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Why this clothing company is making its factory wages public

Apparel company Able wants to hold the fashion industry accountable for working conditions–by publishing the salaries of everyone in its supply chain.

Why this clothing company is making its factory wages public
[Photo: Able]

An average garment worker in Bangladesh who sews shirts for fast fashion brands might make 28 taka an hour, or around 33 U.S. cents, and struggle to pay bills even working 60 hours a week. In Cambodia, a garment worker might earn around 85 cents an hour. In India, someone might make 58 cents an hour. Globally, the majority of garment workers don’t earn a living wage.

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[Image: Able]
Able, a brand that makes clothing, bags, shoes, and jewelry, wants to convince the industry to make the numbers they pay their workers public. The company, a social enterprise designed to help women end intergenerational poverty, is starting with its own data, and publishing the lowest wages paid to workers at its Nashville factory. Stats on the other factories it works with globally will follow, and it hopes that other brands will follow as well.

“I think this movement has to happen through consumer demand,” says Barrett Ward, founder and CEO of Able. “We want to be so authentic and transparent as to genuinely equip consumers to feel like they have the information they need in order to make a good choice. We want to do that at a snapshot level with the scorecard.”

The scorecard, modeled after a nutrition label, shares the lowest wage paid in a factory. “That’s important because it can’t be an average wage and it can’t be a general labor cost within a garment,” says Ward. “It has to be the lowest wage to actually protect the people at the bottom.” The scorecard then shows what percentage that number is of a living wage, or the minimum amount needed to meet basic needs.

The label also scores the factory on equality, safety, and wages and benefits, including everything from maternity leave to financial literacy training. All of this is based on a third-party audit from GoodOps, a company that does supply chain management audits. (In Nashville, though the company pays workers $14 an hour, more than the local living wage, it didn’t get a perfect “wages” score because it had room for improvement on benefits.) The company is currently in the process of creating a nonprofit that can continue providing these audits for the industry in an unbiased way. Able plans to publish a scorecard for its factory in Ethiopia this fall, followed by the other factories it contracts with globally. As the factory information is published, it will be linked to individual products on the brand’s website.

“When people come to our website and see that information, they’ll be able to click through to see a very deep audit that’s been done on our manufacturing that shows all the good and all the bad,” Ward says. “Our effort here is not to make a presentation that we’re perfect, but quite the opposite–it’s to be perfectly transparent.” In Nashville, he says, the audit helped the company identify safety issues to improve.

He’s hoping that the practice will become standard, and that in the same way a nutrition label can change consumer behavior, it could begin to change the products that people choose. “For me, the thought that the products that we wear and enjoy on a daily basis were likely made by someone who could literally not even meet their basic needs is unacceptable,” he says.

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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