“Fast fashion is not eco and no recycled collection is going to change that,” says Aja Barber, educator and author of Consumed [Interview]
In her social media she teaches about sustainable fashion, writes about smart shopping and the ethical and unethical side of business. She focuses on issues of feminism and race, and in her debut book, Consumed, she addresses climate catastrophe, consumerism and colonialism, emphasizing the need for collective change. With Aja Barber – writer, fashion consultant and educator talks by Ismena Dąbrowska.
We’ve been living in a pandemic for almost two years now. Do you see any change in how we buy? We’ve slowed down our pace when it comes to consumption?
I think we have become even more polarized as a society. People who have thought about these topics before have had time, especially during lockdowns when we all sit at home, to look at their choices – do they really need to buy so many things or do they really need them? Especially when we realize that we need food, friends and people we love to live. Among these needs, there is no bottomless closet for every season. So I think people who had this thought before the pandemic that maybe how they spend their money and use their energy is not ok, decided to make real changes.
On the other hand, people who have never thought about these topics went in completely the opposite direction. Because there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty in the whole situation, especially in the beginning. It was causing panic buying, a huge amount of stress because you couldn’t meet anyone, go out and enjoy life like before. People felt lonely, their lives seemed unbearably empty without it all. And that was the void they were trying to fill with shopping.
Because we are so polarized, it’s not about reaching people who are already aware of the climate crisis. In this case, we can’t do more than we already do. What’s important is reaching completely new people and inviting them into that conversation.
It seems that the word “less” is the key word in this conversation, but we have Black Friday, constant sales, promotions, outlets. So where would such a potential person without any knowledge or awareness of the topic start?
Just joining the social media conversation is key, it doesn’t take much to get started. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I’m currently in my home state of Virginia looking at what opportunities people have here. It’s completely different from London, where I live every day and where this debate has already started. I have access to a lot of super designers who make great and ethical stuff. That’s why it’s so important to join this discussion online, there you will find all the resources you need. Masses of people are sharing relevant information, research, informing what is happening in these areas. People who live outside of big cities like. here in the States, they have stores like Walmart maybe, sometimes Target. It’s not much of an option, but with the help of the internet you can always learn a few tricks on how to buy wisely if only online. And that’s what I try to convey to my own community.
You see the difference between how people shop in Stanah and in London?
Of course! Even though the UK is the largest buyer of fast fashion in Europe it is far from America. In the USA consumerism has reached a completely different level. But don’t forget that the UK is home to all the Boohoo, Missguided and Pretty Little Things of this world, and the very mentality that fast fashion should and can be the norm in your life is neatly nurtured here. So it’s a completely different conversation every time, because it all depends on where you’re coming from.
In Poland for example the most popular clothing brand is Pepco which is rather cheap. In your book you argue that buying fast fashion does not mean that we are poor. Is ethical fashion expensive then?
Honestly, it’s a wrong way of thinking, because see – I always liked good quality things, and they usually cost more than what I had in my budget for clothes. For most of my life, I haven’t earned enough to afford all the nice things. But when, for example, in the early 2000s, I don’t know if you remember it, there was a big boom in designer denim, I also wanted to have jeans like that. It was a bigger expense, though, and I was in college’at the time and didn’t have that kind of money. So I started looking for these pants on eBay’where I found them worn once or twice and at a fraction of the store price. So I could afford it, even as a student working odd jobs in a few places. The way I shop today I started practicing very early on because it was just cheaper. I could have had quality second hand stuff rather than necessarily buying brand new.
So in my opinion, there are many ways to shop sustainably.
But sometimes it requires creative thinking, because you don’t get these things in one place and packaged like fast fashion. So here comes the problem, because everyone wants everything right now, right away and with free shipping. And that’s not how ethical fashion works. It’s important to realize that we won’t be buying as many new clothes when we spend a little more on better quality stuff, from more eco-friendly sources.
However, if you buy sixty pieces of clothes in a year, you are able, instead of spending money in chain stores, to spend it on buying some really good clothes. Will it be more expensive? No, because I actually save more money by not buying a bunch of cheap stuff. There are many brands that are now competing with chain stores not only in terms of quality, ethical production, but also price. You won’t buy cheap clothes at Zara or Urban Outfitters these days because prices there keep going up. It is neither cheap, ethical nor sustainable.
We talk mostly about the unethical side of fast fashion, what about luxury fashion? It is incomparably more expensive, but is it similarly harmful?
I don’t think it’s just as bad, but it all depends on the brand. It has always had a different price tag, that’s the society we live in. Whereas it is true that it has been proven that luxury brands use the same factories as chain stores. But for me this approach that there are better factories (for luxury fashion) and worse factories (for fast fashion) is quite strange, because in China alone there are more than 400 thousand different clothing factories. Some of them specialize in one category, others in another, etc., that’s why they work with different companies at different price points. Just because you buy expensive luxury fashion doesn’t mean it’s more ethical, in some cases it is, but you really need to check what you’re buying.
While on the topic of China – recently their clothing giant Shein announced that they have hired a new person to be in charge of sustainable fashion. But the question is whether a fast fashion business of this scale can be sustainable in any way at all? Is it just that ethical fashion is not possible in this model?
You can’t run a sustainable business if you do it the way most chain stores do. Take, for example, H&M, who thinks he will be a sustainable brand. If you are practically persuading, tempting the customer over and over again to buy something new from you every week, then you are not running a sustainable business, because this practice has nothing to do with it. This is also how Shein operates, and in my opinion this is not how it should work. If your brand’s popularity comes from social media, where you promote it and constantly feed your customers’ attention, causing them to spend hundreds of dollars with you on clothes they’ll wear maybe once, or maybe not at all – how about fixing that, instead of pulling a sustainability person into the company?
A sustainable fashion director is not going to suddenly change the entire business model.
It’s greenwashing because you actually first have to change the whole culture around the brand, how people consume your products. But brands aren’t interested in that, because it’s this shopping culture they’ve built that means they can still turn it into profits.
While on the subject of greenwashing. What do you consider to be the worst eco scam of 2021?
Generally what continues to irritate me is that brands have decided not to pay their workers in clothing factories. Most argued it was a pandemic and in some cases no one was held accountable! People always ask me what to look out for first when it comes to green fashion, and I always answer – find people who will confirm that every person who makes your clothes gets paid for it. That’s it and that’s it. It could even be the most sustainable clothing in the world, handmade, using unsold goods, etc., but if it’s the result of someone being exploited, then it’s not sustainable fashion.
So I tell others to skip all this green stuff to begin with, and look for things that they will wear and that they will enjoy for a long time, and then – to find evidence that the brand is paying people fair money to make these clothes, that there is no exploitation in the production process. It’s 2022 and brands are still acting like it never happened, that they are not at all sending their employees to their deaths by refusing to pay them for their orders. And these are billion dollar companies! They could pay for anything, for them it’s like snapping a finger. It’s just tragic.
In conversations, the argument is often made that we can’t give up fast fashion, close all the factories, because those people will lose their jobs. What do you think about it?
People need to tell themselves openly if they are not really defending a system they still want to participate in? I and you can choose every day whether or not we want to buy something, just like that. But when a company decides it wants to restructure and move all production to countries where it’s simply cheaper and where there’s worker exploitation, then that decision, whether I or you buy something, it has an impact. So people should stop defending crappy systems and convincing themselves that they are doing it for a good cause, when in reality they just want to dress for $20.
I think the issue of colonialism also plays a role here, because the truth is that many of the countries where clothing is produced are countries that are extremely rich in resources and labor. Look at India, for example, which was a global superpower in textile production before it was colonized by Britain. So the idea that these countries that have it all need us so much is a kind of fairy tale that we’ve been telling ourselves for years so that we don’t have to in any way go beyond the system that’s already set up, which as we all know – is not good.
So it’s better to change the whole system than…
… still support something that exploits people.
So how do you see the role of the individual consumer in this?
If a person wants to support a small brand in the Global South, buy something from them, find a small business that does it the right way . It’s better to divert money from a large system and invest it in a small business that can stay afloat and continue to grow. Maybe one day, hopefully, it will become a competitor to big business. I for one would rather give my money to a company that is trying to do things in an honest, ethical way than continue to put it into a system where I know it serves no one but a few billionaires.
If so, is there any big brand that you think is doing it right when we talk about going green? One that can be an example to others?
There are some brands that have always followed the path that we all should follow, with it being in their DNA from the very beginning. Patagonia is a good example of such a brand. I think what they do and how they take care of the planet, what products they offer is something that everyone else should have done a long time ago. Most brands look at it more from the perspective of: I still need to make money, and since people need sustainable fashion… That’s not how it should work, it should be the foundation of your business, not looking for opportunities for continuous growth.
The fashion industry is one big hypocrisy? Fatal environmental impact, problems with diversity, equality, etc., everything comes into focus here.
I think the fashion industry is deeply hypocritical. A lot of the changes that are happening in it seem like they’re leading us to where we should be, but they’re just appearances. No one is trying to look at the core, the foundation of this business, raze it all to the ground and try to build anew. We should reduce the number of seasons, make clothes that are durable, more versatile, but still stylish. But I think this is the kind of honest conversation that the fashion industry doesn’t want to start at all. It’s like with eco lines – everyone wants to keep doing the same thing, but argue that it’s now more sustainable. It doesn’t work that way, we need a complete overhaul of the system.
A lot of changes were announced at COP26, do you believe any of these assurances and commitments?
Honestly? I don’t have high hopes for the world’s leaders. I’m more of a believer and see change happening at local levels, in communities. So it’s going to be our collective job to come together and come up with solutions that will benefit everyone and then hopefully – that we can implement on a larger scale. I didn’t expect a lot of changes to come out of COP26, so I didn’t participate. Also, I didn’t feel comfortable because I don’t think there was enough representation from countries in the Global South that are already seeing and feeling the extreme impact of the climate crisis. I didn’t want to take space away from someone who actually should be there, more than me.
At the beginning of your book you included a letter to the richest men in the garment industry. Let’s say one of them read it and actually wanted to make a difference. What would it mean in practice for him to move away from continuous growth, from earning more and more?
First and foremost, raising the pay of every person who is in his supply chain. Investing in the places where she makes her clothes, rather than doing it on a subcontracting basis and washing your hands of it. It would be great if one of these companies said – we want to buy half of your factory, if that’s OK for you. We will move all our production here and we want the people who work here to become full employees of our company. And that means everyone getting access to health care or getting paid vacation. Can you imagine how amazing that would be? But they won’t, because it’s much cheaper to outsource everything and still support this sick system.
How do you see the media’s role in sustainable fashion, climate change?
I think that without social media, fast fashion would not be what it is today, to survive and grow on such a scale. So the media has a huge role to play here – they should just tell the truth. And it’s not that simple, say what the industry is like, what should change. So I don’t look to the traditional mainstream media to write and talk about it, as I mentioned in the book by the way. Because look – you’ll often find really good articles about this and then you’ll turn the page and you’ll find material about let’s say exploitation of workers in a factory in Cambodia. You flip another page and what? There will be 20 things you must have, etc. Some items will be exactly the brands that exploited workers in Cambodia!
So let’s say you have unlimited power and you can change one thing in the media, any thing. What it would be?
I would force everyone to tell the truth. It would look more or less like this. magazine ad pages would tell you that ok, you can buy this bag for yourself, but you need to know what’s behind this company, get to know the real deal.
The second hand clothing market is predicted to triple in value over the next 10 years. Is vintage fashion, lumpxes, or maybe rentals the future of the industry? There’s a big boom in that right now.
I think it’s good that they are getting more and more popular, but it still doesn’t solve the basic problem – it doesn’t make factory workers properly paid. We need proper regulations to protect them. But when it comes to renting clothes the issue for me is this: if you rent because you can’t wear the same outfit more than once, you always want to look different, have something new every time you go out on the town, then it’s not ok. That’s what I dislike and disapprove of.
In the picture in the book you are wearing a sweater designed by Berenika Czarnota, I noticed that you are her fan. Do you then think that this kind of craftsmanship is the future? Handmade things by real specialists?
That’s right, I love it! I think she’s great and so do her products. I have several of these in different colors and have worn them for years. I appreciate these clothes and I think that since there is still discussion about the future of this industry, about providing jobs etc., it should be insanely important for us to make room for craftspeople too, because with the current system we’re just going to lose all the people with skills. They are not well paid positions, which makes not many people want to work there. And we fail to appreciate what we have and provide them with decent positions.
We screwed up everything? Or do you see a brighter future for the fashion industry?
Either it will bet on sustainable development, or it will cease to exist. This is the truth. We will go in this direction, or the fashion industry will eat itself. If we don’t take an interest in the price we will have to pay for climate change, soon no one will be able to make fifty collections a year because the materials needed to make that many clothes will simply not exist. So if it turns out that we can’t grow as much cotton due to climate change, clothing prices will rise dramatically. This is something that I really do not want to experience, I do not want only rich people to be able to afford to buy clothes, but unfortunately at this point everything indicates that such a bleak future awaits us.
After reading your book, although you wanted to give your readers hope, I had the feeling that I had just lost it. What would you like people to think after finishing “Consumed”?
I would like them to think: do I really need new clothes every season? Let’s face it – the answer is “no”. If you have a full closet of clothes that are good on you, but you don’t currently see much of people because the pandemic is forcing you to work from home or limit your contacts, do you really need to buy yourself something new? I really wish people would look at their shopping habits and ask themselves why they do it the way they do? Because the truth is, the most ethical clothes are the ones you already have in your closet.
Aja Barber – writer, fashion consultant and educator. Originally from Reston, Virginia, he now lives in London. In September 2021, her debut book Consumed was published by Octopus Publishing Group in the UK and Balance in the US.