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New #LowestWageChallenge Will Have Fashion Brands Running Scared

Time’s up for apparel brands hoping to sustain the shroud of secrecy obscuring the low wages foisted on the garment workers—largely women—making the fashion that fills consumer closets.

Nashville neighbors and socially conscious brands Nisolo, a B Corp boot maker, and mission-driven apparel and lifestyle brand Able are teaming up and calling on consumers to pose an uncomfortable but vital question to the labels they love to shop.

Which is: what’s the lowest wage you pay your factory workers?

Just 2 percent of workers in the garment supply chain receive a living wage that meets their basic needs, the brands charge, citing the oft-used statistic from Andrew Morgan’s notorious “True Cost” documentary. Without a secure and stable income—just look at the Indonesian workers left in the lurch when a Uniqlo-contracted factory shut down overnight—many women, who form the majority of apparel factory workers, find themselves forced to make gut-wrenching decisions about how to make ends meet when crises arise.

Able, which got its start as a social-benefit enterprise selling scarves to help lift women out of poverty, soon evolved to create jobs for women in Ethiopia who were leaving stints as commercial sex workers in their past—and that mission “filled the hole in my heart” for actress Minka Kelly, whose own late mother had worked in the trade.

Hearing that one Ethiopian woman ended up in the sex industry in order to cover the costs of breast-cancer treatment for her sister spurred Kelly’s long-standing work with Able.

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“Disclosing wages is such an exciting and incredible thing,” Kelly told a group of fashion journalists Monday in a video call.

Fair-trade factory fraud

As Able grew, so did its impact. The company began working with women in its Nashville hometown who were coming out of hard times, giving them jobs producing jewelry and other lifestyle goods. But founder and CEO Barrett Ward got a gut-punch one day when an audit of its Ethiopian factories revealed four had passed with “flying colors” but one laggard was rife with “serious issues.”

“Divya called me crying,” Ward said of audit partner Divya Demato, the CEO who co-founded sustainable supply chain and logistics transformation company GoodOps with her husband, Richard, the startup’s chief operating officer. Demato worked with the lifestyle brand to create Accountable, an “audit of the audits” that makes sense of the industry’s many certifications and standards, with the goal of helping brands understand what’s really going on with their far-flung manufacturers.

Despite receiving fair-trade certification and generous grants from Addis Ababa, the non-compliant Ethiopian manufacturer was “essentially running slave labor,” Demato explained. Even one other production facility run by a lovely pair of sisters was found to be paying workers paltry wages—simply because that was the norm and how it had been done for years, Demato recounted. Once they were educated about issues around pay, and how increasing worker compensation would appeal to Western brands, the sisters quickly jumped on board, she added.

The issue of worker wages sparked a movement at Able, which shared with customers what it found in the out-of-order factory and how it was remedying the situation. Customers, Ward said, were excited that the brand was transparent about the problems—and the solutions.

And that’s what prompted Able to take a bold step forward last year and reveal what it pays the people who produce the poverty-shifting garments, jewelry, handbags and more offered for sale on its website. Able landed on a “hero metric,” Ward explained, and shared the lowest wages earned by its workers—not the average wage or the labor cost per garment because “those don’t protect the people at the very bottom.”

Able created a sort of “nutritional label”-style graphic showing customers, and the general public, the living wage at an Ethiopian factory alongside the lowest pay a worker receives. Right now, its lowest wage falls short of the living wage but Ward says that’s not really the point of “radical transparency.”

“What we don’t want to put out to the world,” he said, “is that you have to be perfect before you’re honest.”

When Ward looked for other brands to similarly step out of the shadows, at first there were “crickets,” he said, but then he found Nisolo.

Ending a ‘history of abuse’

The direct-to-consumer footwear newcomer produces most of its footwear in an owned and operated Peru factory that CEO Patrick Woodyard founded after spending time in the South American country post-graduation, where the business major took a job in micro-finance helping women grow their businesses and gain access to capital. Meeting William, an artisan shoemaker husband of one of these small business owners, ignited Woodyard’s desire to launch Nisolo as a business that gives back.

“William’s story was a history of abuse in multiple footwear factories in Peru, and he decided to go out on his own because he was fed up with it,” Woodyard said. When Rana Plaza collapsed a little over a year later and research yielded alarming statistics about the state of the garment supply chain, Woodyard knew Nisolo could be a part of “driving sustainability in the industry” so that more companies can help care for people and planet.

Admittedly, “wage issues in the industry are extremely complex,” Woodyard said. And that could be why consumers have latched onto the environmental side of sustainability while the social issues, like wages and the welfare of the estimated 75 million people toiling in global garment supply chains, take a “dangerous backseat.”

But much as everyday activists took to the streets in the ‘90s when the child-labor scandal roiled global factories in the wake of the apparel production exodus offshore, Woodyard believes consumers—and the amplifying power of social media—can be a prevailing force in pushing brands to expose their garment worker wages.

Governments and brands have a role to play in bringing social justice to apparel workers, Woodyard said, but “consumers are the ones who are going to accelerate the pace at which this happens.”

That’s why Nisolo and Able are calling on their customer bases to apply the #LowestWageChallenge hashtag when taking to Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, starting Nov. 5, to ask their favorite brands about the pay practices in their oft-remote factories. On Oct. 24, Nisolo published a lengthy blog detailing the lowest wages workers receive for labor in its Peru factory, as well as lessons learned along the way.

All brands have to do is publicly declare the lowest wages earned in their factories as verified by an independent third party, Woodyard added.

If Ward has his way, Able’s “nutritional label” wage cheat sheet might someday become as commonplace as the materials and care tags sewn into virtually every garment sold in the U.S.

“Can you imagine how consumer behavior would change if this was on every single product in every single store and they knew the wage of the person that was making it?” he said.