ABLE - The Brand Disrupting the Fashion Industry
What started as a single collection of scarves, handmade in Ethiopia by women overcoming prostitution, has evolved into an ethical lifestyle brand carrying everything from leather goods to handmade jewelry, apparel to footwear. Headquartered in Nashville, TN with operations in Ethiopia, Mexico, and Peru, ABLE is rooted in its core mission of ending generational poverty by providing economic opportunity for women.
I had the opportunity to interview ABLE’s CEO, Barrett Ward, about an initiative they recently launched that’s taking transparency and empowerment to a whole new level and hopefully challenging other companies to do the same.
Before we dive into ABLE’s new initiative, can you tell us a little bit about what sets ABLE apart from other companies in the fashion industry?
We like to think of ABLE as a justice organization that happens to be in the fashion industry. Empowering women is at the core of everything we do, from hiring and assessing potential partners to our operations systems and the way we design our products. In our Nashville office, out of around 60 employees, only two are men, so we are truly a female-driven company. Our benefits packages, workplace protocols, and hiring processes are centered around empowering women. We actively hire from marginalized communities—women coming out of prostitution, homelessness, or incarceration and women experiencing poverty—and work each day to give opportunities to women in a safe and healthy environment.
Do you have any stories about women from these circumstances who have worked for ABLE?
I can think of one woman, a jewelry maker in Nashville, who came to ABLE after going through an addiction recovery program. Within her first year with us, she was able to regain custody of a child she had lost due to substance abuse, designed her own jewelry collection, and has been a light to the team here with her triumphant spirit and heartfelt vulnerability. I’ll never forget the moment she came to me and said, “I used to have a needle in this arm two years ago, and now I’m a successful jewelry designer!” My whole family just attended her wedding in September, and it was beautiful to see. I need more people in my life that teach me that I am able to overcome, no matter what the circumstance.
Wow, that is amazing! I would love to hear more stories like that. But, shifting gears a little... I’m also very interested in ABLE’s #PublishYourWages movement. What is it all about?
The #PublishYourWages movement is about empowering consumers to demand change from brands. The reason we decided to publish our wages, and the reason we believe that 100% transparency is the only way forward, is because that is the only way that consumers will be able to make purchasing decisions that protect the most vulnerable workers, most of whom are women that can’t afford to make ends meet.
How did the desire to protect women play into the #PublishYourWages initiative?
A couple of years ago, we were going through other auditing platforms and realized that none of them really evaluated the impact on women, so we started to think about creating our own. At the same time, we had watched the True Cost documentary, and it validated that the only way consumers can protect these workers is if they have concrete information about how much the lowest-paid workers are making.
In thinking about creating your own auditing platform, what were some of the most important metrics ABLE wanted to focus on?
We are first and foremost focused on women’s wages. Women are concentrated in the lowest-paid and least-secure jobs, so their wages indicate how we’re protecting the most vulnerable workers. Simply put, when a woman can secure a job that pays a living wage, she is able to provide for her family, allowing her children to go to school instead of work. Empowered with an education, her children are able to go after higher-paying work and are less likely to need or rely on charity, breaking generational cycles of poverty. In addition to living wages, we’re also focused on women's’ equality and safety in the workplace. We’re evaluating all our partners on these metrics through our ACCOUNTABLE social impact assessment platform, which was designed to give customers a transparent look at our manufacturing partners.
While ACCOUNTABLE is already providing radical and unparalleled reporting in regards to social impact, does ABLE have any plans to expand on this initiative?
Yes. We still have the ACCOUNTABLE audits and lowest wages to publish from all of our international partners, which we’ll be releasing over the next several months. Through education and awareness, we hope consumers demand other brands join us. As the third largest industry nationwide and one of the largest employers of women worldwide, the fashion industry affects every region of the world, so making changes affects the lives of workers in every corner of the globe.
We hope to shine a light on the fact that 98% of the people who make the products we enjoy cannot meet their basic needs. And the crazy thing is that studies show that if brands absorbed the cost of bringing the workers throughout their supply chains to a living wage, it would likely only cost between 1-3% of the cost of the garment. It really is an industry where we can achieve tangible progress.
Although still relatively new, what impact has ABLE seen so far?
Consumer response has been overwhelming. We saw some of our highest engagement when we announced we were publishing wages, with people commenting “Love the idea,” and “Bravo! Wish this was a standard instead of an exception!” But we also received so many thoughtful questions prompting us to create an ABLE Answers series (on our Instagram!) to address them all. Their interest and support only fuels us to push for greater transparency that protects fashion’s most vulnerable workers.
How is it that ABLE is the first brand that has published its wages?
As far as we can tell, no one has published their lowest wages before. You might see data points around average wages or labor costs, but that information doesn’t tell you the impact on the most vulnerable workers. You might also have seen highest-paid to lowest-paid employee wages ratios, but again, without knowing what those numbers actually are, there is no way of discerning if the lowest paid employees are able to meet their basic needs. We might be the first, but we definitely don’t want to be the last!
I hope ABLE isn’t the last either! How do you hope other businesses will respond to this movement?
We hope this will break the seal of the secret that is keeping women oppressed in fashion manufacturing, putting us on the path to long-term sustainable change once and for all.
We also hope other brands take note that we’re not saying we’re perfect. We’re not perfect, but we want to be perfectly transparent. We want other brands to realize that you don’t have to wait until you’ve achieved your goals to be transparent about them, and actually that being transparent along the way empowers consumers to come alongside us in this process. Hopefully, consumers will vote with their dollar for brands trying to do the same.
Envisioning the future, what does ABLE hope to see in the fashion industry?
As an industry, we need to embrace a mindset of empathy, caring about our social impact as much as we do the bottom lines of our business. And we need to shift our thinking to realize that doing good in the world does not have to come at a cost to business success—there are so many successful models proving we can do both.
Our dream is that within the next decade, publishing wages in fashion will be as common as a nutritional label on food.
I love hearing how ABLE is helping to lead the charge for more transparency by empowering workers and consumers alike. I think when we look back on the social progress made in the fashion industry, we will clearly see ABLE’s role in championing for women and inspiring change.
A huge thanks to Barrett Ward at ABLE for taking the time to answer these questions. ABLE recently launched their Spring collection and we’ve teamed up with them to give away a pair of shoes (of your choice!) on the Dressember Instagram. This giveaway ends April 1st. You can shop their full collection by clicking on their logo below.
About the Author
Jacquelyn Chauviere Buss is a Diet Dr. Pepper addict with a deep love for people, especially babies. She recently graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in Business Honors and a minor in Psychology. She is passionately hopeful to see slavery eradicated in her lifetime.