Ayesha Barenblat, CEO of Remake, on Sustainable Fashion and Remake’s Mission to Improve the Lives of 75+ Million Women

Name: Ayesha Barenblat
Title: Founder & CEO of Remake
Based in: San Francisco, CA
 

Ayesha Barenblat is a social entrepreneur with a passion for building sustainable supply chains that respect people and our planet. With over a decade of leadership to promote social justice and sustainability within the fashion industry, she founded Remake to ignite a movement on conscientious consuming. Remake’s films, stories and immersive journeys rebuild human connections with the women who make our clothes. Ayesha is passionate about how our fashion is made, who brings our clothes to life and where our discarded fashion ends up. She has worked with brands, governments, and labor advocates to improve the lives of the women who make our clothes. She led brand engagement at Better Work, a World Bank and United Nations partnership to ensure safe and decent working conditions within garment factories around the world. She was head of consumer products at BSR, providing strategic advice to brands including H&M, Levi Strauss and Company, Marks and Spencer, and Nike on the design and integration of sustainability into business. She holds a master’s in public policy from the University of California, Berkeley.

1. In your words, describe who you are.

Global citizen, wife, mother, first time female founder, Pakistani-American, fierce advocate for social justice. 

2. You founded Remake on a mission to improve the well-being of the 75+ million women who make our clothes. What changes have you seen since your inception through your work? 

When we started Remake sustainable fashion was a niche conversation. Today we have fashion magazines bringing on full-time sustainability editors, and from runways to red carpets sustainability is front and center. At Remake we are really proud of the work we do every day to ensure that sustainability continues to move from niche to mainstream. 

Today studies show that more and more people want to shop ethically and are willing to spend more for sustainable fashion. According to a study done by Nielsen, 55 percent of mostly millennial consumers, across 60 countries said they would pay more for products provided by companies that support positive social and environmental impact.  Morgan Stanley’s research concurs with this; 58 percent of 16 to 24 year-olds said ethics are “very or somewhat important” compared to 49 percent of those 55 and up. 

Remake’s own community is 150,000 people strong with over 300 Ambassadors in 32 states who as part of our #wearyourvalues campaign have committed to buy less and better. Building up the next generation of women’s rights and climate justice leaders through the lens of fashion has been the greatest source of inspiration for me. I sincerely believe that the future is bright!

3. You talk a lot about the labor exploits and environmental destruction of the fast fashion industry. Do you think fast fashion is a reflection of a general consumer trend that reflects today’s public’s demand for immediateness and for constant newness? What do you think are the implications of this?

In the last decade, our clothes have been coming to us too fast and too cheap and the human and planetary costs of this hyperconsumption model are hidden from our collective consciousness. I believe both the general consumer wanting new outfits for the next IG selfie plays a part but it is also companies like Amazon that have conditioned us to with one click to get whatever we want, whenever we want. The implications of this includes: 

  • Planetary destruction: The largely unregulated churn and burn of fast fashion is putting too much pressure on our planet. 12.8 million tons of clothing are sent to landfills in the US every year. This is a football field filled 14 ft deep with clothes. An estimated 8% of total global greenhouse gas emissions are produced by the apparel/footwear industry. Main cotton producing countries like China and India are already facing water shortages, and with water consumption projected to go up by 50% by 2030, these cotton-growing nations face the dilemma of choosing between cotton production and securing clean drinking water.
  • Fast fashion disempowers women. With fast fashion you trap a generation of young women into poverty. 75 million people are making our clothes today. 80% is made by women who are only 18 – 24 years old. It takes a garment worker 18 months to earn what a fashion brand CEO makes on their lunch break. A majority of them earn less than $3 per day. The biggest corners fast fashion cuts are human.Cheap clothes are made by underage workers entering the industry as young as 14 to work long hard hours (an avg. of 14 hrs per day in sweatshops) for low wages, while dealing with sexual harassment.
  • Fast fashion is expensive for consumers and the planet. Fast fashion is designed to be replaced quickly. Clothing literally falls apart ending up in landfills rather than making it to consignment shops even if you donate. In the U.S. only 10% of donated clothes get resold. The rest flood landfills where they can sit for up to 200 years leaving toxic chemicals and dyes to contaminate local soil and groundwater. Our slow fashion community has found that investing in fewer higher quality clothes actually saves us money because each piece lasts longer. 

The good news is that we as everyday shoppers are powerful. How we buy is how we vote. If a ground swell of shoppers demand sustainable fashion, the market will respond.  Moreover social media has democratized access, where we can directly talk to brands through Twitter or Instagram to ask for more transparency. A strong campaign can make or break brands-sometimes overnight. At Remake our big audacious goal is to remake the closets of 1MM women by 2025. 

4. How do you shop? Do you choose to be intentional about every fashion buying decision you make? What are some tips for readers on how to “wear your values”?

I have had the pleasure in my career to sit down, talk to, break bread with thousands of the women who make our clothes. The resilience and hard work of this forgotten #girlboss at the other end of the supply chain is my biggest inspiration. It’s these interactions that changed my relationship to my closet. So I do think deeply about what I buy knowing how much human effort goes into every piece of clothing.  Before I buy something I usually ask myself do I really need it? Will I wear it multiple times? And what will this piece say about me?

I tend to first and foremost shop in my closet because I do believe that loved clothes last. I love some of my forever owned or vintage treasures. I love Pact and Coyuchi’s natural breathable materials for intimates and pajamas. 

I also rely on rental platforms like Rent The Runway. It’s a way to look fresh without buying more whenever I am giving a talk. 

In terms of tips I’d say first let go of the guilt. There are big and small ways, regardless of your wallet size, to “wear your values.” Some ideas include:

Taking stock of what you own. Are piles of clothes sitting there and making you unhappy? only keep what you think you will wear at least 30 times and host a swap party for the rest. The next time you want to buy something consider this: will you wear it at least 30 times? If not it’s best to walk away. If it costs less than your cup of coffee, know that women were exploited in making the piece and, again, walk away.

Embrace preloved clothes: there are amazing vintage, rental or consignment options. Consider “shopping” in a good friend’s or sibling’s closet (don’t forget to ask first!).

Care for your clothes like the good friends that they are. Wash on cold, line dry, skip the dry cleaner and mend.. Do remember to invest in quality, not quantity.

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5. How do you see the fast fashion landscape evolving in the next 3-5 years? 

I see the demand for fast fashion decreasing as demand shifts, particularly as GenZ comes into their consumer power valuing individuality and customization over trends. I see this firsthand in conversations I have with young change-makers all over the country who worry about climate change and our planet’s future. Moreover studies show that 89% of Gen Z would rather buy from a company supporting social and environmental issues over one that does not

I also see the fashion industry being pushed toward more transparency. Activism is back with women leading the way. From Greta Thunberg to Jane Fonda, there’s been an influx of consciousness that’s here to stay. From Extinction Rebellion to our own community, I see a future where more and more people are taking to the streets to demand a fashion industry that puts people and our planet first. 

Finally circularity is becoming more than just a buzzword, from inroads in sustainable materials to a growing interest in a minimalist lifestyle and capsule wardrobes. I am excited by breakthroughs in technology such as Amber Cycle and innovative approaches to reducing waste such as the Renewal Workshop

6. Where do you still see glaring problems or lack of solutions in the realization of actual “sustainable fashion” in your industry?

At first glance, the term ‘sustainable fashion’ seems fairly straightforward. However, when you dig deeper you realize that there isn’t a globally agreed definition. Many brands have co-opted the rising interest in sustainability to make exaggerated marketing claims, with some brands straight up greenwashing. Without regulation, a company can make claims to be sustainable and confuse end shoppers. 

Fashion, at its core is centered around the constant production and use of new items, which is inherently unsustainable. Textile waste isn’t just a problem at the end of the lifecycle of a piece of clothing. It’s also an issue right at the start. During most manufacturing processes, around 20% of fabric is discarded onto the cutting room floor after garment patterns are cut from fabric. At Remake, our growing conscious community knows that we can not just buy our way out of this mess, but instead we have to buy less and keep clothes in circulation longer.

Finally, sustainable fashion suffers from its fair share of socioeconomic, race, and body image issues. For all of its unethical production, fast fashion brands make fashion accessible and affordable to the masses. In this way, they fuse the division between classes. Sustainable fashion, on the other hand, can be prohibitively expensive due to higher base costs that include sourcing costly eco-friendly natural materials and paying people a fair wage for sewing garments. 

I am also struck by how non diverse sustainable fashion conversations and conferences are. Even though the people and communities most impacted by fashion’s decisions are people of color. While it’s encouraging to see so many of the fashion industry’s who’s who come together to talk about sustainability at these summits, we are all remiss in addressing a core truth: that the fashion industry is built on the oppression of black and brown women, an institutionalized form of racism inherited from a colonial past. 

Equally underrepresented in the sustainable fashion world are plus size women. For many women, the path to adopting the slow fashion movement is blocked as brands fail to offer inclusive sizing. Looking into the issue further, the problem often lies in the fact that so many sustainable brands are sole ventures or small, independent companies which make it difficult to offer broader, more inclusive product ranges.

7. Where do you see connections between your work in sustainable fashion and social justice with mental health? 

Around the globe, women dominate the workforce of the garment factory industry. Unfortunately, the working environment for many of these women includes pervasively low wages, untenable hours, sexual harassment and violence and hazardous health conditions. This takes a significant toll on the physical and mental health of the women who make our clothes.

 Fast fashion is inherently violent given its focus on trends, fast turnaround and cheap prices which results in unpredictable and long hours at rock bottom wages. In essence cheap clothes mentally and physically exploit women and engulf  generations of women into a cycle of poverty. 

On every Remake journey, the women we meet tell us that they are sacrificing their own well-being to keep their children in school and secure a better life for their families. Yet, she is making barely enough to pay rent and put food on the table. I remember a story of one woman that haunts me to this day. Her garment job paid her so little, that when she had a tooth ache, she had to take out a predatory loan and take up sex work on the side to pay the loan back. 

8. Describe your wellness regimen if you have one. What are some actions you take to keep yourself well mentally, physically, spiritually, and/or emotionally? 

Every morning I take a few moments to sit outside with a hot cup of chai, taking in the sounds of birds and feeling the wind on my face before I get dressed for the day or dive into email.. I find this small morning routine helpful in centering me. 

Similarly my evening dinners with my husband and 7 and 9 year old sons is sacred. We are a no device family while we make dinner, sit together to share our day and clean up . Children have a wonderful way of keeping you focused on the present moment rather than running a never ending mental to-do list. 

I keep a “happy folder” in my email in-box. Being a woman of color, and a first time female founder can be hard and it is lonely. Sometimes self doubt creeps in on whether and how much of a difference we are making?  So I save emails from our community, partners and Ambassadors in my happy folder – this includes testimonials of how our films and stories have moved people to join our Movement, notes about how we helped someone remake  her closet, simplify her life or how buying less has made someone happier. Whenever I’ve had a rough day, I visit my happy email folder to remind me why we do this work and why it matters.

9. Would you share with us a couple of your favorite wellness or skincare picks? 

I am a “less is more” type of person. I once horrified a make-up artist at a photo shoot when sharing that all I use on my skin is soap and water! I do my best to eat what’s in season, mostly leafy greens and vegetables and believe being outside and eating well is the best way to make my skin glow and to feel good inside and out.

10.  Letters to My Younger Self: If you had any advice to give to your younger self, what would it be?

I would tell my younger self – you are enough. That being an immigrant, with a different sounding name, making it in a new country may be really scary at 19, but this will one day be your superpower. That being from two different worlds will allow you to have so much empathy, an ability to move fluidly between cultures, truly see the humanity in people and be a global citizen. 

Follow Ayesha here

Learn more about Remake here and support and follow its Instagram here.

Interview by Susan Yoomin Im and Theophila Lee

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