Ayesha Barenblat is the founder and CEO of Remake, a community platform advocating for garment worker rights and a sustainable fashion industry. She has worked with brands, governments, and labor advocates to improve the lives of the women who make our clothes.
Frontlash: Where did you grow up?
Ayesha: I grew up in Karachi, in Pakistan. I had family that ran garment factories, and so early on I had an understanding of how this could be a wonderful opportunity to be an employer of women. It's one of the few industries that does employ women.
So you moved here to go to college, what came next? What inspired Remake?
It was really UC Berkeley, where I got my Masters in Public Policy, the birthplace of United Students Against Sweatshops. It was the era of corporate social responsibility and every fashion brand started to talk about how they were going to fix the industry. But coming from that manufacturer background, there seemed to me a disconnect between what brands were teaching us versus what I knew from back home.
In 2004, a lot of fashion brands were publishing codes of conduct and their tier one supplier lists. Tier one factories are where most of a brand's cut, make, trim happens.
Usually, these supplier lists do not include subcontractors, which is where violations often happen. The language felt very colonial to me, whenever it was being taught in classrooms. There was this notion of, we will hold manufacturers accountable to assure that workers are not exploited. Somehow we, “the savior brands,” are there to take care of these, mostly people of color, big bad manufacturers to adhere to codes of conduct. It was the early days, the late 90s early 2000s of, you know, offshoring had really accelerated here in the US.
For my thesis, I went undercover back home in Karachi, because I had access to a lot of factories. I spent a lot of time with workers and with suppliers, to get their side of the story, and the disconnect was very clear. Here are brands saying, you can't work overtime, but they're constantly changing their delivery dates to come sooner and faster. All major brands codes of conduct state that factories cannot violate overtime laws— from Walmart, JC Penney, Nike to Zara—but factories are constantly in a state of violating overtime codes because buyers within these brands keep demanding shorter lead times. So essentially brands are causing the very problems they profess to want to fix. But, their purchasing practices are what's causing the stress in the factories. And then brands are like, “You must pay the minimum wage and assure that workers have access to all these resources.” Yet, they were pushing the very same manufacturers down on price.
So for me, it was really about how can you be pushing on price and delivery, and yet pretending to stand for all of these things? That was really the awakening. I then spent some time right out of grad school, working on the inside of the industry. I worked for a consultancy called BSR. They were the biggest sustainable consultancy, and I ended up climbing the ranks to run the fashion vertical there. It was a good grounding to understand— between the thesis work and working there—what can the private sector do from the goodness of their heart.
Afterward, I spent some time with the International Labor Organization, thinking about the policy side. We were a part of a program called Better Work, where we brought government unions and brands to the table, to address working conditions in the fashion industry. Both of those experiences were really eye-opening. There was a seat missing at the table and that was all of us, everyday citizens.
What was the original goal of Remake? What were you envisioning it would be and achieve?
For me, Remake is about seeding that next generation of activists. You know, the fire in my belly really started on the Berkeley campus. This next generation that cares about climate justice, that cares about women's empowerment. How do we get people to think about that, through the lens of fashion? And that's really Remake's founding story.
The early goal of Remake was we wanted to show the people that make our clothes. Not just in a shock and awe [way], but more as this textured girl boss, who's in Cambodia, in Myanmar, in Pakistan, that makes our clothes. And, if I show you what her life is like, what her aspirations are, how she considers, in many ways, herself as a designer in her own right, will you care more? Will you care more about your fashion choices?
We went to China, we went to India, I went to Pakistan. Recently we were filming in LA, pre-COVID. All with this lens of short-form documentaries that were easily shareable, a little bit cheeky and fun. So it’s a way for everyday citizens to have an understanding that if you care about women's empowerment, you care about climate justice, then you must care about your fashion choices.
And how has the response been? Do women care about these other women, in your experience?
I think it's complicated. I think a lot of surveys treat an entire generation as monolithic. So it's like, oh, millennials care so much and now somehow they're going to be the future of sustainable fashion. And then it's like, no, no, no, Gen Z cares so much. And for us, it's been a lot more nuanced. Our Remake girl and our community is certainly growing. We went from a couple of hundred to then 150,000. At this point, we have 500 ambassadors, who are really our community organizers, in different cities, in different states. And I'll tell you, they care very deeply.
For a lot of our Gen Z community, climate change isn't something far away. When it comes to climate justice it's about bartering their future, and so there is a generation of people that come to us, that care more about this from a climate lens.
I would say the diasporas, especially that we've unlocked in our recent campaigning, the South Asian diaspora, the immigrant community, cares a lot more about the women who make our clothes. Especially with the rise inequity in this country, thinking about some of the racial justice issues that we're finally grappling with, we have seen a double-fold increase in our ambassadors. There's this sense of I care because I can see myself in her narrative.
You seem to have very effectively built a vast and empathetic community. I know that community is very much at the core of what you're doing. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about why community is so important to you?
There's this sense that if we're in our little echo chamber, and we're just sharing articles and stories on social media, and tagging people, that then our work is done. But if you look at any grassroots activism, you look at any political campaigning, any very successful campaigning, it's not top-down, it's very much bottom-up.
One of the ways that we've organized and built this community has been intentionally very decentralized. I think part of this is perhaps just being a brown immigrant girl. I've always been sort of reticent to be the face of this movement. Our movement is our community, our heartbeat is our ambassadors and our community organizers, they are the ones that do the work. Also, wouldn't you much rather hear about these issues from someone that you love and trust? For our ambassadors, there's this notion of, can you, within the year, talk to at least ten family friends and then bring them into the movement? And then they in turn can talk to ten people. So I think that was one way that we were structured very differently. That it's this bottom-up, really in the context of your own community, bringing these issues to light.
And the second is, to your point, really coming from a place of empathy. Sympathy can be very fleeting. In the clickbait-y world of constant content, the 24 hour bad news cycle in some ways has almost lobotomized us. We are worried. We're anxious as we doom scroll, and then we don't know what to do about it. So we've always been more a girl-power brand of empathy and connection. Rather than saying I want you to shout at your friends, it's about I want you to give them access to this very special community, which is finding your tribe, having the access to these wonderful workshops, a way to connect in person, pre-COVID, but virtually in the COVID world.
So I think we really do have to often center these issues, that are so complex and so hard, from an empathetic viewpoint. Because otherwise you just turn people off. You might scare them for a little bit. But that's not how habits are formed.
You guys have done some really great campaigns, and I would love to explore all of them but we should talk today about one that is ongoing and important. Can you tell me a little bit about your PayUp campaign?
In early March, we were connecting with production hubs and garment maker communities, and we started getting reports that brands and retailers were en masse canceling orders. In turn, they were pushing all the risks onto suppliers, who were in turn pushing the risk on to the most vulnerable people in the fashion supply chain: the women who make our clothes. This was happening in Bangladesh, in Cambodia, in Myanmar, in Pakistan and so Pay Up is about holding these brands and retailers accountable. It's not about charity. It's simply about good business practice.
The demands of the campaign are: for the orders that were already produced or in production, [brands should] pay their suppliers in full, and take the goods without asking for delays, without asking for discounts. The average garment maker doesn't make a wage that assures her a life of dignity or savings. In Bangladesh, alone, she makes $96 a month. And if she isn't paid for that month, she's to make very difficult choices of, do I have one meal or two?
So can you give us an idea of the scope of this mass decision to just abandon orders? Like, how many companies are we talking about?
It was essentially almost every major brand and retailer that did this. We often talk about Rana Plaza as the biggest industrial disaster of our time, but this was really the biggest fashion heist of what I would call stolen wages. In March alone, we're talking $40 billion of canceled orders. And so with all of the campaigning and holding a lot of the brands accountable, we now know that we have unlocked $22 billion of that 40 billion—more than half of what was owed and that really is the power of everyday citizens holding brands accountable.
A recent victory has been Gap—that was huge because of all the brands that sit under Gap. Gap was an interesting example, in that it was a company that was already dealing with its own financial trouble, then they had the fancy partnership with Kanye West. But what they've [initially] opted to do was essentially shore up the money for their own investors, their own shareholders at the cost of workers. So that has been one of our most recent victories.
H&M was the first to say, we are paying up, we're not canceling orders. So here's an example of a fast fashion that did right by their suppliers, right off the bat. Zara followed suit, as did PVH, a holding company for Calvin Klein and such.
Then, we started to get a trickle of other brands, Levi's joined the fray, Gap joined the fray, for each of these companies, there was a lot of chasing. And so it just goes to show how the industry continues to really be built on the backs of vulnerable garment makers. Because we have talked to a lot of the executives within these brands, who have shared openly with us, if not for the campaigning, if not for the workers marching on the streets, if not for the solidarity across the different labor organizers, if not for the manufacturers bravely leaking us some of this information, they wouldn't have paid up. They had no intention of paying up.
I'm always struck by how hard we have to work, to make sure that big companies don't do terrible things.
It's exhausting, for those of us in the movement. In this era of auditing, codes of conduct, and talk about sustainability; here we are, some 30 years later, having these exact same conversations. But if you do this work you have to be an optimist otherwise you're going to go crazy. One of the things that COVID has cracked wide open, is that these issues have bubbled up to the very top. I think when it comes to the fashion industry, going back to business as usual is not an option.
All of these brands who are starting to have the online sustainability conferences and talking about circularity, we see you. If this is not a worker-centered conversation, about the most vulnerable people, who are the backbone of this industry, then none of the rest of the sustainability matters.
So what can people who are not already involved in the PayUp campaign do? How can we help?
Our work is never over. The work of Pay Up continues, because even for the brands that honored contracts or the ones that didn't honor contracts for the spring, are now putting in orders for the summer and essentially starting that cycle again. So keeping up with the tracker, signing our petition, asking your favorite brands to assure that workers are paid, is a way that people can be involved. And for those who are able to give, I know times are hard so we're always very cautious about this, but we have a few GoFundMe accounts that are directly going to workers in Bangladesh, in Sri Lanka. Because we may have a lot of difficulties but her difficulties right now are 100 fold.
What's been the most surprising thing you’ve learned from launching Remake?
I initially thought that we could have this balance of working with companies and assuring, giving advice and that would make an impact. We had, in our early days, a few corporate brand foundations that had funded our work and even the companies that have a halo of sustainability, that really, at least the public perception is that they are doing amazing work. The minute we started to get to the harder issues like wages and social protections for the people who make our clothes, all of the companies started to get very nervous and cut their relationship with us.
So I've come to the conclusion, that regardless of how sustainable a brand is, in a very pragmatic way, if your business is to grow, if your business is to take care of your investors and your shareholders, perhaps you shouldn't be in the driving seat of also thinking about human rights and environmental sustainability.
And so for us, it was scary, but cutting any funding ties, any board seats, any connection with the industry in that way has actually powered our movement. Where versus in the early days, I thought we could sort of do this dance of inside and outside.
So did you feel that being connected to brands in that way would make it difficult to really hold them to account in the way that was …
Yeah. If we had any close ties with the brands, we couldn't have done Pay Up. And I think the most surprising thing, and this is something I keep coming back to, even a Patagonia of the world, that is so sustainable, that aspires to do right, is still built on a pro-growth model. And so can any brand, regardless of their founding sustainability ethos, actually do right by people and the planet if the focus of the business is to constantly pump product out and to grow? That's been my big a-ha. Because for some of these little sustainable brands, their aspiration is to eventually become that big and become that successful.
And that's why I keep going back to this service-oriented model of the Depops and the ThredUps of the world, and Poshmark, that's the way for us to be having these conversations. Because the more ill-disciplined the supply chain gets, the harder it is for you to address all the human rights impacts and the ecological impacts. Growth and sustainability are at odds with each other. It's something I've been pondering a lot. And now that I have time, in COVID, sitting here, dreaming of a different fashion future. I'm like, well it can't grow. And then people are like, are you anti-capitalist? I'm like, I guess so.
Maybe brands just have to step aside and let the people, like us, that are better to do this, to hold them accountable. We shouldn't pretend that they're going to fix all this. Put people first. Don't retrofit sustainability. Right now, we put investors first, shareholders first. We put people last.
Is there one thing that you hope that fashion takes away from COVID? What do you hope for the future of fashion?
In a sentence: I hope that any roadmap to recovery for fashion's future puts workers in the center, treats workers as an asset rather than a cost center. This remains a heavily labor intensive industry. For all the productivity gains, the women who make our clothes are still the backbone and I hope that fashion learns that investing in her future, upskilling her, paying her wages, that has to be a part of the conversation. Otherwise, you aren't a sustainable brand.
What is giving you hope right now, in this tricky time of ours?
Well, our conversation. I mean honestly, it's the girl power. I have just been so amazed by the fearless activists who we talk to every week, who are out there organizing and protesting out on the streets of Dhaka and Karachi. Our everyday citizen community, who are campaigning and some of them have even socially-distanced protested outside of Anthropologie and Gap, and signed the petitions, and taken the conversation online. This coming together of everyday citizens and of garment makers, in solidarity. It was something I had sketched on paper when we were dreaming of Remake. In this really dark time, it's happened.
I've also been really, really grateful for some of the influencers and celebrities who've used their platform for good: Amber Valletta, Cameron Russell, and Maggie Q. A lot of celebrities have a responsibility and a platform, and for them to use that to be shining a light on these issues has been really remarkable. So all of those things, women coming together for, advocating for one another, is what gives me a lot of hope.
Photography: Cladio Montesano Casillas
Words told to: Laura Jones
Edited by : Sonjia Hyon