You, Ethiopian Wages, & the Lowest Wage Challenge
Today, we are doing two things.
One, we are publishing our manufacturing assessments and lowest wages in Ethiopia (after having published the same for Nashville manufacturing last year).
Two, we are announcing a partnership with Nisolo, one of our closest competitors in Nashville, because we both believe that for the abuses of the fashion industry to change, it will require a coalition of brands coming together to truly name the problems we face, as we encourage everyone to discuss openly with their consumers the pathway to restoration.
A few years back, seeing how so many social enterprises were emerging and claiming to do good, it struck our conscious at ABLE to want to make sure we could prove our impact on women as clearly as possible. We, as an industry, need to be held more accountable for our claims. The thought that kept me up at night, was that I wouldn’t want to stand in front of St. Peter and him tell me, “You sold a ton of bags, but never invested as much in making sure the impact on women was as substantial as you hoped”. It struck me that I could give a speech and people would be moved by hearing the story of a woman whose life had been changed by ABLE, and while that story was true and important… how did the audience REALLY know that we were having a positive impact across all creating ABLE products? So that became our obsessive pursuit, to be able to truly measure our impact and protect women all through our supply chain.
So, we started aggressively working to find a 3rd-party auditor that could measure our work so that we could be completely confident in how our employees, and the employees at our partner manufacturers, were being treated. We wanted to look at wages / working conditions / safety / equality, etc. We looked at about every audit out there, and proceeded with a few. One very popular audit we did had us fill out an extensive questionnaire, and once we completed it, we received a verified score from them that we could post on our site… but they never visited our work. That is not what we were looking for. Another audit a friend had performed on their manufacturing in Ethiopia, by a major retailer in the U.S., was so clearly done for the purpose of protecting the company, not the worker. Their audit was a tool for the brand’s own risk mitigation. A lack of truly diligent auditing of factories is what leads to things like Rana Plaza collapsing and 1,200 garment workers dying.
After searching for more than a year, there were two things missing that we wanted for auditing ourselves: 1) a level of transparency that published everything pertinent to what we felt empowered consumers, and 2) creating an audit that focused deeply on women and having thorough on-site employee interviews. So, we decided to engage a 3rd party to help develop what is now called ACCOUNTABLE. From concept to execution, it took us almost 3 years to get it fully implemented. And the proof of its necessity was in the results of our first audits. In our own jewelry manufacturing in Nashville, TN, we learned we had some major safety issues we were not addressing for our employees. In one of our partner manufacturers, because of the confidential interviews with female workers, we learned of an oppressive workplace environment. While these results were not positive, we were emboldened because we knew we had created an auditing system that was deep and important - and most significantly: that it worked.
The last and most important part of this story was what we learned about wages of employees around the world during that time. If you have not seen the film True Cost on Netflix, DO, and learn the extraordinary abuses in the fashion world. Fashion is the largest industrial employer of women, but only 2% earn a living wage…. And what that means, and what I cannot shake, is that the people that make the things we enjoy and wear can’t even meet the basic needs of themselves or their children. That is UNACCEPTABLE. It’s evil, actually.
Here is our solution - we have to equip consumers to be able to demand more, and we have to make it clear and easy for them to do so. So - and as far as I’ve seen we’ll be the first in the world to do this - we have decided to start publishing the lowest wages of our workers… not an average wage, or a general labor cost per product, but the lowest wage. Doing this, being fully transparent about it, is what will protect the workers at the lowest rungs of our supply chain ladder. Can you imagine a day when all of our products come with that info, where that type of information was as common as a nutritional label on your food? That is our dream: that consumers will someday say of their fashion brands “You are not publishing your wages? What are you hiding?” When a major shoe company was busted for child labor in the 90’s, consumer demand is what changed their labor practices. When consumers start voting with their wallets, change happens.
We are starting with publishing our Nashville manufacturing audit first, and then moving to our global suppliers from there. We want TOTAL TRANSPARENCY. And let’s reward brands for that, and encourage progress over perfection.
ABLE is happy to show our customers the good, bad, and ugly, because we didn’t get in to this in the first place to sell scarves…. We got in it to empower women. If you believe this can work, then please join us.