Wear Your Values: Inspiration and Insight From Ayesha Barenblat of Remake
*This piece was published for Vilda Magazine
Char Wong is one of the millions of workers worldwide who make our clothes – 80% of whom are women between the ages of 18-24. With the majority of fashion made overseas in countries like Cambodia, Thailand, and China, it’s no surprise that there is a disconnect between the clothing we buy and the ways in which it’s made.
I wanted a better life for myself and my family, which is why I took this work. But life has become harder. I get paid per 12 pieces, but if there’s even one single error in the batch, I don’t get paid at all.
– Char Wong, garment worker in Cambodia, as interviewed by designer Allie Griffin on a Remake Journey to see Cambodian factories and makers’ lives
The fact that real human hands have touched each and every piece of clothing we wear isn’t always something many of us consider; worse still, many of us are unaware that garment workers are among the lowest paid workers in the world. Victims of the exploitation of cheap labour, many are forced to work in poor conditions, have no rights and lack any recourse to address serious problems , and are victims of human rights violations.
Fast fashion certainly is cheap, but someone paid that price and that person is thousands of miles away toiling away, unseen, in a factory on meager wages unable to support her family. And “luxury” fashion is no better: several luxury brands have been found to engage in less than sustainable practices.
Ayesha Barenblat, founder of Remake, a nonprofit focused on making fashion a force for good, is no stranger to the fashion industry. Growing up in Karachi, Pakistan, around family that ran clothing factories, Barenblat learned early on that these types of jobs, held mostly by females, could lift a generation of young women out of poverty.
Years later, while completing her graduate thesis from U.C. Berkley, Barenblat went back to Karachi to go undercover in garment factories. There, she gained intimate knowledge and understanding of the hardships faced by these women who work long and arduous hours but still find themselves trapped in cycles of poverty. Forging a deep connection and bond to the female garment worker, she decided it would be her life’s mission to improve the wellbeing of the women who make our clothes.
With over ten years of work under her belt working across brands, manufacturers, and governments to improve the fashion industry’s commitment to these women, she realized that she had to do more. The Rana Plaza factory collapse made this feeling even more urgent, so she left her job to found Remake, in hopes of sparking a movement to make fashion a positive force for everyone.
Remake is a sleek digital platform in which users can discover ethical and sustainable brands, watch powerful films, shop , and read stories on a variety of topics within this space.
On using Remake as a space to change the narrative on the way we discuss issues within the fashion industry, Barenblat says: “I believe in the power of hopeful storytelling because behavioural science shows that people are not moved by a pain-centered narrative. We become numb to bad news – be it sweatshop workers or refugees faraway. It’s hard for people to make a connection to these stories with their daily life.
In my lifetime I have had the privilege to have meals, laugh, talk and be awestruck by the women who make our clothes. These were not victims as the media paints them. These are inspiring women, who often supporting upward of 5+ family members on their garment wages. I felt that these stories, of the millennial maker, could spark a more empathic connection with millennial shoppers. With the power of video, virtual reality and social media we can connect in ways that were never possible before. I hope that the story told differently, may finally seal her in our collective consciousness, so we can start to ask more about her and buy better.”
Barenblat was kind enough to answer some questions for us about her non-profit, and ways we can all be more conscious consumers and wear our values.
The ethical and sustainable fashion world can sometimes feel like an echo chamber – we’re all preaching to other brands and consumers who are already in this space; how do you appeal and reach people who don’t necessarily know (or have never considered) that fast-fashion comes at a price?
This is such an important question. I completely agree! As someone who has inhabited sustainability spaces for a long time, I am always struck by how we are talking to one another and not really moving the needle, or scaling our reach.
To reach beyond the echo chamber, we do the following:
Use diverse maker voices.
I am often struck by how non diverse the conferences and conversations are around sustainable fashion, even though this industry is powered by women of color. I even wrote an article about this, Sustainable Fashion’s Race Problem. For us our documentary work where we pass the mic back to the women and communities most impacted by fashion is one way to broaden the conversation. We need to bring her back into our collective consciousness.
Our partnerships with Parsons and CCA are another way that we are ensuring young and emerging designers think about human centered design. Too often what we deal with from a sustainability standpoint is a design mess. We believe engaging young designers just as they are entering their career to think about these issues is really important.
Appeal to the millennial fashionista….