Few people, after reading an article on forced labor in fashion or seeing a film on the industry's environmental impact, wouldn't admit that things need to change. But it can be hard for consumers to stick to those convictions in the face of a flash sale, or for designers to take the high road when they're racing deadlines to prepare their next collection.
So what will it take for the information about fashion's massive impact on people and the planet to really stick? Ayesha Barenblat, founder of fashion nonprofit Remake, thinks that getting people to experience the other side of the fashion industry might be part of it.
"When Rana Plaza fell, I was having conversations with my development friends about what it would take to see real change," Barenblat told Fashionista over the phone. "And every person I spoke with mentioned having done a Peace Corps-type trip very early in their professional and personal life. We kept coming back to how deeply that had shaped them as individuals."
Hoping to facilitate those kinds of transformative experiences for people with the power to impact the fashion industry, Barenblat pulled from her past experiences working with the UN and brands like Nike and H&M to begin planning trips for designers and design students to visit the overseas factories where the clothing they design is actually produced. These trips now constitute a major component of Remake's mission to create a growing awareness about the ethics of manufacturing and production, alongside storytelling efforts and ethical fashion curation.
"Being face-to-face is really an empathy-building tool," Barenblat explains. Remake's sixth and most recent trip saw that empathy-building in action when it partnered with the Levi Strauss Foundation to send three Parsons fashion design students on a trip to Cambodia. Students Anh Le, Allie Griffin and Casey Barber were given the opportunity to visit factories, sit in on worker's rights meetings and spend time with garment laborers in their homes.
"Knowing the statistics and seeing the people that these numbers actually represent was very different," said Griffin in a film made to document the trip.
At a panel discussion called "Made in Cambodia" hosted by Parsons on Tuesday, Griffin went on to say that the time she spent in the home of a garment worker named Sreyneang had an especially large impact on her. "Going to her home, I really saw what that kind of wage supports," Griffin explained. The implication was that the wage doesn't support much.
Barenblat believes in targeting designers and future designers because of the power they can have to change how the system works. Paul Dillinger, who oversees product innovation at Levi's in addition to working with the Levi Strauss Foundation, drove home the point in his keynote address at the "Made in Cambodia" event: "A big part of the mess is designed mess," he claimed of the abuses embedded in the industry. But he was quick to add that this also means there are great opportunities for designers who want to change things. He mentioned designing pieces in such a way that they can only be made by certain production partners, essentially creating a "system of preferential allocation within the supply chain that prejudices in favor of factories doing the right thing... There's a lot of opportunity to create value in the system without anyone even knowing about it," he added.
Barenblat's hope, in the long run, is to help shape the kinds of designers who will do the right thing — but also the kind of industry where they don't have to do so in an under-the-radar way.
"Coming face to face with the garment worker, really welcoming her as a part of our sisterhood and recognizing that she's a core part of the fashion industry is inspiring," Barenblat says. "It comes more from a place of inspiration than a place of 'thou shalt not,' which is the way that media has often told the story."