Fast fashion is everywhere; trend-churning retailers like Zara, Primark, H&M, Forever21 make the latest designs accessible to the public, but at a sometimes deadly cost. When Bangladesh garment factory Rana Plaza collapsed five years ago, killing 1,134 employees, big shots of the fast fashion world fell under extremely sharp, and much needed, scrutiny. This disaster shed light on how outsourced mass clothing production is plagued by complex public health challenges including workplace regulations, wage discrepancies, pollution, and the physical health of garment makers.
In an effort to shift consumer practices, Barenblat is trying to refocus fashion as a “force for good.” She and her Remake team share stories of Humans of Fashion, the folks in developing countries who work long hours for low pay to produce the clothes we consume at bargain prices. Remake also partners with filmmakers and young designers to visually engage consumers in “learning journeys,” transporting them to the origins of clothes, and encouraging them to rethink purchase culture. Remake’s mission is to “build a conscious consumer movement,” and the company aims to achieve this goal by working with creators to discuss the harms of fast fashion and the dangerous appeal of purchasing more at a low cost.
Water contamination from synthetic dyes, climate change impacts from carbon emissions, and the consequent health implications for consumers and laborers alike act as different entry points in that lifecycle.
An example of such a collaborative effort is Remake’s learning journey, the film Made in Sri Lanka. The documentary features striking scenes of the inner workings of Sri Lankan garment factories and testimonials of their employees. Discussing the shocking imagery, Barenblat stated, “our stories and first-hand documentary footage are very photo rich, and tend to connect you to issues across the lifecycle of the fashion industry supply chain.” Water contamination from synthetic dyes, climate change impacts from carbon emissions, and the consequent health implications for consumers and laborers alike act as different entry points in that lifecycle. Garment factory workers can faint from exposure to harmful chemicals used to treat clothes and breathe in the fabric dust generated by cutting and sewing clothes en masse. The run-off from the synthetic dyes and chemicals pollute the water in areas near garment factories, further impacting workers’ health. Those who buy these chemically treated pieces risk having the toxins leach into their skin and bloodstream.
“Fast fashion comes from places where labor laws are weak, and enforcement is much weaker,” says Barenblat. She explains that the fight against these huge corporations is often missing one integral component: the consumer. Understanding that “wallets are powerful,” Barenblat and her colleagues at Remake push for the public to engage in a “buycott” rather than a boycott. While it is important to hold fashion brands accountable for the ethics behind their production models, Barenblat believes that talking at the public and demanding they refrain from purchasing fast fashion will not change much. She stresses that calling for action must also include supporting alternative, more conscious brands, and sharing how people can easily incorporate sustainability into their daily lives.
Barenblat stresses that calling for action must also include supporting alternative, more conscious brands, and sharing how people can easily incorporate sustainability into their daily lives.
Divesting from fast fashion often means losing out on massive discounts and spending more money for smaller quantities. Barenblat recognizes that people may approach the sustainable fashion movement with different budgets. She recommends that people buy secondhand, and consider giving clothes second lives by holding swap parties or revisiting pieces they already own. Barenblat notes that this will help alleviate carbon emissions, since just one kilogram of discarded clothing in landfills accounts for 3.6 kilograms of carbon dioxide emissions. She also suggests using conscious laundry techniques such as cold washing to avoid the leaching of microplastics from fabric into waste water, and line-drying clothes when possible.
Barenblat started her career in strategy consulting and completed a graduate degree in public policy at University of California, Berkeley, where her professors introduced her to the world of sustainability. With a new understanding of the intersection of sustainable practices and social justice, Barenblat interned with Levi’s®, and later began working for non-profit sustainability organization BSR, advising businesses on how best to “embed human rights into the corporate space.”
Barenblat is dedicated to the idea of collaboration between the private sector, policy, non-profit organizations, and consumers in order to drive positive change. And as for Remake, Barenblat says, “we are over two-and-a-half years into this journey, and it has been really fun. We involve a lot of women of color, and we can see ourselves in her narrative,” with “her” referring to the young women who create the clothes for fast fashion retailers.
Photo courtesy of Ayesha Barenblat