateral accountability [system where] factories and brands have to make sure that the makers of the product are paid.
I really do think that that sort of smart regulation which just passed the Senate, if it’s passed into law, would be a big win for this movement.
And I think there are other interesting bits of regulation bubbling.
A group of us wrote to President Biden saying we need to hire a Fashion Czar, appoint someone as a Fashion Czar in order to start to think about policy in a more structured way.
Because for too long, this industry has really governed itself, and, the results speak for themselves.
So so well said. I mean, we can see that the brand-led initiatives, the voluntary efforts — they’re not working. We need something with teeth, with accountability, that really centers workers.
And that’s why I’m really excited about the PayUp Fashion campaign, because it is such a comprehensive campaign, as we just broke down in this entire interview.
How can all of us get involved with the PayUp Fashion campaign? Support it, amplify it? What can we do?
AYESHA: I am so glad you asked this question because I really do believe that it’s the collective little steps that we all take as a community.
Our ambassadors, as you know, Elizabeth, are the heartbeat of our movement.
It’s people like you, using your platform for good, using your voice for good, that managed to get these billions of dollars recovered in canceled contracts.
So for people listening in, I’d say, don’t get overwhelmed.
The very first step you can do is to go to payupfashion.com and sign the petition.
Now you might say, hmm, what does signing a petition do?
Well, it turns out that the way we’ve set up the petition, some 200 brand executives get an email every time someone signs it.
And we know from the first time around when we were dealing with order cancellations, once 270,000 people signed the petition, we suddenly managed to get brands to call back.
First and foremost, it’s about signing the petition, make your voice heard.
I’d say for those who are on Instagram, give us a follow at @remakeourworld. We try and make this information, the campaigning cycles, and the breaking news, in bite-size, easy-to-digest chunks.
So it’s a way to stay in the know, to tag brands and ask them the questions so that they know that their end customers are paying attention and do want them to do what’s right, whether it comes to living wages or transparency.
Finally, I’d say for those who are really looking for a community to lean into, become an ambassador.
And I’d love if I could, Elizabeth to ask you a question: why did you become an ambassador?
What value do you see in that? Because at least my thinking with that was activism can be lonely and what we need to do is create a thriving community of changemakers that can support one another because all of these issues that we’ve talked about… these are long fights and trying to do this alone can be quite lonely.
ELIZABETH: Exactly and that’s a huge reason why I joined the Remake Ambassador program, was the community aspect.
And honestly, I don’t know of any program that’s comparable to Remake’s with the monthly meetings, the resources, the access to educational content, the ability to connect with so many other like-minded fashion activists. So I really appreciated that aspect.
And I would say that a second reason why I joined the Remake ambassador program is that I was kind of at a point in my journey where I had been engaged with conscious consumerism for a while. And of course, I still am.
But I was feeling like I wanted to do more. I wanted to go beyond supporting the brands doing it right and really get into some of these systems at play and push for all brands to ensure a bare minimum; ensure that every garment worker is earning a fair wage and working in safe conditions.
I didn’t really know how to funnel this energy, and Remake really provides the tools to make this passion or commitment towards pushing for a better future for fashion, it really helps you put it into action.
And so I would say that those were the two main reasons that I joined the Remake ambassador program!
AYESHA: That makes me so happy. Yes, I really do believe, when good thoughtful people come together, it’s the kind of good trouble that we can make.
And, to your point, I think it’s very difficult for us to think about these complex issues and wicked problems that we are somehow going to fix by buying very little or only shopping consciously.
I mean, I think all of those things are wonderful.
But to your point about how do we get to this systematically? It’s really building this grassroots movement.
ELIZABETH: For sure. And are there any other ways that we can support Remake and get involved with Remake’s work?
AYESHA: Well, one of the ways, if you are able to give, I think for people to know we are a 501c3 nonprofit, and what that means is every donation goes towards the work.
It’s about holding the industry accountable. It’s about providing all the free resources that we do to our ambassador community.
And we take no money from the fashion brands because we really believe that that’s the way for us to stay pure to our mission.
So people tell me, oh, I just forego my $5 Starbucks, or what have you, put you on a reoccurring donation, and I know that that’s making a difference in the world.
So that would be one way, if you can give, to give.
But if that is difficult, because I know people are really hurting right now, then know that your voice matters, too.
And just raising your voice asking the right questions… all of that makes a difference as well.
So many ways to support and get involved and I will put the links to all of that in the show notes as well as the episode description so people can look further into everything.
All right, to close out this interview, Ayesha, I’d like to ask you one final question. And that is what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
AYESHA: If I were to dream of a better fashion future, it’s a way of us to be making a beautiful product where we know where it has come from, who has made it, we know that she’s living a life of dignity, with living wages, and a humane pace of production.
Because of that, it means that I as the end customer am valuing that product more, I’m loving it because I know the maker, I know that I’m wearing my values.
And the interesting thing in this sort of dream scenario is if we are paying her more and she is working less, we’d also be reducing our carbon, climate, and water emissions, because we’d be producing less stuff.
ELIZABETH: And that’s a wrap. for this episode. Be sure to take a look at the episode description in your podcast app for the links referenced in this episode, as well as the various links to learn more about today’s guest.
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Ayesha is a social entrepreneur with a passion for building sustainable supply chains that respect people and our planet. With over 15 years of leadership to promote social justice and sustainability within the fashion industry, she founded Remake to mobilize citizens to demand a more just, transparent, and accountable fashion industry. Remake’s free educational resources, advocacy campaigns, and sustainable brands directory are focused on making fashion a force for good.
Ayesha has worked across the public, private, and civil society sectors to promote the rights and dignity of the women who make our clothes. Prior to founding Remake, she led brand engagement at Better Work, a World Bank and United Nations partnership, to ensure safe and decent working conditions in garment factories around the world. Prior to this, she ran the fashion vertical at BSR, providing strategic advice to brands on the design and integration of sustainability into business. She has a master’s degree in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley.