How One Brand's Exposing Fashion's 'Dirty Secret' And Revolutionizing The Industry

"Our dream is that within the next decade, publishing wages in fashion will be as common as a nutritional label on food."

When companies adopt the term "lifestyle brand," most cast the net far and wide, as there's no strict definition. For ABLE, however, "lifestyle" truly means changing how workers live and customers give. After all, as Barrett Ward, CEO and founder of ABLE, told A Plus, the company's primary focus is to end generational poverty through providing economic opportunity for women. In fact, Ward likes to think of ABLE as "a justice organization that happens to be in the fashion industry."

"Our business has changed over the years, but we have always been rooted in this core mission," Ward said. "What started as a line of scarves handmade in Ethiopia by women overcoming prostitution has evolved into a fashion lifestyle brand creating sustainable economic opportunity for women, both locally in Nashville, Tenn. and around the world."

"Empowering women is at the core of everything we do, from hiring and assessing potential partners to our operations systems and the way we design of our products," he added, noting that, while the brand's Nashville office houses around 60 employees, only two are men, including Ward, making ABLE a truly female-driven company from the leadership team down. "Our benefits packages, our workplace protocols, and our hiring process center around the empowerment of women. We actively hire from marginalized communities — women coming out of prostitution, homelessness, or incarceration; women experiencing poverty— and work each day to give opportunity to women in a safe and healthy environment."

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However, over the years, fashion has become infamous for taking advantage of its vulnerable workers. While more than 98 percent of the industry's workers earn less than a living wage, 75 percent of those workers are women. Thus, as Ward notes, ABLE constantly works to support social sustainability because, as the largest industrial employer of women in the world, fashion has the capacity to lead efforts around worker protections and the empowerment of women, thereby creating massive ripple effects of change in communities and economies all over the world.

"As an industry, we need to embrace a mindset of empathy, caring about our social impact as much as we do the bottom lines of our business," he said. "And we need to shift our thinking to realize that doing good in the world does not have to come at a cost to business success — there are so many successful models proving we can do both."

With this in mind, ABLE decided to lead the way within the fashion industry by publishing its wages and establishing complete transparency because, as Ward explains, fashion has a dirty secret: the products we enjoy are most often made by women who can't meet the basic needs of themselves or their children.

"If we genuinely mean what we say about the protection and empowerment of women, then total transparency is the only honest response," he said.

Over the last three years, Ward and his team have worked to develop an auditing system called ACCOUNTABLE, which allows the brand to dive deep and evaluate its impact on women. During this process, ABLE recognized that the path to progress starts with women's wages. By being fully transparent about how they treat their lowest-paid workers, ABLE hopes to take the first steps toward solving such problems. As Ward explains, "we're not perfect, but we want to be perfectly transparent and show people the good, bad, and ugly, so that together we can start to demand change."

ACCOUNTABLE is a third-party social impact assessment completed by an independent auditor, who analyzes a company's employment and manufacturing processes based on financial statements, verified documents, and in-person assessments, including interviews and surveys. It offers unparalleled transparency and accuracy because it requires a two-step verification on all documented policies as well as anonymous surveying and interviewing of both employees and management, separately.

As part of the first audit of its Nashville headquarters, for instance, ABLE scored strongly on equality, but scored poorly on safety. The company learned that some of its processes for making jewelry were not as safe as they needed to be, so ABLE made improvements by getting the team the equipment and protocols they needed. Ultimately, ACCOUNTABLE helps the brand uncover weaknesses in how it works with women so leaders can create the best work environment possible.  

"We began this process because we saw a need for an evaluation specifically focused on the impact on women, and as results started to come in, we saw how important this process was for the way we think about our own business. As a result of these audits, we've implemented a number of changes in our business that have significantly improved our operations. We want other brands to utilize the platform, too, so we're actually in the process of establishing ACCOUNTABLE as its own nonprofit," Ward said. "After it is confirmed, other companies will be able to use the auditing system to evaluate their supply chains. It is important to us that ACCOUNTABLE is operated as a 3rd party entity to ensure its neutrality."

"This level of transparency allows consumers to demand change with their wallets — it gives them the information necessary to make purchasing decisions that protect women," Ward said. "That can only happen with total transparency. And if consumers start to demand change, we will see a real shift start to take place. Nothing changes corporate exploitation like consumer demand."

Ward emphasizes that, while transparency remains crucial in this effort to achieve living wages across the entire supply chain, representation also matter, as it's hard to empower people if their voices are not heard.

"Right now, we're at what will hopefully be looked back on as a pivotal moment in women's history when their voices are heard and issues are surfacing. We're seeing women rise up for women's rights everywhere, and I think they're going to demand a revolution in fashion as well when they come to understand," he said. "We hope this will break the seal of the secret that is keeping women oppressed in fashion manufacturing, putting us on the path to long-term sustainable change once and for all."  

"I also hope other brands take note that we're not saying we're perfect. We're not perfect, but we want to be perfectly transparent," Ward added. "We want other brands to realize that you don't have to wait until you've achieved your goals to be transparent about them, and that being transparent along the way empowers consumers to come alongside us in this process. Hopefully consumers will vote with their dollar for brands trying to do the same. Our dream is that within the next decade, publishing wages in fashion will be as common as a nutritional label on food."

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