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Fashion : #PayUp’s Ayesha Barenblat on the Seven Actions Holding Fast Fashion Accountable

When the pandemic hit and fast fashion factories shut down, thousands of garment workers were left unpaid and out of work. The now viral campaign, #PayUp was launched by nonprofit organization Remake in an effort to hold brands accountable. Remake founder Ayesha Barenblat shares the how campaign continues to put the onus on the fast fashion industry.

Congratulations on launching PayUpFashion.com. It’s exciting to see the next step in the journey of the #PayUp campaign, which went viral on social media earlier this year. Why did you decide to create a dedicated digital hub for the campaign?

We were heartened when citizens paid enough attention to make our #PayUp demands viral and get urgently needed money in the hands of fashion’s most essential workers during a time when the women who make our clothes are increasingly vulnerable given a global pandemic and economic slowdown. COVID-19 has cracked wide open the fragile nature of supply chains and how inequitable and unjust the fashion industry is. Many of the brands who shored up their own balance sheets and paid their executives and shareholders during the 2020 crisis, did so at the cost of delaying payment to factories and essentially stealing wages from workers who already live paycheck to paycheck. We launched this next phase of PayUp Fashion in order to make sure that garment makers are never again forgotten by the fashion industry.

To date, sustainability conversations, gatherings, coalitions and multi-stakeholder initiatives are paid for and led by large brands and retailers. And yet, a quarter century of brand-led voluntary sustainability and labor rights initiatives have not made sufficient progress in protecting the rights and dignity of fashion’s most essential workers. It does not have to be this way. COVID-19 has made it clear that brands and retailers are most suited to put their shareholders and investors first. This is why our new PayUp Fashion hub is authored by garment workers themselves and supported by citizens. It is what we the people want because going back to business as usual post the pandemic is not an option.

As we approach Autumn, orders continue to plummet with brands and retailers sitting on excess inventory and softening sales. At the same time garment makers are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis of our lifetime, with sobering reports of nutrition deficiency, state sponsored violence for simply demanding legally owed wages and severance and rising infection rates. The PayUp coalition believes citizens and workers are far better equipped than for-profit business to determine what is most urgently needed to rebuild fashion in a way that centers people and our planet. Our 7 Action Items do just that. Action 1 and 2 call on the industry to use all available leverage to unlock private sector, international financial institutions and public sector money to support garment workers who have no savings or safety nets.

Next we call for worker-centric transparency by putting all audit and monitoring data in the public domain because we can only measure and improve upon conditions once workers, regulators and citizens have access to this information. In the same vein we call on sustainability coalitions and conferences to give workers seats at the table. In the long run we have set forth a vision for a sustainable, just and resilient industry which will only happen if we make progress toward living wages, enforceable contracts and regulations. As many brands and retailers are already exploring ways to build back better, we thought it was timely to set forth a worker centric view for the fashion industry’s future.Remake

The site has a really useful tracker to show which brands have paid up so far, and which of the seven actions they have committed to, in order to ensure a safer, more transparent supply chain. As an organisation, how do you verify whether a brand has paid up or not? Is this a quite straight forward process, or more difficult to navigate?

We are in contact with the 40 brands listed on our tracker and request all commitments made against our Actions to be in the public domain so that journalists, workers and citizens can hold brands accountable. In addition we rely on the important research of Professor Mark Anner and the Worker Rights Consortium who engage with brands and suppliers to verify information.

For a brand to #PayUp means that they notify suppliers in writing about honouring current contract terms without discounts and delays including specific language about how and when the payments will be received. We then triangulate this information with suppliers. The process is difficult because of the unequal power dynamics between brands, suppliers and workers. As orders continue to decline suppliers live in a culture of fear and reprisal in sharing brand behaviour of cancellations and discounts. In addition many worker partners have reported union busting, and violence for speaking out against wages and legally owed severance.

In this next development for the campaign, you’ve also asked that brands and retailers make public commitments and transparently report on seven actions, including improving workers safety, signing enforceable contracts and ending starvation wages. Why did you feel these seven actions in particular were so important, and which do you consider the most urgent?

The first phase of our #PayUp movement (and the first of the seven actions) was born from the brand and retailer’s catastrophic decision to invoke force majeure clauses, and cancel orders in suppliers factories that were already sewn and in many  cases ready to be shipped or on boats already arriving at ports. This pushed the financial fallout from closed stores and declining apparel demand onto vulnerable workers who already live paycheck to paycheck. While relentless campaigning has at this point recovered $20 billion of the stolen $40 billion in order cancellations, our work is far from done with many brands including Top Shop, EWM and and URBN still refusing to #PayUp. This remains the most urgent of demands, along with Action 2 – Keeping Workers Safe. With startling reports of housing insecurity, nutrition deficiency and rising infection rates, we need workers to have money in their hands through the length of the pandemic.

The remaining 5 Actions were written after months of stakeholder consultations with garment workers, union leaders, academics, human rights experts, labor organisers and legal experts. None of these demands are radical and there is a broad consensus surrounding them. We have organised these in terms of urgency and achievability. 

The rationale of each commitment:

1. #PayUp: Relentless campaigning since March has resulted in 21 brands committing to #PayUp, unlocking upward of $22 billion in money owed to factories and garment workers globally. To be removed from the #PayUp tracker, a brand must honor original contracts without discounts or any changes in payment terms. There remain many brands from Topshop and Ross Dress for Less to URBN that still need to #PayUp.

2. Keep workers safe: Against the backdrop of COVID-19 and a softening of order demand, workers are being pushed into homelessness and food insecurity. Our $2.5 trillion dollar fashion industry must not forget fashion’s most essential workers. This demand requires that brands and retailers work with their factories through 2020 to ensure that workers receive wages and severance. Workers live paycheck to paycheck because of cost-cutting by brands and retailers. Brands and retailers must get money in the hands of garment workers, whether through negotiations with factories, offering low cost financing, philanthropic efforts or unlocking public monies. Moreover it is urgent that brands and retailers protect fashion’s essential workers that have kept them profitable for decades. Under the guise of COVID-19, workers are facing state sponsored violence when protesting for wages and a crack-down on unions. We ask brands to support workers rights to organize.

3. Transparency: 20 years of a for profit audit industry that treats brands as the customer has resulted in limited improvements. We call on brands and retailers to publicly share where their product is made (strategic factory locations), what the wages of the lowest paid workers in their supply chain are and how their product is made (factory audit results and corrective action data). 

4. Give workers centre stage: As we walk in various fashion weeks, Copenhagen Fashion Summit, Green Carpet Challenge and a variety of sustainability and future of fashion coalitions, conferences and webinars, we ask for 50% representation of women worker voices, who are the backbone of the fashion industry. For too long brand and retailer led initiatives from SAC to BSR, have centered the interests of business over people and the planet. Any future of fashion conversation must give workers center stage.

5. Sign enforceable contracts: COVID-19 has cracked wide open the unequal relationship between factories versus brands and retailers. It is common industry practice for factories to prepay for material costs and front labor costs. The pandemic has left cash strapped factories with unclaimed goods and mounting warehouse expenses and inability to pay workers. Going forward brands and retailers must sign enforceable contracts that center workers, including putting a percentage down upon signing contracts to assure wage payments without disruption, setting humane production and delivery schedules to ensure workers health and safety and responsible transition plans so that never again are workers left to bear the brunt of industry contractions. This is particularly important as the fashion industry automates.

6. End starvation wages: Retailers like JC Penney in coming out of bankruptcy proceedings have shored up payments to their shareholders and executives at the expense of garment workers. This is emblematic to how brands and retailers continue to shore up their own cash at the expense of workers. A root cause of fashion’s supply chain continuing to be plagued by modern day slavery and human rights abuses is the industry’s race to the bottom – paying workers merely $27 in Ethiopia a month to $96 in Bangladesh. The time for endless research and debating methodologies on how to pay workers more is over. We need brands to end starvation wages by paying #onedollarmore.

7. Help pass laws: A quarter century of voluntary sustainability commitments have not made progress fast enough. Brands and retailers public policy and lobbying efforts often conflict with their sustainability goals. Brands and retailers to support pro worker legislation as a way to truly address gender and climate justice within the fashion industry.

How do we keep up the momentum that’s been behind the #PayUp so far, and amplify it further?

The most immediate way anyone can help is to sign the Petition supporting the Call to Action at PayUpFashion.com, urge your friends and colleagues to sign, and share your support on social media. Please continue to tag brands using the #PayUp hashtag on social media that need to #PayUp by referencing our Brand Tracker. We will continue to update the website with new ways to get involved in the coming weeks and months.

Before founding Remake, you previously worked with an extensive portfolio of fashion brands to try and create a fairer fashion industry as the Director at Business for Social Responsibility. How has this working knowledge of the industry, particularly working with clients such as Gap Inc and H&M, helped you in building and growing Remake?

Having worked on the inside of the industry for a long time, I made the business case for brands  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 my quest for cheap clothes. This was my inspiration for Remake.

It is certainly helpful to have contacts and an understanding of how fashion brands and their sustainability functions are set-up in growing and sustaining our PayUp campaigning efforts. Relationships and trust have been important. We are not here to cancel or name and shame anyone, but push for true accountability and systemic change.

Time and again, it seems to fall on individuals rather than governing bodies or regulators to push retailers and brands towards a fairer fashion system. Are you hopeful that this will change in the near future?

I am an eternal optimist and remain hopeful especially with the Garment Worker Bill that was introduced here in California and the parliamentary inquiries in the UK given the Leicester sweatshop scandals. It has been interesting to at least have the conversation move to regulation from French Duty of Vigilance Law, Germany’s proposed bill for supply chain due diligence, Indonesia’s Unemployment Scheme, Vietnam’s ratification of Collective Bargaining and proposed EU Mandatory Human Rights Due Diligence legislation.

Within our Remake community our conscious citizens know that we cannot buy our way into a sustainable fashion future. The only way to make progress, is to not just vote with our dollars, but to engage in our political systems and push for better regulations. As stated in our Action 7, it is the only way forward.

What change do you most want to see in the world?

Within the fashion industry, I believe that transparency is an important first step in creating a more just and sustainable fashion industry. Unfortunately the transparency conversation has thus far centred brands as the customer. From the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s HIGG Index to audit data, third parties are paid by brands and no data in the public domain. This has led to little actual progress. At Remake we centre our transparency efforts toward holding brands accountable. We evaluate fashion brands from a distance, using publicly disclosed data. In looking at brand disclosure across climate, waste, water and human rights, we have found little in terms of progress. If brands fail to meet goals they simply renege on their commitments as H&M has done with their promise to pay living wages.

In addition, transparency must be accessible to everyday shoppers. Our fast growing community wants to shop sustainably, but they don’t know where to begin. The research process is daunting. It can be time-consuming and confusing, especially given the proliferation of sustainable labels: organic, sustainable materials, fair trade. Not to mention, many brands co-opting the growing interest in sustainability to straight up greenwash.

At Remake we are not fans of 90-page, jargon-heavy sustainability reports or sustainability efforts that take place behind closed doors. If a brand does not disclose their policies, process, and progress publicly, we give them zero points.

On transparency, I believe brands first need to move the conversation beyond “is this product doing as little harm as possible?” to “is it actually doing good for makers and the future of our planet?” From raw material to end of life, brands should focus on protecting the well-being of the people behind the fashion and environmental stewardship.

Secondly, brands should focus on traceability. Often the worst conditions are in places where there is no sunshine – looking beyond where your product is cut and stitched, to your mills, your raw materials. All of that is important.

Brands need to take responsibility for their supply chain rather than relying on the broken for profit audit system.

Finally, they should lead by example, publicly sharing information wage information, conditions within their factories and most importantly their purchasing practices. Too often, transparency efforts measure the wrong things, focusing on symptoms rather than root causes.

In terms of changes in the world, as I look at growing inequity, crumbling democracies and the looming climate crisis, I dream of a world of more effective people powered movements, that hold our politicians accountable. We need to take power back. Only then will we make progress.