INTERVIEW BY CAMERON RUSSELL
COVID-19’s impact on the fashion industry hit hard—a halt to brick & mortar shopping forced many labels to let go or furlough dozens of retail workers, fashion weeks were canceled, and even online shopping faltered. But the production level of its supply chain was hit the hardest as thousands of factory workers, mostly based in Bangladesh, were left stranded without pay after orders by major retailers were either canceled or went unpaid.
It caused Ayesha Barenblat of Remake, a community of millennial and Gen Z women who have pledged to put an end to fast-fashion, to take action. Here, she speaks to activist and model Cameron Russell on how, through an online campaign, Barenblat and co. unlocked $7.5 billion for garment workers across the globe.
Ayesha Barenblat used to lead brand engagement at Better Work, a World Bank and United Nations partnership, to improve working conditions in the garment industry. Before that, she headed up consumer products at BSR, a nonprofit providing strategic advice to brands including H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and Marks and Spencer on the design and integration of sustainability into business. But in 2016, after years working with brands to improve working conditions and environmental standards within the fashion industry, Barenblat felt she had hit a wall. So, she founded Remake.
Four years later, the unique organizing model Remake has developed is holding the fashion industry accountable. In 2016, Barenblat sensed that if consumers were given more ways to engage the fashion industry beyond boycotts, their advocacy could be extremely powerful. In March, as the coronavirus spread and brands started canceling orders for fabric that had already been purchased—and garments that workers had already produced—Remake ambassadors were ready. Early estimates say their #PayUp campaign efforts have unlocked $7.5 billion in COVID-related unpaid orders globally. And they’re just getting started.
View this post on Instagram
/ For the next 90 days, our community will hit pause on new clothing purchases, pledging to buy #nonewclothes (how you define new is up to you!) ⠀ While we reflect on how to best #wearyourvalues and the changes needed to create an inclusive, resilient fashion industry — for the second year in a row, we’re taking action into our own hands. ⠀ By pledging to buy #nonewclothes — whether that’s buying nothing at all or only secondhand — for 90 days, you will reduce your carbon footprint, limit the waste you send to the landfill, and keep your hard-earned dollars away from companies that hurt people and the planet. ⠀ See the 🔗 in our bio “Pledge to No New Clothes” to show your support of putting the 🌎 first. ⠀ Since collectively we see a bigger difference when teamed together, we encourage you to tag two friends who should join you on your journey! ⠀ We’ll be sending exclusive resources, that you won’t want to miss. Make sure you PLEDGE before June 1st, for first access and tag us when sharing your #nownewclothes story. ⠀ We can’t wait to follow along and support you along the way!
How did Remake come about?
On April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza fell down. I was working at Better Work, a part of the International Labor Organization to improve working conditions inside the fashion industry at the time. As the death toll mounted, I was desperate to push for change—sooner and faster.
At that time I had spent over a decade making the business case for fashion brands to invest in the lives of garment makers. When Rana Plaza fell, it became clear to me that it would take a groundswell of consumer demand to truly move the needle. What we needed was a people powered movement to say no more deaths, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in our quest for cheap clothes. This is the inspiration for founding Remake.
I realized in my years working alongside labor advocacy groups that we had given consumers too few options to engage in the movement beyond boycotts. I have had the pleasure in my career to sit down, talk to, and break bread with thousands of the women who make our clothes. The resilience and hard work of this forgotten #GirlBoss at the other end of the supply chain has always been my biggest source of inspiration.
So I thought, If only millennial and Gen Z shoppers could meet the women who make our clothes in a more textured way, as I have, we can move people from apathy to action. Our Made In series does just that. We are here to remake the connection between consumers and makers, who are mostly women on either end of the supply chain as a way to mainstream conscious fashion.
What have you learned from Remake’s unique organizing model that can be applied to other industries? What advice would you give people who want to organize for a more just and sustainable world who work, learn, or live in communities that may seem resistant to change?
With our Ambassador program we strive to educate millennial and Gen Z women to advocate for women’s rights and climate justice through the lens of fashion. We’ve discovered that our community wants to make a difference; our job is to make it actionable. A big part of our organizing success has been to create easy to share campaigns and resources.
The second is embedding our resources within a local context. Our Ambassadors bring our movement to their local communities in a authentic, genuine way. It’s so much more powerful to learn about something from someone you know and trust than to hear a stranger preach to you about why you should care.
Your innovative ambassador program reminds me a lot of the teachings in Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s book Rules for Revolutionaries about organizing and the learnings and strategy from the first Bernie presidential campaign. I thought of you reading about successful organizing structures being ones where people are continually given the opportunity to take on more responsibility.
What have you learned from running an ambassador program? What makes it work? Have there been any missteps we can learn from?
We’ve learned that organizing has to be locally rooted and at a grassroots level, rather than top-down. Our Ambassadors are the heartbeat of our movement, sharing and contextualizing what it means to embrace a sustainable fashion lifestyle within their local communities.
In our leadership development work, we have also realized the importance of leading by example when it comes to buying less and better. It has been heartening to see our Ambassadors inspire their networks by doing rather than just talking.
We are seeding these young change-makers to go on to become future leaders and activists. Our leadership development is all about instilling the confidence and savvy to question and disrupt the status quo locally, within their workplace, and eventually on the national stage.
We have come to realize that for our education and leadership development work to take hold, confidence is the necessary spark before everything that follows. Confidence is the difference between being inspired and actually getting started, between trying and doing until it is done. Yet, finding confidence is not a solo sport. It requires permission, community, and curiosity, which is what Remake provides to our Ambassador community.
In terms of lessons learned, our Ambassador network grew very fast. In just a year, with completely organic growth, we are at four hundred Ambassadors in 31 states. It has been hard to raise funds to sustain the varied needs of our change-makers with our small team. We have found Ambassador applications go up exponentially during COVID-19 and know that people are looking to apply their talents to make a difference and craving to be in the virtual company of likeminded community. We have redoubled our efforts to raise funds and also created community organizers within particular cities where we have large clusters of Ambassadors as a way to support our fast growing community.
View this post on Instagram
/ HELP NEEDED: we’re taking names and holding large companies accountable to #PayUp. Swipe right to get in the know! WHY? Over $1B USD is owed to garment factories in Bangladesh 🇧🇩 leaving millions with no access to healthcare or pay, as the country doesn’t have unemployment insurance many workers are laid off without pay WHO? Big offenders (currently 🚫ed) that we are keeping reciepts on: @primark, @ca / @mango, @vfcorp / @timberland / @vans, @tescofood, @jcpenney, @walmart, @marksandspencer, @thenorthface HOW? Help support garment workers through factory closures due to #coronavirus by signing our @changedotorg petition 💥💥💥 LINK in bio! We need to ACT now as we need companies to #PayUp to factories ensuring that we can better protect our strong, majority-female garment workers. NOTE: this is happening across the 🌍, including in India 🇳🇪, Myanmar 🇱🇹, Cambodia 🇰🇭, the USA 🇺🇸 and our join efforts with all of you is just the start as this extends to all vulnerable supply chain workers. It’s been estimated that 5️⃣0️⃣ million garment workers lives are on the line in this crisis globally.
A few months ago Remake launched the #PayUp campaign, a petition to help garment workers. Can you explain what the #PayUp campaign is and share an update?
The #PayUp campaign is a petition to demand brands #PayUp for their cancelled and in-production orders so that the millions of garment workers who make our clothes do not end up hungry and protesting on the streets.
As COVID-19 swept across the world, we started to hear from our network of labor organizers, activists, and manufacturer contacts that brands were invoking force majeure clauses in their contract to cancel orders already produced and in production, where suppliers had fronted the materials and labor cost.
For example: In Bangladesh, $3 billion worth of orders were canceled, which meant the country’s 4.1 million workers—a majority of whom are women—were furloughed or laid off without severance, savings, or access to healthcare.
At Remake, we mobilized immediately collecting over 15,000 signatures on our #PayUp petition, and sparking a worldwide movement including actress activist Nat Kelley, model activists Amber Valletta and Arizona Muse, and our own Remake community to engage 4.9 million people in the past few months. The campaigning led to H&M becoming the first brand to #PayUp, then Zara, and now 14 brands agreeing to pay for back orders totaling upward of $600 million in Bangladesh. Conservative estimates are that the #PayUp campaign has helped unlock $7.5 billion in unpaid orders globally and allowed many workers to receive back wages.
We continue to petition several American brands including Gap, Walmart (ASDA), Kohls, JCPenney, Urban Outfitters (Anthropolgie), and Sears—and European brands including ASOS, Arcadia (Topshop, Burtons), Bestseller, Primark, and C&A to #PayUp in a timely manner without asking for discounts on previous contract terms.
By not honoring their bills as negotiated, these brands have led workers around the world to protest on the streets and increasingly become food insecure. Additionally, facing economic hardship, many factories have now started to open back up, despite COVID-19 spreading rapidly, leaving us really worried about the health of garment workers.
The fashion industry is notorious for its lack of accountability. Can you talk about what makes holding the industry to even the most minimal environmental and humanitarian standards so difficult?
The fashion industry is really fragmented. Brands and retailers no longer have any manufacturing expertise and are essentially marketers, pushing down all the environmental and human rights risks onto suppliers. Moreover, fashion, in its quest for cheap labor, operates in countries where labor laws are weak and enforcement is even weaker. In addition, most standards within the fashion industry are voluntary, with the industry essentially holding itself accountable.
To build a more just and sustainable fashion industry, we need more regulation and enforcement. The industry must pay for the human rights abuses and environmental degradation that, today, are negative externalities. In addition, we need more labor organizing and market demand from shoppers to want consciously made products.
View this post on Instagram
/ With all the uncertainty in the 🌎 rn, one thing that’s certain, is going back to business as usual is not an option. We know what the world might look like if we enacted real change. ✨ In coronavirus’s wake, we might FINALLY be able to confront the fashion industry’s failures and work towards building a better future through: 💫 Demanding ethical supply chains 💫 Cutback environmental devastation WHAT the fashion industry will look like in the future depends largely on what we choose to takeaway from this experience. If the coronavirus has taught the fashion industry anything, it’s that there is still hope for sustainable change, and that this call for less waste and ethical practices is a necessity, not a suggestion.‼️
As the fashion industry goes through this COVID-induced, rapid transformation, what do you see as the greatest opportunities and challenges facing garment workers?
In the short term, we expect a lot of suffering—which is why we have been working around the clock to get brands to #PayUp. Most garment makers have no savings, safety nets, or access to healthcare. Many have been awaiting wage payment since March when brands started to refuse to pay for orders; with a weakened summer and fall forecast and many factories around the world also opening up despite raging COVID-19 infections. We are hearing of workers getting sick and will be advocating for sick pay and for stakeholders to work on a relief fund.
In terms of opportunities, we are seeing workers—from retail to warehouse to factories—organize and demand better pay and safer conditions. I see this as an opportunity for worker solidarity across the supply chain.
As we inevitably return to a world where we consume less, how do you see the fashion industry shrinking production and supporting workers throughout its supply chain? In a country like Bangladesh, where ready-made garments make up nearly 90% of exports, what would a just transition look like?
Fashion, particularly fast-fashion’s hyper-growth, has resulted in overproduction that has plundered natural resources, exploited a predominately female workforce, and created staggering waste. The industry will constrict. And while shrinking production will have positive benefits on our planetary boundaries, I fear social unrest.
In countries from Bangladesh, to Cambodia, Myanmar, and Ethiopia—where communities are heavily dependent on garment jobs—brands need to work with governments and public institutions to set-up safety nets for workers. Also, a responsible transition means partnering with organizations like Shimmy Technologies to upskill women from the assembly line to be ready to take on higher-skilled work as factories become more automated.
Want To Get Involved?
Sign the #PayUp petition and share it with your friends and family.
Follow Remake on Instagram to keep up with campaigns, breaking news, and upcoming events.
Subscribe to Remake’s newsletter to get a monthly roundup on the frontline communities who make their fashion and to discover ways to be a more conscious shopper.
Apply to their Ambassador program to become a more active part of Remake’s change-maker community.