When I was a kid growing up in post-war Bremerhaven, a bombed-out town on the North Sea in Germany then occupied by the U.S. military, my two sisters and I wore winter coats made by Mr. Tennenbaum, a tailor and friend of my mom’s who had survived Auschwitz and moved to Forest Hills, New York. Our sweaters had been knitted by our mom, a German Holocaust survivor who had met my dad, a U.S. Army bandleader right after the war. Our sturdy, all leather shoes were made in Germany and lasted long enough to be handed down from sister to sister to sister.
Today, it seems everything I wear was made in China, Vietnam, Bangladesh, India, or Honduras. That’s why I went to hear Ayesha Barenblat speak about her startup, Remake at a NY Times Live event last year at the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. Basically, her site spreads the word about which clothing brands and retailers are connected to those suppliers – usually in Asia and Latin America -- that are treating their 40 million clothing makers, 80 percent of whom are girls from 18 to 24 years old, in an ethical fashion.
Even more importantly, Remake tells you which brands and retailers are connected to suppliers that employ unethical labor standards, such as child labor and unsafe working conditions.
Ayesha is a native of Pakistan who received her undergraduate and MBA degrees from UC Berkeley. She recently spoke at one of my Last Friday Ladies (and Gents) Lunches at the Hillside Club, a community-owned organization, in Berkeley. Comparing the 2013 death of 1,134 garment makers in the Rana Plaza disaster when a factory collapsed in Dhaka, Bangladesh to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire death of 146 garment workers in New York City in 1911, she said that for most clothing makers, conditions have not improved.
That’s why Ayesha started Remake: to leverage the power of digital media to connect consumers, particularly millennials, with the people behind their clothing. The goal is through videos to establish empathy by consumers for makers and change their buying habits. Buy less, buy better are some of the mantras of what has become the conscious consumption meme.
Remake was seeded by the Levi Strauss Foundation, whose parent company is a global leader in upping the standards for apparel outsourcing of labor. Twenty years ago, Levi Strauss adopted a code of conduct for its suppliers encompassing standards around child labor, forced labor, working hours, wages and benefits, health and safety, and freedom of association as well as discrimination. But the company admits more needs to be done.
To check out how you can make a difference in the lives of garment makers, see Remake.world. As for the Mr. Tennenbaums of the world, they are long gone as are many of the clothes they made, unlike the new synthetic blends, which can last for 200 years and contribute to the waste fills of the world.