There’s an unlikely character challenging the culture of the fashion industry while pushing Conscious Consumerism.
A middle-aged dad who describes himself as “not a fashion guy” is leading the way to disrupting one of the world’s oldest industries by introducing transparency, livable wages, and women empowerment—and he’s asking others to follow.
The idea was to create jobs to end generational poverty
The idea to use fashion to end generational poverty came to Barrett Ward while he was living in Ethiopia. He’d moved there with his wife, who was working with an adoption agency. He saw firsthand how extreme poverty forced young women, generation after generation, to resort to prostitution as a means of supporting themselves and their families.
Organizations came in to provide for their basic needs, but no one was thinking about how to create sustainable jobs to end generational poverty.
“The thing I continually saw was women saying, ‘look, this is all great. But when we’re done with this little process with you, we’re back on the street. We need a job,’” Ward said on the Sounds Good podcast. “What we observed was there’s not enough people involved in the economic side of providing solutions to poverty.”
So Ward and his wife, Rachel, asked the women what they wanted to do. And they said let’s make scarves.
“If they had said, ‘let’s make chairs.’ We’d be a chair company. But they said scarves.”
Sustainable and fashionable are not mutually exclusive
ABLE has grown from producing a single collection of hand-woven scarves to a one-stop shop for ethical fashion, offering leather goods, handmade jewelry, denim, clothing and footwear. Their employees live and work in Ethiopia, Peru, Mexico and Nashville, and 98 percent of them are women.
Ward credits the company’s success to a national movement of conscious consumerism, one that he’s working to spread around the world.
“What’s resonated with people is that your purchase can actually create jobs for someone else. Sustainable jobs.”
Chelsie Gunby, a jewelry designer at ABLE’s Nashville headquarters, is one of those women who found a fresh start when the company hired her. She had recently finished her fifth, and final, drug recovery program. She was a single mom, living on the opposite side of the state from any family.
ABLE taught her how to make jewelry, and she’s since become one of the company’s head jewelry designers and artists. (Check out the Chelsie Collection for earrings and necklaces that you can’t anywhere else.)
“I love working with my hands—and coming up with new ideas and seeing the finished product,” Chelsie said. “A lot of people don’t realize how much work goes into everything that we wear.”
The key is ‘radical transparency’
ABLE prides itself in publishing its lowest wages and sharing the stories of the women handmaking their products. They call it “radical transparency.” Ward hopes that, before long, ABLE’s business model will not be a rarity, but what consumers expect from fashion companies.
Just 2 percent of fashion workers make a wage that meets their basic needs. But, Ward estimates that if brands absorbed the cost of bringing workers to a living wage, it would only cost between 1 and 3 percent of the cost of the garment.
“When you put it that way, it doesn’t feel so insurmountable,” he said. “We believe that a radical shift can happen in the fashion industry if consumer demand pushes for it.”