Ayesha Barenblat, Founder and CEO of Remake, believes a radical shift in thinking can help turn fashion into a dignified industry.

MEET Remake: A community of fashion lovers, Women’s rights advocates, and environmentalists on a mission to change the Fashion industry through education, advocacy, and transparency. Remakes’ mission = To make fashion a force for good. 

Responsible for “the biggest heist in fashion’s history” aka The #PayUp movement, Remake educated the public when fashion brands and companies refused to pay factories and garment workers a shocking total of $40 billion during the height of the pandemic. After creating a viral campaign and with public outcry, over 25 brands paid back factories $22 billion for their canceled orders.

Ayesha Barenblat, Founder and CEO, started a coalition that meets monthly to address major concerns and injustices occurring in the clothing industry.

Ayesha, how did the concept of Remake come to you?

On April 24th, 2013 Rana Plaza fell down. It was the worst industrial disaster of our time where over 1,134 young lives were cut short when a building collapsed that housed several factories. 

I was working at Better Work, a partnership between the International Labor Organization and World Bank to improve working conditions inside the fashion industry at the time. As the death toll mounted, and I saw firsthand retailers whose labels were inside Rana Plaza worrying about the legal precedent of compensating the victims’ families, I was moved to want change sooner and faster.

Having worked on the inside of the industry for a long time, I had made the business case for retailers to invest in the lives of garment makers. When Rana Plaza fell down, 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’s movement to say no more deaths, human rights abuses, and environmental degradation in our quest for cheap clothes. This was the inspiration to found Remake in 2015.

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 these forgotten women at the other end of the supply chain was always a source of inspiration for me.

So I thought if only millennial consumers could meet her in a more textured way the way I have and see themselves in her life’s narrative. Perhaps then we can move away from feeling apathy for the people toiling in sweatshops far away and instead advocate for the women who make our clothes in factories around the world. 

This year marked the 10th anniversary of the Rana Plaza garment catastrophe, where as you mentioned, 1,134 garment workers were killed, and more than 2,500 others were severely injured due to preventable structural building failure. Have working conditions in sweatshops improved?

Yes and yes. Over the past decade, the Accord has made workplaces safer for 2.5 million garment workers in Bangladesh. After commitments made by brands to expand the binding agreement, now called the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry to other countries, 55 apparel companies have now signed the new Pakistan Accord protecting hundreds of thousands of lives there.

More information on all the Accord has accomplished to date can be found here (scroll down).

Why is Labor rights a Women’s rights issue? 

The fashion industry is made by 70 million garment workers, 80% of whom are women of color. Today, 93% of the world’s brands don’t pay these essential workers enough to live on. It is womenswear that buoys the profitability of this $2.5 trillion dollar industry. 

Additionally, many of these women are forced to work in unsafe factory conditions with limited access to fresh air or natural light. Sanitation, food, and potable water are largely inaccessible, making heat exhaustion and dehydration prevalent. Worst of all, gender-based violence is common inside these workplaces.

Currently, what are the major issues with the fashion business model? How can companies restructure to form sustainable supply chains?

Fast fashion is made to fall apart: Fast fashion clothing can easily be compared to the rags of yesteryear. Synthetic fabrics, fraying hems, running seams, and poorly attached buttons and fasteners. Are we really OK with wearing badly constructed clothes that shrink, warp, and fall apart after a handful of washes? With new mass-produced styles available on the daily, a fast-fashion T-shirt has become akin to a disposable coffee cup. Clothing that is intentionally made to fall apart will do exactly that – contributing to large amounts of textile waste we send to landfills each year.

Fast fashion rips off indie designers: When they’re not being sued for things like child labor or toxic chemical dumping, big fast fashion retailers are called out for copying other people’s designs and marketing them as their own. These billion-dollar companies can certainly afford to hire the best designers for original designs yet they choose to skim off the little guys to make their profit.

Fast fashion exploits women: The majority of people who make our clothes are women in their early twenties. She would say to you #MeToo. Because fast fashion only affords cheap labor, these fearless women risk their lives every day to feed their families. She works long hours and endures hazardous fumes in hardly-up-to-code buildings and is up against discrimination, sexual harassment, and abuse on her walk to work and on the factory floor.

Fast fashion has been linked to cancer: Chemical cocktails, hormone disruptors, and heavy metals lurk in the fibers of fast fashion clothing only to be absorbed by the pores on our bodies’ largest organ—our skin! Despite all the fancy health products available on the market today, our incredible bodies naturally discharge up to 1lb of toxins per day. When we wear fabrics like nylon, polyester, acrylic, and acetate (that are made from crude oil) it restricts that release leading to headaches, nausea, skin rashes, respiratory problems, and endocrine imbalance.

Much like wrapping yourself in plastic, petrochemical fibers don’t allow your body to breathe. Azo dyes and synthetic indigo (think of those $40 blue jeans), most commonly used to color cheap clothing, are known to contain formaldehyde and release aromatic amines — of which both have been linked to cancer.

Fast fashion is poisoning our waterways: Water is life and fast fashion is killing it. In China, the largest supplier of apparel to the US, 70% of the waterways are contaminated by wastewater from the textile and dye industry. Meanwhile tanneries in Kanpur, the leather capital of India, 400 tanneries dump toxic chromium into the water supply and it ends up in food. Even microparticles from our nylon, acrylic, and polyester clothing subsequently end up in the oceans and 83% of our drinking water after each wash cycle.

We need a radical shift in thinking in order to truly turn fashion into a dignified industry.

Sustainability isn’t a trend, a department, or a PR opportunity. Sustainability must be central to the business model, and by extension a pillar of supply chain ethos, embracing corporate social responsibility and ethics into its core tenets. Brands have an obligation to invest in their supply chains and pay their workers more, and in this way assume some of the risk that they force suppliers to bear. Brands must move away from their exponential linear growth models. Instead, they must adopt circular business models, where they apply regenerative practices, slow down the production cycle, and produce far less but better.

Governments must do their due diligence by adopting legislation that forces brands to abide by their supply chain commitments. Such legislation must provide for accountability, including punitive measures for violations, and remedies for any harms caused.

And consumers too, must do their part. For years brands have been asking consumers to purchase more sustainably while continuing to churn out billions of garments per year. Nevertheless, consumers do have the power to impact change. Yes, consumers should reduce consumption and be more purposeful when purchasing: buy less and buy better. But also, consumers can use their voice. After all, they have the opportunity to collectively demand transparency and accountability from brands, and drive meaningful change..

Can you explain to us what your “Theory of Change” is?

At Remake, we believe that investing in garment workers is an invaluable investment in both people and our planet. Higher wages for workers fuels a positive chain reaction leading to diminished output, elevated product, and a greener footprint.

The Fashion Industry is one of the most exploitative and damaging industries on the planet. While the majority of the responsibility relies on companies to change, how do you think we can shift consumer consciousness? 

Education is key! At Remake, our classroom lectures, workshops, stories, and teaching modules are expanding the pipeline for next-generation activists. Currently, we empower 1,700+ changemakers worldwide in the fight for climate and gender justice in fashion through our global Ambassador Program. Through monthly community calls, skill-building workshops, local meet-ups, and one-on-one training, we equip them with the necessary assets and resources to be fierce advocates in the fashion industry. 

Leading a “sustainable” lifestyle can be difficult for the average person with extreme cost differences in products and accessibility. How can sustainability become more accessible and inclusive?

Sustainability is inclusive and it doesn’t have to be expensive either – it just takes a little creativity! The best way to practice sustainability is to lower your consumption of new apparel – remember that most trends don’t matter. It’s no secret that a lot of used clothes end up in landfills. That’s regrettable, but you can do something about it!

Take stock of what you own. Shop your closet before purchasing anything newRepurpose clothes you don’t want or partake in a clothing swap with friends. If you have the time, sell some of your old clothes to make extra cash. Try to purchase second-hand clothing when you can and opt for rentals for a special occasion. Remember, the longer we can keep clothing in use, the more we keep out of landfills. 

One thing I personally do before I buy anything new is to ask myself if I’d wear it at least 30 times before I buy it. If not, I walk away!

What are 3 changes the average person can make in turning away from fast fashion?

First off, it’s important to note that changing your fashion habits can be done step by step – there’s no need to get overwhelmed. In fact, there are big and small ways to take part in the sustainable fashion movement despite your wallet size. Some ideas include:

  • Challenging yourself this summer by resetting your relationship with fashion with 90 days of NoNewClothes.
  • Asking yourself if you’d wear something 30 times before you buy it. If not, it’s best to walk away.
  • Taking stock of what you own. The best way to practice sustainability is by shopping your closet before purchasing anything new.
  • Checking out vintage, rental, or consignment options before purchasing anything new. One of my favorite things to do is “shop” my sister’s and friends’ closets (with permission, of course)
  • Taking care of your clothes. Loved clothing lasts so try to wash them on cold, line dry, skip the dry cleaner, and mend.
  • Investing in quality not quantity.

For more ways to take part in the sustainable fashion movement, follow us on social media @remakeourworld. Additionally, we’ve also created a quick “How To” here.

Currently, who are some of the worst offending brands? 

Ross Dress for Less and Edinburgh Woollen Mill both received 0 points in our brand assessment while Abercrombie & FitchJCPenneyForever 21SearsURBN Group (Freepeople, Nuuly, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie), and TJX (Marshalls, TJ Maxx) scored a 2. To learn more about our Accountability Report and rating system, you can reference the report directly here.

What is Remake’s dream for the Fashion industry in the next 10 years? How can we get involved?

We have lots of dreams at Remake but mostly, we’d love to see a future of fashion that centers workers, citizens, and the planet. We go into detail here with 7 actions that are key to long-term change in the industry:

1) #PayUp. Fashion brands and retailers must honor contracts with factories and #PayUp for all orders completed and in production or millions of garment makers will go hungry.

2) Keep Workers Safe. The fashion industry must protect garment workers’ basic human rights and labor rights at all times. According to the Worker Rights Consortium, millions of garment workers have lost jobs, wages in some nations have fallen 21% on average, and nearly one in four have not received legally-mandated pay and severance during the pandemic. Most garment workers toil in countries without a social safety net and far too many still work in factories that are physically unsafe. With many brands returning to profitability by the end of 2020, we demand that brands share their profits and do their part to protect fashion’s most essential workers.

3) Go Transparent. Without transparency, raising standards and sustainability in fashion will remain elusive, and human and labor rights abuses will persist under the cloak of darkness and secrecy. While some brands have moved towards publishing their supplier list, this is just a first step towards true transparency. Brands and retailers will not only immediately commit to providing annual data on where their clothes are made, but will also reveal how much workers are paid and treated in an easily accessible and public format.

4) Give Workers Center Stage. There will be no more brand-led and brand-funded conversations about worker rights. Workers are their own best advocates. We want to see a year-over-year increase in unionized factories in brand supply chains. What’s more, any brand-funded major coalitions, organizations, and conferences shaping the future of fashion must ensure fair representation of women workers’ voices.

5) Sign Enforceable Contracts. Unenforceable agreements and voluntary codes of conduct written by brands and imposed on suppliers protect retailers, executives, and shareholders while pushing risk onto already vulnerable garment and supply chain workers. The industry must commit to enforceable, legally-binding contracts and agreements that put workers first and address the power imbalance in fashion that pushes financial risk onto suppliers and thus human rights and labor rights abuses onto workers. Under such agreements, mechanisms must be in place for workers to hold retailers and brands accountable and center workers as beneficiaries.

6) End Starvation Wages. Garment workers make rock-bottom wages and are on the brink of starvation and homelessness, while brands shore up millions for shareholders and executives. Studies confirm that brands cause poverty wages by paying low prices to factories. Companies must publicly commit to paying prices that lift workers out of poverty.

7) Help Pass Laws. A quarter-century of voluntary efforts to reform the fashion industry have been ineffective. Brands and retailers must support rather than thwart the work of citizens and governments to reform corporate power, labor laws, and trade deals.

In conversation with… Remake

Founder and CEO Ayesha Barenblat

Interview by Marie Powell

For ways to get involved, follow us on social media @remakeourworld (IG, Twitter, and FB) and sign up for our monthly newsletter which shares educational stories, information, and tools to help you on your sustainable fashion journey.

Remake’s Roadmap for Fashion’s Future can be found here.