Aja Barber on Replacing Your Shopping Addiction With Inspiration

Photograph by Stephen Cunningsworth

 

Consumed, fashion journalist Aja Barber’s first book, comes out this week. The Frontline talks to her about its message, fast fashion, the Met Gala, and activism.

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Aja Barber always wanted to be two things: a published author and a ballerina. She’s still working on the latter, but the sustainable fashion writer will have accomplished the first by Sept. 23 when Consumed, her very first book, publishes in the U.K. It’s available in the U.S. Oct. 5.

 

The nonfiction book—which touches on fast fashion, consumption, and colonialism—has been a year in the making. Barber started writing the book in September 2020 when the pandemic made clear just how polarized consumers felt about fast fashion. “This is a book people need now,” she told me from her London home. While some people took time during lockdown to grow critical of the quick pace at which they were buying clothes, others fell deeper into the hole of consumption. 

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where fashion requires justice, too. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. In my conversation with Barber, one thing became even more clear to me: Where we spend our money matters. Abusive clothing brands that don’t pay their garment workers in the Global South a living wage or the deceitful ones that attempt to greenwash their image don’t deserve a single dollar. Pre-order Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism online here.

 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

 

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YESSENIA FUNES

You cover a lot of ground in the book: fast fashion, consumerism, colonialism. But it ultimately felt like a book about the human experience—present-day, historically, and your own. From a teacher mispronouncing your name as a child to being told, You’re a poser, because of your fashion or music interests. Why did you take this approach on a book that others might’ve treated more academically?

AJA BARBER

Because that’s the problem with sustainability. We are taking a topic that has always been niche and saying, You can’t really participate unless you’re like us. And then also saying, Oh, everyone should care about these topics. You can’t do both. I like to hope that there’s always going to be a place in our society for books that get people in the door and set them off on their journey to dig deeper and read more. I tried to make a book that was going to be as accessible as possible to someone who might not know where to start with any of these topics.

 

This is a topic that everyone should care about. People really shrug off the impacts of this industry particularly because they don’t understand it. People will also shrug off the beauty of design. And this speaks to a larger concept of us not appreciating jobs within the arts to begin with. We value certain jobs over others, and we treat fashion like it’s frivolous and silly because it’s typically associated with women and queer people. If it were cis-het patriarchal men—or sports—it would be very serious. But the fashion industry is accountable for a percentage of jobs on our planet. It’s also accountable for aiding in the climate emergency. It can make or break a GDP of a country. There are so many ways in which fashion impacts us, and when people put it down, that’s how we end up completely devaluing the work of garment workers and our clothes—and not seeing the true and rich beauty that could be the industry.

YESSENIA

This point you just made around the value of garment workers is important. The Atmos team was just talking about the Met Gala and how much labor goes into some of these elaborate dresses. What’s your response when you see these dresses that are covered in feathers that took hours to make?

AJA

On one hand, you could look at the Met Gala and be like, Look at that poncy rich people shit. On the other hand—if you love art and if you are happy to finally see people who never get invited to these things go and make statements about their background, past, and history—you can look at it from a different perspective. There was an amazing Indigenous woman dressed in this gorgeous gold outfit. Her name was Quannah Chasinghorse. And she’s wearing this gold ensemble and Diné jewelry. She looked amazing. This is rich storytelling right here. It’s annoying that people can’t hold space for the duality of topics like the Met Gala.

YESSENIA

That duality is major because, as you touched on in the book, there’s the human labor that goes into all of these pieces behind the scenes, but there’s also the storytelling that’s engrained in those pieces and the exposure such clothing can give a person. 

AJA

Yeah! You can still marvel at stuff while also looking at the Met as an institution and looking at fashion gatekeepers sideways. You can do both.

The consumer voice does have power. Change can come from consumer outrage.

Aja Barber
AUTHOR OF "CONSUMED"

YESSENIA

In your book, you talk about your love for ballet as an art form and how it keeps you grounded and in pursuit of joy. What does joy and that appreciation for the craft have to do with the fast fashion crisis, breaking our habits, and shifting our culture?

AJA

The first thing I want to say about ballet is that of course I was attracted by the outfits. If you look at ballet costumes, c’mon. For me, I just had to find something to fill my time that wasn’t consuming because I was really using fast fashion as a pastime. It was how I would unwind, and I had to do something else. Part of the reason why I chose ballet was because I always wanted to try ballet, and there is a barrier for entry if you don’t grow up in an affluent family. I was a working adult. I was throwing away a large portion of my money on clothing that didn’t bring me joy, so I just decided to try something else. It’s never too late to start something.

YESSENIA

And that’s ultimately what you’re trying to tell readers, right? If you’re addicted to shopping, figure out what can bring you actual joy instead of that adrenaline rush from shopping.

AJA

No sort of purchase has ever brought me the joy of doing a perfect petit allégro that’s really hard. Nothing will bring me the joy of when your stern ballet teacher looks at you and nods approvingly.

YESSENIA

So there’s that element of the now—in our habits and our addiction to shopping—but there’s also the then, right? The past and the history, which you dig into in the book. You write about India, in particular, and its role in the fashion industry before colonization when India was a leader in textile innovation. Talk to me about the climate impacts that resulted from these changes.

AJA

One thing I’ve learned as far as climate impact goes was that there was a lot of moving of nature and bringing different plants that thrived in one region of the world to another. And the impact of climate emergency. We talk about the Citarum River, which is now the most polluted river in the world. A lot of people depend on that river to grow food, to drink from, bathe in. It has provided for all of these different communities for years, and the fast fashion companies and factories are just dumping their sludge into it and making children sick.

 

I truly feel that, without colonialism, perhaps that river wouldn’t look like that today. In a documentary I watched on the river, one of the officials says, “If the government puts very strict standards, then investors will not come to Indonesia, but you know if there is no standard, then we sacrifice the people.” That’s really it. Yes, these governments can push back, but because of these systems where people are desperate, it’s a no-win situation. We’re sitting here waiting for brands to just do better, but that doesn’t seem to be happening.

 

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YESSENIA

The second part of the book is about empowering people to take action and offering them resources to push brands. I appreciated the information on their policies around addressing complaints if they receive enough of them. Talk to me more about that.

AJA

If there is a concern that gets pinged at certain corporations a certain number of times, it does get addressed. The consumer voice does have power. Change can come from consumer outrage. People will easily go, Oh, there’s not much you can do. They’re not really listening. But Anannya Bhattacharjee from the Asia Floor Wage Alliance has seen on the ground campaigning in parts of Asia where if consumers complain about something, that big brand is worried about how they look in the consumer’s eye. When someone from the Global South tells you that your voice can have an impact, that’s important to keep in mind.

I remember when Rana Plaza happened in 2013, where a garment factory collapsed, I was in the U.S., and it was not front page news. I remember thinking, Wow, if 1,134 people died in the U.S., it would be everywhere. But because it happened in the Global South, it just gets buried.

YESSENIA

We stopped making these events possible in the U.S., and instead we just exported it onto other countries. You mention that history in your book.

AJA

I remember learning about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in civics and about regulation and unions. Today, you’ve got brands who claim to be ethical participating in union busting.

YESSENIA

What’s the main message you hope readers receive by the time they finish it?

AJA

The main message I hope they receive is: I’m not going to go shopping as a pastime anymore. I’m going to shop when I need to. I’m going to take a bit more time to care about where my clothing is coming from. I’m going to think about whom I truly want to give my money to and what impact that money has. The fashion industry can be so much better than it is. I want people who really have the power and privilege to make different decisions to start doing that—and to stick it to the fast fashion companies.

 

This is completely and utterly their problem. It is theirs to fix. It is non-negotiable to pay your workers, yet because of colonialism, there’s still this idea that people should just be grateful for their jobs. I would just like for people to make better choices. And please, for the love of God, stop buying so much clothing.

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