Raising Awareness About Fast Fashion: Ayesha Barenblat of Remake
Ayesha Barenblat, Founder of the nonprofit organization Remake, brings a fresh and inspiring approach to dealing with the global sustainability challenge of fast, cheap, disposable fashion. After a career consulting in both the private and public sectors in the fashion industry, she founded Remake with the mission to fuel a conscious consumer movement by connecting us to the young women who make the clothing that we buy and wear. She believes that we can use our collective voice and shopping dollars to improve and shape the lives of people who make our clothes.Ayesha, can you tell me how you came to the United States?
I grew up in Pakistan – in Karachi,which is one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. It is right by the Arabian Sea so I have fond memories of growing up near the beach. It’s an interesting city with tons of different immigrants coming through the port and settling there. Pakistan had a thriving garment industry. It’s always been a global gateway to so many places in the world.
Growing up in Pakistan, I always had a yearning and interest to see more of the world. Since I had some family that lived in the United States, I came here for college, thinking that I would be here for just four years and then go back to Karachi. But, then, I stayed and worked, went to graduate school, met my husband and ended up settling in the United States.
What was it like to come here for college?
I was very young – 19 – and had never been to the United States. I moved to Houston where some of my family lived. In many ways I walked in with eyes wide open – not knowing what to expect. I majored in economics. Houston’s a very special City and it’s a place that’s wonderful for many immigrants – you can meet all kinds of interesting people in Houston. I still have family there. Looking at the flooding and all of the implications – the connection to climate change is huge – so it’s certainly been on my mind as of late.
Yes, all the more reason to be concerned about many aspects of sustainability. What did you do after you got your Bachelor’s degree?
I became a management consultant. I was working really long hours working on strategy for companies; and yet wanting to find deeper meaning in living the American dream and not really finding it in the work that I was doing. So, that’s why I went back to get a graduate degree at U.C. Berkeley in public policy. I entered graduate school thinking that – now that I have some work experience and understanding of how to work here in the United States, what I really want to do is find a career that will make a difference in the world. This was right around the time that 9/11 had happened. It was a very difficult time.
It was at Berkeley, especially through the wonderful professors I studied with, that I became interested in sustainability and corporate social responsibility. I began to see that there were ways to work on the inside of brands to make a difference. I could help them think about sustainability, not only from an environmental standpoint but also from a human rights standpoint. The campus was such a melting pot with so many different heritages represented. Berkeley is where the anti-sweatshop movement took hold. I really found my people at Berkeley.
After graduate school, I worked for a wonderful nonprofit, Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), for seven years. BSR is a large global consultancy headquartered here in San Francisco that’s focused on embedding sustainability within multinationals.
What did you work on at BSR?
I worked my way up and eventually ran the fashion vertical. We worked with about 60 brands in our portfolio. I really developed an understanding of how we can work with companies from the inside to think about the risks and business case for investing in social and environmental sustainability. I also learned how to make the business case for companies to engage different stakeholders when making business decisions. The focus became bringing the right actors into the room to work on sustainability issues – not just brands but also local governments and unions – to get them to work together toward improving working conditions.
After that, I worked in the United Nations system for Better Work, a nonprofit partnership between the UN’s International Labour Organization and the International Finance Corporation and a member of the World Bank Group. While I was at Better Work in 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster happened in Bangladesh. It was the biggest industrial disaster of our time. An eight-story, unsafe, overcrowded commercial building collapsed and over 1100 people lost their lives.
After all the years of working to improve working conditions, Rana Plaza was a wake-up call. From my perspective, we were not moving fast enough. I came to realize that a very important player in the fashion industry was not at the work table – the end consumer. I think so much about how our economy here in this country is fueled by consumer habits. And at the same time I see, especially in the millennial women, that there is an increasing interest and understanding of how what we purchase in our lives matters.
That’s when I decided to start my nonprofit Remake. To me this is not just a job, it’s my mission in life. To stand up for the rights of the women who make our fashion. It’s very connected to my own life’s journey. My family used to run garment factories in Pakistan, so I’ve seen firsthand the impact that these jobs can have to lift a generation of women out of poverty.
Today 75 million young women in their early twenties making our fashion around the world. Then, I think, being a Pakistani-American – that I could very well have been one of those young women and one of them could have been me. So, rather than seeing her as someone far away, that instead, I could see myself in her narrative. I have had the good fortune to be the first woman in my family to come to the United States, to achieve a graduate degree and to be able to live the American dream. I feel that, through my work at Remake, it’s an opportunity to be able to give back.
Can you describe Remake?
At Remake we do three things:
- Journeys: twice a year we take peace corps-like journeys into maker communities, where we document for consumers the lives of the women that make our clothes. We bring back photo-rich stories and short films. We partner with fashion design schools – CCA and Parsons, taking graduating designers with us on these journeys to seed the next generation of designers to design with intention.
- Storytelling: we get consumers to break up with fast fashion and embrace slow-conscious fashion through our online and live event campaigns. You can discover our stories at #remakeourworld
- Discovery Platform: we use a rigorous human rights and environmental criteria to filter ethical brands and designers that we showcase on our site, making it easy for consumers that care to wear their values.
Tell me more about Remake’s Mission.
I believe that what we really need is a movement, a groundswell of especially young women who have the sensibility and the global value system to say “No more! No thanks to cheap and disposable fashion that exploits women and degrades our earth’s resources.” We want people to stand up and say NO to fast fashion.
I think it’s the piece of the puzzle that has been missing for so long. Going back to my Berkeley days, there were a lot of activists that have been doing really important work, but the movement hasn’t really evolved. It was always about boycotting, but there’s been very little about inspiring people.
At Remake we humanize the woman that makes our fashion. We use the power of stories to bring her back into our consciousness in a way that is inspiring. We make the discovery of slow fashion brands that are making a difference easy and that give consumers a choice. It’s about buying better, about wearing our values, about being proud rather than shaming.
From the Syrian refugee crisis to everything that’s happening here at home in the United States, in this 24-hour news cycle, we get to a point of just tuning out all the bad news. We start to feel apathy about sweatshops, child and forced labor, and women faraway who make our clothes that are not making enough to feed their families. With Remake, we want to be a disruptor in this space and say: “If I tell you the story differently, if I inspire you and seek to create empathy rather than sympathy, will you care in more of a sustained way? If instead of just giving you the shock and awe and showing you the terrible underbelly on how our clothing is made, and if I inspire you with slow, beautiful fashion, will you buy better?
So, who are the people that make up Remake?
We are an all-women team, very much a global, diverse and dynamic organization. It’s something we really value – across our fellows, our advisors, our board members and our creative storytellers. All of the photographers, artists and graphic designers that work with us our passionate about our mission.
What are some of the challenges that you’ve faced?
We are the new kid on the block, still young, scrappy and 100% Foundation funded. There are great challenges with fundraising because it could be someone’s full-time job right now, but instead, it’s just 20% of my job for now.
I think one of the biggest challenges is not just reaching more people sooner and faster on a small budget, but also making sure that we are changing buying behavior. People online are happy to like a photo, share something or fill out a petition. But we are still puzzling through how to influence behaviour change.
We have more traffic on our site and newsletter signups – people loving our content. But we need to put a focus on stories that highlight people who’ve made a change and that show us how their closet now looks different.
On the other hand, the most heartening part of my work is watching our movement grow. I have a folder in my email which I’ve named my “Happy Folder.” It’s filled with emails from women that have written to say how we have changed their lives and their buying habits.
It’s been heartening to see packed auditoriums, sold out lectures. I really believe the interest is there and the movement is growing.
How did you get your first grant to fund Remake?
We received our first grant from the Levi Strauss Foundation. It’s an amazing foundation that has always been on the front lines of social justice. I have a long history of working with them and the same holds true of all our grant relationships. It’s about nurturing the relationship and showing the credibility of our work.
What would you say to women who would really like to do something – I’d like to be an entrepreneur, but I don’t know what to do?
I’d start by saying: outside of thinking about a career that makes a difference, what about your Board life? Volunteer life? Consumer life? There are many ways to build a life that is conscious and meaningful.
From an entrepreneurial standpoint, I’m always skeptical about boilerplate advice. I’m certainly not an example of the “Silicon Valley Success Story “ – of dropping out of college and having this great tech idea and now sitting on my millions.
I believe a successful entrepreneur has to truly be connected to the problem they are trying to solve and must have a deep understanding of their users. As a mother to a 4- and a 6-year old – I think a lot about the world they will be inheriting. The amount of water consumption and climate impact and human rights issues that are embedded in our clothes is staggering. It’s contrary to the world that I want to live in. So this movement is very personal.
Building the right relationships is also key – from funding to mentorship to talent acquisition. I think it’s important for women to come more together, to carve out a space to give back and provide mentorship. I never say no to people who want to talk and think about sustainable fashion. I have been lucky to have strong allies and supporters throughout my career.
Sometimes people will ask for an informational coffee without doing their homework. My advice would be to have specific questions so we can focus our conversation.
What would you want interested young women and men to take a look at besides your website to learn more about the women who make our fashions?
Check out our documentary Made In Cambodia, that ended up going on PBS’ must-see documentaries of 2017 list and won Best Documentary at the 2017 New York Film Awards. Also download our wallet guide to have hand tips on how to join our movement.