Pushing the Fashion Industry to New Levels of Transparency: Meet ABLE Founder & 2019 Yellow Speaker

Meet one of our next speakers for our 2019 Yellow Conference, Barrett Ward, Founder & CEO of ABLE! ABLE is an incredible lifestyle brand focused on ending generational poverty by providing jobs for women. Their products are handcrafted and bring impact to Nashville, Ethiopia, Mexico, Peru, and more. Beyond this, ABLE is working towards changing the fashion industry itself by starting a movement for companies to publish their lowest paid wages. Learn more about ABLE and Barrett in our interview with him below on transparency, what motivates their team, and what has impacted him most as a founder and father.

Tell us a little bit about ABLE, and what sparked you to start it.

My wife Rachel received a job offer in Ethiopia, so we moved there in 2008. While we were living there, we saw the devastating effects of poverty on women, and the awful choices they were forced to make in order to take care of themselves and their loved ones. In talking with them, we learned they simply needed an opportunity - a job. The women wanted to make scarves, and after launching in October of 2010, we sold 4,123 scarves in two months and knew we were onto something!

We have since added leather goods, shoes, apparel, jewelry, and denim. ABLE has evolved into a women’s ethical lifestyle brand on a mission to challenge the culture of the fashion industry by creating transformative opportunities for women both locally here in Nashville, TN and around the world.

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It’s encouraging to see so many brands turning towards the sustainable solution of working with artisans and creating good employment for women around the world. What other practices are you hoping to see conscious brands take on in the future?

I agree with you - it’s very encouraging to see others recognize that creating jobs and doing so for women isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s a proven strategic solution to poverty. But the fashion industry itself is broken. It is estimated that fashion employs more than 60 million people - 75% of whom are women. It’s one of the largest industrial employers of women in the world! Yet less than 2% of fashion’s workers earn a living wage. That’s nearly 45 million women unable to afford the basic needs of themselves and their families.

The next practice I want to see all brands adopt - not just conscious brands - is to publish their lowest wages.

Last fall, we became the first brand that we know of to publish our lowest wages, starting with our Nashville Headquarters and home to our jewelry studio. And we’re going to continue publishing wages and audits from our partners in Ethiopia, Peru, Mexico, Brazil and India, but we don’t want to do this alone. We’ve got some exciting plans coming up that will equip consumers to drive the #PublishYourWages movement, and I can’t wait to share it!

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What has been your proudest moment to date as a founder?

There are little interactions that I often have that fill my heart with gratitude for what we’re all creating together at ABLE. I was sitting at the coffee shop recently when an employee who is recovering from heroin addiction said, “Barrett, do you like my glasses? It’s the first time I’ve been able to afford an eye appointment because of our vision insurance and this is my first pair!” More than proud, I just feel grateful to be at ABLE. Seeing what women can accomplish when they’re given an opportunity and compensated with the living wages and benefits they deserve makes my life better.

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You practice a high level of transparency at ABLE by publishing the lowest wages your workers. How has this practice impacted you as a business, and your relationship with your customers and employees?

I was cautioned by many people far smarter than me that publishing wages was a foolish thing to do, and that the largest fashion brands in the world will find a way to shut us up. That hasn’t happened yet. But what is thrilling has been the reaction of our customers and employees. When I tell someone our lowest wage in Nashville is $14/hour, and that we’ve also seen challenges that we are working to correct (like safety issues in our jewelry manufacturing), they are surprised and grateful for that level of honesty and transparency.

We don’t want to put into the world that you have to be perfect before you can be honest, and consumers are hungry for brands to open up and share the good with the bad.

That fires up our employees! People come to ABLE because they’re passionate about empowering women and watching them thrive, so the thought of having an impact eventually on all the 45 million women who work in fashion fuels them all day long.

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What experiences have impacted your life in a profound way?

Spending time with the poor. I’ve learned that my self-absorbed nature that wanted to believe that other people needed me was absolutely backwards. I’ve learned that I need to be around people with perspective, humility, courage, and a will to live. And people who experience joy regardless of their circumstances. This has been important for me to witness as a husband and father of four daughters.

Can you share about a moment in which you took action to align your values with the work that you do? Did that come with any sacrifices?

I’ve learned there is no security in building up walls of secrecy, or hiding my insecurities, fears, and even failures. Helen Keller wrote, “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” In publishing our lowest wages, we are living out our principles, and I don’t care if it comes with risks or sacrifices because I don’t want to live life measuring potential outcomes if they would change “doing the right thing”.

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What times of transition in your life have proved most important to get you where you are now?

It’s different for everyone. For me, it’s fatherhood. I’m so immeasurably grateful to be the father of the four most amazing daughters in the history of humanity. I’ve heard that gratefulness is the mother of all other virtues, and that seems right to me. The love for my children has given me an infinitely deeper meaning to the experience of being grateful.

What are you most excited about for the future of ABLE?

The #PublishYourWages movement. Can you imagine a day where every product we purchase has a label like food’s nutritional facts telling us about the lowest wages and people making all the products we use? It will change poverty forever. But in order to achieve that, we need to compete in the fashion world first, so we’re excited about building an incredible product offering that will be able to compete with some of the country’s top lifestyle brands, supported by the most brilliant female talent.

Photos courtesy of ABLE

Hanna Snyder

Communications Director at Yellow Co.

Hanna is a graphic designer and writer in Los Angeles, and the Communications Director at Yellow Co. Any story well told - whether through design, words, art, or food stirs her. As a romantic about nearly everything, she believes what we bring to our world deserves to be beautiful. Her love is endlessly exploring new ways to express our truest self, and has been trying to figure out her curls since birth.