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The fashion brand that publishes what it pays people

The fashion brand that publishes what it pays people

Words: Allison Antram

Photos: Various, courtesy of Able

Accessories maker Able decided to tell customers how much it was paying its workers in the United States and Ethiopia – even when it knew that some of the wages were too low. Now it’s challenging competitors to open up about their wages too.

In October 2019, a fashion business in Nashville, Tennessee took a radical step: it published the wages of its lowest-paid workers. What made the move even more radical was that the pay figures didn’t paint as perfect a picture as the company would have liked.

Supporting workers had always been baked into the Able’s mission – it was founded in 2010 to help women in Ethiopia out of sex work, and has gradually won fans for its range of ethically produced scarves, leather bags and other accessories, with an unfussy aesthetic, quality craftsmanship and subdued, natural colours.

But when the company visited suppliers to take a closer look at conditions, all was not well. While workers in Nashville were getting a living wage, some leather workers at factories in Ethiopia were earning less than they could live on, and at one site, pay was even being withheld from women who were sick or showed up late.

“We decided that we’d rather lose everything than not take a shot at what we believe can be the solution to ending worker’s abuse”

Barrett Ward, CEO of Able

CEO Barrett Ward set a deadline to fix the problem, but found he couldn’t meet it. So he did the honourable thing and published the data anyway.

Ward says he didn’t sleep for a week in the lead-up to the numbers being released. But it had to be done. “Frankly, we decided that we’d rather lose everything than not take a shot at what we believe can be the solution to ending worker’s abuse – complete transparency to their base wages,” Ward told 5. Since then, they’ve got “almost all” of their suppliers up to a living wage, although some question marks remain because the pandemic has prevented in-person factory visits.

According to Able’s calculations, a worker in Ethiopia needs to make about $90 (€77) a month to cover rent, food, healthcare, utilities, transport, education, clothing and unexpected costs. But unfortunately, making an actual living wage is rare – Able says the average rate for leather work in Ethiopia is about a third of what it pays. Clearly, many companies are willing to turn a blind eye, and clothes racks in stores all over the world are filled with products made by underpaid women.

Able’s founders set the company up to make workers’ lives better. But to keep that up, they’ve had to stay vigilant.

The ugly truth

In one of the world’s largest and murkiest industries, the conversation around ethical and sustainable production continues to fall short of real progress. Even as more companies present progressive agendas, and more attention is paid to the environment, the human side is often overlooked.

Ward says: “A lot of progress has been made on the environmental side – a lot of legislation and a lot of companies with everything from their packaging to their products being moved to sustainable materials… but the opportunity for growth is still on the people side. We know that it happens far less quickly… because people are expensive, and paying a living wage is expensive.”

One major example is the recent exposure of forced labour in the Xinjiang region of China, which implicated a number of major brands, including Amazon, H&M and even Patagonia, despite its reputation for environmental and social responsibility (it has since cut ties with the region). Meanwhile, Nike and other large corporations that risked seeing their costs go up, lobbied to weaken bills in the United States Senate designed to protect workers.

“You don’t have to be perfect before you’re honest”

Barrett Ward, CEO of Able

Barrett Ward and Able colleagues in Peru picking out colours. Photo: Mikaela Hamilton

How do brands get away with it? Alexandra Gallop, who handles external communications for the Clean Clothes Campaign, sees a parallel with “greenwashing”, where businesses paint a bright, positive picture of their environmental impact, with lots of images of lush foliage, and not much real detail. But as well as greenwashing, says Gallop, fashion brands have gotten good at “social washing”. “[Brands] have these narratives of female empowerment and body positivity and individualism, but they know that the majority of their workers are women. They know that they don’t pay enough for production costs. They know that governments purposefully set national wage levels low enough for them to want to produce there.”

One high-profile brand that has marketed itself on its openness is Everlane, which went as far as trademarking the phrase “radical transparency”. In spite of this, the independent ethical fashion rating site Good on You says there is “no evidence” that Everlane pays living wages in its supply chain, or supports worker empowerment. Remake, another organisation that rates fashion companies on their ethics, also gives the company a low score for its labour practices.

Real, long-term change remains a challenge, as massive companies and governments work to keep labour costs low, and reliable data remains hard to come by.

“Some auditors didn’t visit the manufacturers at all. It was mind-blowing to me”

Barrett Ward, CEO of Able

The power of transparency

The solution, then, lies with brands willing to set a different tone, and conscious consumers willing to pressure those that aren’t. This is why Able’s uncommon transparency and vision is a powerful potential solution, not only to shift the standard within the fashion industry, but to disrupt cyclical poverty.

Transparency is about “giving light to the things that consumers don’t have a view of, and asking them to join us on the journey to getting it right,” says Ward. “We’ve never said that we’ve got it perfect; we just said to our consumers, ‘we’ll show you the good, bad and the ugly, and let’s figure this thing out together.’ We just really value that you don’t have to [be] perfect before you’re honest with your customers.

In the world of fashion today, this is a radical position. But Able’s ambition is to make it the norm. Coinciding with this mission is their auditing system called Accountable, which is aimed to provide themselves, and hopefully other brands, with the clearest possible view of their supply chain. Ward believes the lowest wage paid is a more useful measure than the amount paid per garment. And with their #LowestWageChallenge campaign, they challenge other brands to be as open as they are about what they pay.

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“As we grew and lost visibility [of our supply chain], we wanted to find an audit that would actually go visit the women at the manufacturers, hear their stories, understand the impact, and figure out how we can do it better. As we started looking into this space, we found a lot of audits that not only don’t visit the factories very often – maybe once every two to four years – but some of them didn’t visit the manufacturers at all. They simply took your word for it. It was mind-blowing to me,” Ward explained. 

Ward realised how easy it was for brands to opt out of using an audit that exposes them. “We started Accountable to get into those dark corners and make sure we knew the truth of our entire supply chain.”

Alexandra Gallop echoed this sentiment in the goals of Clean Clothes Campaign’s work: “The workers do lead the industry. [They] are the industry. Yet they are… at the bottom of the power dynamics. So, that’s really what we’re trying to flip. We’re trying to redistribute the power in the supply chain.”

“I can’t even really tell you how big a deal this is”

Crystal, Able employee

From the exception to the norm

Crystal (who asked us to just use her first name) makes jewellery for Able in Nashville, and is one of those who has benefitted from its approach. Prior to working at Able, Crystal was unable to afford an apartment and consequently had a two-hour daily commute. “I can’t even really tell you how big a deal this is,” says Crystal. “To be able to come into a job with no skills or background in it, and be making as good of money as I am and getting trained to do something, and it being fun. I’m continually empowered and getting to learn new things, new skills, and getting opportunities for advancement – in pay and in title. I have savings now. I have a lot of dreams… I still have possibilities that a single person in Nashville would not have with my level of skill and education, if I had not gotten this position.”

For stories like Crystal’s to become more common, consumers need to vote with their wallets. “At the end of the day, if we can’t get consumers to change their behaviour, then corporations are not going to change their behaviour,” said Ward. 

But consumers can’t do everything. “This idea of conscious consumerism can be watered down with brands coming into the space that see consciousness more as a marketing opportunity than a commitment to responsibility,” says Ward. “That only drives us more to make sure that we’re being that much more transparent and open, to challenge those other brands to join.”

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