In this episode, I’m chatting with the one and only Aja Barber, a sustainable fashion thought leader, consultant, writer, and new author. Her debut book is Consumed, The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.
Aja is sharing:
- How the fashion industry been shaped by colonization and what its lasting legacies are,
- Why fast fashion isn’t actually affordable, and
- Her advice for how we can begin to address the issues in the industry.
Aja is also breaking a lot of the myths perpetuated by fast fashion brands, like that shopping fast fashion is improving the economies in other countries, or that sweatshop jobs are at least better than no jobs, or that these brands really have no control or awareness of the exploitation happening in their supply chains.
CONNECT WITH AJA:
Tune in to this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast below, or on your favorite podcast app.
Or you can watch this interview on YouTube. (COMING SOON!)
The transcript of this episode of the Conscious Style Podcast is below.
ELIZABETH: Hey there, and welcome or welcome back to the show. Today I am chatting with the one and only Aja Barber, a sustainable fashion thought leader, consultant, writer, and new author.
Her debut book is called Consumed. The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism.
In this episode, Aja is sharing how the fashion industry has been shaped by colonization and what its lasting legacies are, why fast fashion isn’t actually affordable, and her advice for how we can begin to address the vast environmental and social issues in the fashion industry.
Aja is also breaking a lot of the myths perpetuated by fast fashion brands like that shopping fast fashion is improving the economies in other countries or bringing workers out of poverty, or that sweatshop jobs are at least better than no job at all.
Or that these fashion brands really have no control or awareness of the exploitation happening in their supply chains.
We are definitely covering a lot in this episode.
The video version of this conversation will also be viewable on YouTube on our channel Conscious Life & Style.
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And if you are enjoying the podcast so far, a rating and review on Apple Podcasts. It really helps the show and also so does sharing this podcast with a friend who you think might enjoy it.
Thank you in advance for your support!
Finally, if you are looking for more sustainable fashion education, and resources, you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter, The Conscious Edit.
Okay, now let’s get to it. Aja is going to start us off here by sharing her sustainable fashion journey.
AJA BARBER: My history with fashion is someone who wanted to sort of work within the fashion industry and found that because of the barriers to entry, I was never going to do that.
Like my parents, one, couldn’t afford fashion school. But even growing up as a child, I was not someone who had the right clothing, which meant that I was kind of a bit of a social pariah. In the 90s there was definitely a time period, where there were a lot of different lines drawn in the sand, based on like how much income your parents had and what your class system was.
The people that I went to school with at one point in time, everyone started shopping from this store and that store and my mom was just never going to do it.
And I was already kind of on the outside and I think that created even more of a barrier for me. So my first interest in fashion came from a need to fit in through material possessions.
And I became very very obsessive about getting my hands on the right brands. But then once I realized that those people were never going to be my friend anyways, I began to actually have an interest and a love of fashion.
I always was really interested in working in the industry, but I just knew that the barriers to entry were there.
It was like fashion school: Parsons School of Design is like three times my tuition at my State University.
You know, living in New York… living in a city like London, I always talk about how it’s a privilege to be in London. Not everyone gets to do it and I recognize that.
And in general I found that inside the fashion industry at a corporate level, whether we’re talking magazines or even brands, there’s a lot of whiteness.
There’s a lot of not paying people livable wages, even within like the corporate structures. So it creates a system where only people with a certain financial means can participate in order to do the job.
So I found that I was, over and over again, not being picked for like, “team fashion”.
So because I felt like I was a bit of an outsider, I started to be really critical of it at first, that comes from like, man… it get invited to the party… but then you’re like, no wait, there’s like real problems here actually.
Then I began to also note how much clothing buying had changed and how much we as consumers were buying a lot more. And I began to sort of feel a bit icky about it, because I too, was participating in it.
Then one summer, I volunteered at a local charity shop and that was one of the most eye-opening experiences.
Because what I found was that every day I would come in, and the bin bags of clothing would be almost piled up to the ceiling.
And I thought to myself, Oh, no, oh, no.
Okay I know that I don’t feel very good about how much clothing I’m seemingly burning through now. And I also know that this charity shop is one of the thousands in America. And I also know that there is this attitude of just donate your stuff. But where is this stuff going?
If we have this much clothing that I know that we’re not selling it We’re not that unique… I bet you a lot of people have this problem.
Where is it all going? What’s happening with it? And then, of course, I learned about, Kantamanto Market in Ghana and I was like well, all be. I knew.
And working in that charity shop was really like, probably the moment for me, where I really started going to the mall, and really being like I don’t think I want to participate in this in the same way anymore. I just don’t.
So all of these different experiences that I had: participating on this end, participating about on that end in the fashion industry.. seeing all of the inequality.
Then coupled with the fact that I’m a maker — I enjoy making things, I make things badly, but I do make them — coupled with the fact that there was a part of me, that would always go into those fast fashion stores and go, how can it be this cheap?
How can it? Like I know how long it takes for me to make a garment that doesn’t look nothing like this. There is something weird going on here.
And so all of these things happened to me cumulatively are kind of what’s in Consumed and how my platform grew to be what it is today.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, and I love how you interweave your personal story with some of these bigger issues in fashion in the book.
And there’s so much that I want to talk about with Consumed, because it covers just such a wide range of important topics.
You talk about how the story of the textile industry is also the story of colonization. So can you share how fashion has been shaped by colonization and what its lasting legacies are?
AJA: It’s weird because we learn about the history of this planet in silos and we don’t connect all this history that we’re learning.
So like, every American kid learns about slavery in some way or another and usually, it’s very much not discussed in the way it should be discussed.
There is nothing talked about, about the harm done to the people that you know, I am the descendant of chattel slaves.
There is just not enough talked about how all of this shows up systemically in our society today. We teach kids a very, very, very lukewarm version of what everyone should be learning if we want to create a better world.
And we talk about cotton in a very esoteric way. That’s the fashion industry.
Chattel slavery kept the cotton trade going. Things really started to change with that system: the amount of clothing that people could have, the movement of the people from one continent to another, it really changed the world. But that was driven by fashion.
But if we look at colonialism in India, if we look at partition, one of the goals of the East India Company was to disrupt the textile market of India, which was at that time, the most powerful one in the world.
It was, oh, everything’s coming from India, this is a really powerful empire, we need to figure out a way to get in there.
So like, people need to understand the motives behind what happened historically, and how it applies today.
Sometimes people will say like, Oh, well we’ll hear about slave labor and low wages and all the crap stuff that happens in the fashion industry, people say, if we don’t buy that clothing, then what will those people do?
Well, I don’t know, India was a thriving textile market before all of this happened. Something tells me that as a country, they could definitely get back there if things were a bit different.
So what people need to realize is that from start to finish, the modern-day fashion industry craps on nonwhite people.
All of the textiles and labor, majority comes from the Global South — countries where nonwhite people live. The products are consumed in the Global North — countries that are majority white. The products are then dumped right back on the Global South at the end of its life cycle through a system that we consider charitable.
In actuality, it’s a horrible system where we’re dumping trash in the Global South because the rate at which we’re burning through fast fashion is far higher than it’s ever been before. And it’s far higher than our systems can mitigate.
So we come up with this whole oh, we’re doing such a good charitable thing. And as, as a result of all of that you literally have an ecological crisis in Ghana
And so what people need to realize is the system has been hundreds of years in the making — it’s not recent.
But you need to have the tools to understand what’s happened here, and to maybe start thinking about how, if you as a person wish to, how do I extricate myself from this?
How do I, how do we build a better fashion world?
And that’s what I hope to do with Consumed is lay out the problems — yes, they’re big and scary — but then give people some motivation to start rethinking how we participate.
And to also get into like, the headspace of like why we participate as well because that’s not missed on either.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, absolutely.
And you touched on the global secondhand trade. I’d love to dive a little deeper into that and talk about the fast fashion’s so-called take-back programs or recycling programs…
AJA: Which a lot of that by the way, it does end up in the Global South.
I know they say recycling at all, but they can’t.
If H&M were to recycle everything they produce in a solid year, I think it would take them something like 12 years to recycle their way out of that.
So that’s what people need to understand. The rate at which clothing is being pumped out, thrown out, and dumped in the Global South is far higher than like humans we have on the planet.
Every year, the fashion industry creates 100 billion new items.
There are only 7.8 billion humans on this planet. Then if we really want to, like really dive into it, 50% of the planet lives on $5.50 a day, which means they’re not the ones buying fast fashion.
So let’s just halve that population. It’s really pernicious how much information is out there and how much we don’t realize that like, this is definitely an ‘us’ problem.
ELIZABETH: Right. Yeah, absolutely.
When you look at who has the disposable income to buy fast fashion and then you divide the number of garments being produced per year.
These are like scary numbers or what certain percentage of the population is buying.
And can I just to go back to… we have this thing on the internet where one person says something and then other people go, that’s great — I’m gonna say that too. And sometimes it’s not true!
So like, one of the things I constantly get is, “oh, it really classist to critique fast fashion. You just don’t like poor people.”
And the system wouldn’t be profitable if poor people were sustaining it.
In America, we are the second-biggest consumer of fast fashion. The biggest is China, but that is only because their population is far bigger than ours is. Per head in America, it’s us — we’re the ones doing it.
But additionally, if we were going to talk about poverty and wealth, poor and working-class people only account for 3% of the wealth in America. 3%. That 3% can’t build a billionaire, it can’t.
But if you look at who runs all of these companies that like are really killing it with this fast fashion cycle.
At the top, you will often find multiple billionaires, which means that the people who are sustaining this system aren’t poor or working class. It’s middle and upper-class people.
And people need to realize where you fall in that, and if you feel uncomfortable, then start changing what you’re doing.
ELIZABETH: Mhm yeah, there’s a huge difference between buying a couple of affordably priced pieces that you need and doing Shein hauls and posting them on TikTok.
AJA: Massive difference.
I can hold my hand up and say, for a long time, I was that person.
Now, I have never been rich. I would argue that my family was working-class, waging on middle class… lower middle class.
We were never rich, but the minute I got in my 20s and had disposable income, I was handing it over to the stores. Hand and fist. Sometimes was living in my parent’s basement.
And part of why I was doing it was because I like couldn’t afford to do anything else.
Like we’ve literally have been born into this time where I don’t know, a single younger generation that hasn’t experienced a recession.
We can’t afford to buy houses.
It’s actually ridiculous how hard this economic system is on us. But at the same time, we buy fast fashion to pacify ourselves.
And I don’t think that’s the way either, right? I did it.
I never want to sit from like this lofty place of judgment and be like I’m better than you because I don’t buy fast fashion anymore.
No, I want to be like, look, I used to buy it. I know why you’re doing it too… but here’s what you need to know.
ELIZABETH: Right, right.
And I think many of us who are interested in sustainable fashion now, or slow fashion, were fast fashion consumers at one point. I know I was really one.
AJA: Everyone was. Like the person who shows you their life on Instagram and everything is like so perfectly curated. And you’re like, I want to be like then like them — I get those feelings too sometimes — that person never shows you them bagging up all their old fast fashion and dumping another local charity.
Everyone bought it. Like I don’t know anyone that didn’t buy it. And so no one’s really in a position to be like, oh I’m so much better than you.
But I do think those of us that know that we can do better. It’s time to get our sh*t together.
ELIZABETH: Hmm, yeah.
And thank you for busting that myth on this idea that fast fashion is maybe good or not too bad, because it’s, quote-unquote, affordable.
AJA: Who is it affordable for?
This is the other thing. We talk about affordability, but when we do that, we’re only looking at ourselves.
We’re not remembering that we share a planet with another seven billion people.
But I can tell you fast fashion is not affordable for everyone.
It might be affordable for the consumer, it was not affordable for the person who got ripped off on the cotton that they have grown. And their families have been cotton farmers for centuries, and now they can’t even afford to manage anymore.
That’s not an affordable system for the cotton farmer.
Is it affordable for the garment worker who can never get out of poverty?
I would argue it’s not affordable for them either.
So when we say affordability, we’re only talking about the person who’s consuming it at the end but the planet and the people can’t afford this system.
ELIZABETH: Mhm. Yeah and even worse is when I see that it’s somehow democratic. And again, who for? The consumer — that’s about it, maybe but.
AJA: But is it even for us? Because I felt gross when I was participating at my peak. Like I look back now and like it’s so annoying that my mom was right about it!
Like she was never a fast fashion buyer. My mother grew up without certain economic means… she has eight siblings and she grew up in Jim Crow Alabama with a single parent. So she had a really challenging upbringing.
And I remember my mom being like, why are you buying all this crap? And it was so infuriating, but like, oh, she was right.
My mother is literally the person where like she’s always shopped secondhand.
And she used to buy my clothing secondhand, which I found mortifying when I was a kid, because that’s how it is when you’re a kid and everybody else has all new all the time.
But my mom is the type of person that is actually what people are aspiring to be today.
She’s like, oh, yeah, as I would much rather go to like that charity shop — the one that I volunteered in — and get like a secondhand Patagonia jacket for like $4 and feel really really smug and happy with myself about that.
She would sooner do that than go to like a mall store and buy something new that wasn’t very good quality.
And that’s who she’s always been. And like it’s it is insufferable — because Darn… was she right?
ELIZABETH: Yeah, you can find much higher quality pieces for better prices at secondhand shops. Of course they’ve been inundated with fast fashion now.
AJA: Yeah that was gonna be my next point! There’s this idea that like our charity shops suck because of the popularity of the secondhand market. I think that itself is also wrapped in myth.
At the time of writing the book, I didn’t have the best answer for that, because there wasn’t enough written about it to pull from. But I knew that it kind of smelled of horse dung.
Because I knew that if we have 100 billion items on this planet, then there’s more than enough to go around.
The person who is selling on Depop isn’t ruining your charity shop. Your charity shop is ruined because it’s overinundated with cheap, low-quality goods made from fossil fuels.
But then again, you have that thing with the internet where one person says, What about charity shops getting gentrified?
And everyone just runs with it, whether it’s based in fact or not.
ELIZABETH: Right. And it can be it can really take over the conversation on this and the assumptions.
And it’s important to stop and look at some of the other factors here at play for sure.
AJA: Yeah, absolutely.
Like, we cannot secondhand ourselves out of 100 billion garments. Like no matter how many Depop shops open, that’s never gonna change the flow of clothing that’s happening.
But the problem is the high-quality goods just aren’t there anymore because everything’s being cheapened and watered down — and that’s a problem.
ELIZABETH: Absolutely, yeah.
And another myth that I want you to bust for us that you talk about in your book, is that these fashion CEOs, these industry leaders, whatever, say that these [garment worker] jobs are at least better than no jobs.
Even if they are exploitive, underpaid, maybe even life-threatening when we think about the Rana Plaza disaster.
So why is this such well, BS?
AJA: Show me a place where any person working within a fast fashion supply chain is being lifted out of poverty.
That’s what I want to see. I don’t think anyone could do that.
I don’t think any person who runs a super-fast fashion business could say, here’s a community that’s thriving because of my business.
And THAT is why it’s BS.
You’ll go to the corporate responsibility page, and they’ll be like, look, we dug a well in this village… and it’s great, but, if you’re employing so many people, I think we’re past the point where digging wells should get your points for anything.
The truth is, I think these systems — in the system of outsourcing — they do it so that there’s no accountability. Because the people that make the clothing and work in the factories have absolutely no rights.
And it’s the gig economy on a bigger scale.
Because when I got out of university, I entered the gig economy and suddenly all the full-time jobs in industries that I wanted to work in, became contract and freelance.
And with contract and freelance work, you can be fired at will for any reason. You don’t have sick pay. You don’t have vacation days. You don’t have health insurance.
All of these things that I wanted, I never got with any sort of work from the minute I got out of school.
But that’s essentially the same thing that happens to garment workers. These companies know that the system of outsourcing and doing things so far away leaves them in a place where they have no responsibility for what happens to those workers.
Whether they get paid or not whether a building collapses on them. And that’s why it’s a really problematic system.
And that kind of brings me to another myth that is, you know when some horrific event happens, a fire, a factory collapse, child labor gets discovered by an exposé…
These brands will come back and say, well, we didn’t know about that. Or well, it’s in our code of conduct — these factories were just noncompliant.
And they act like it’s not their problem or they didn’t know. What should we as readers, as individuals know about that?
AJA: Understand that this has happened enough within their supply chain, that they know that there’s a chance of it happening by the ways in which they’re doing work.
And also know this: These big fast fashion orders that come through, it can sometimes be millions of pieces. It depends on the brand, it depends on the order — or tens of thousands of pieces.
But the turnover is quick. It’s next day. It’s, oh, Kylie Jenner wore this bodysuit and we want a few thousand orders of it because we think it’s a big seller.
And when you do that, as a company, you know that human hands can only work so fast.
So this whole system of like outsourcing leads to subcontracting. You give this order to a factory, you beat them down to a price that is SO unfair, that nobody’s barely getting paid off of like what you’ve done here.
You know that this is a system where you have all the power. You beat them down to the price. You asked for a lot of clothing very, very quickly.
And you know deep down inside that, I don’t know, do they have little fairies come in at night and sew the clothing? Because these are humans making the clothing.
So then the factory goes crap, we’ve got to subcontract this. Otherwise, we don’t get paid for anything.
And that’s what happens. The brands that have all the power.
So they subcontracted to another factory, that factory might use child labor, might not pay their garment workers, might use slave labor.
But the brands constantly act like because they do this whole outsourcing of the labor, that they can hold their hand up and say, we didn’t know.
No, you outsourcing the labor — that’s the problem. And when you do it, you can totally go, oh, See No Evil, See No Evil!
But these sorts of things have been uncovered enough within every one of these brands that they know what they’re doing.
So don’t believe them.
And then on the flip side of this, they’ll turn around and say, I forget which CEO it was, I think it was H&M’s former CEO saying that the decline in fast fashion could risk…
AJA: Improving poverty… as is if his business has lifted anyone out of poverty?
By the way, have you noticed they haven’t let him talk since then?
ELIZABETH: Who was it that said that?
AJA: It was Stefan Perrson. And they have never let him get in front of a microphone again and I’m sorry, but I think that there’s something to be said for that.
But yeah, he basically said that environmentalists are going to create poverty by not buying his clothing.
And I want to be like: sir, when has your clothing lifted anyone out of poverty. I would argue that your system creates poverty more than me not buying clothing does.
ELIZABETH: Right. These are exploitive jobs. These aren’t good jobs.
AJA: It’s a miserable life.
I mean, I remember hearing about how the factory that creates Apple products actually installed like nets outside of their factory because people were jumping.
And it’s like, I don’t know, I would argue that maybe this isn’t a good life if this life drives people to want to harm themselves.
And CEOs love to be like, we’re so altruistic, and I’m like, okay, but if it’s such a great job, why aren’t you just doing it at home?
Oh, wait, because you’d have to pay those people for lunch breaks and health insurance and all the benefits that people in Sweden get. Okay, so let’s not pretend like you’re trying to do anyone a favor here, buddy.
ELIZABETH: Mhm, right.
And they’re always missing, I feel like two main sorts of topics here, which is… one you could afford to provide better jobs.
And two, why are these economies so decimated? Why were there not other opportunities in these countries in the first place?
AJA: Yeah absolutely.
And one thing you should also know about the fashion industry is that it constantly moves. It doesn’t improve itself; it just moves to a country where wages get lower.
So within my lifetime, I went from seeing lots of like, Made in America stuff when I was a kid to seeing everything moved to China.
And now China is considered the place that’s — obviously on the other side of the world — but maybe a little bit better than some of the places where we’re manufacturing.
And so then I saw things move to like Bangladesh and Pakistan and Vietnam — and this all has to do with hunting for the lowest wage.
And currently, the fashion industry has its eye on various countries in Africa, including Ethiopia. Why? Low wages.
So it’s never like, let’s improve things on the ground where we’ve set up shop. It’s always like, let’s go someplace else where we can like get even more labor for no money.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, the race to the bottom as you talk about in your book.
AJA: Exactly, exactly…
ELIZABETH: So we’ve talked a lot about the problems here.
And I’d love to sort of switch into the solutions before listeners get too discouraged.
So, for someone who is just so overwhelmed by the massive issues in the fashion industry, and has no idea where to start, what would you recommend?
AJA: First of all, stop buying so much.
Stop. Stop. Literally, the average fast fashion consumer buys 68 items a year, and I know people are going, that’s not me. It’s probably you.
Seriously when I was participating, one day I did count up all my receipts. One year I did count up all my items, and I was definitely at that number and I wasn’t rich.
I was just going to Target for like some stuff and oh, look, there’s a cute dress, I guess I’ll buy it, I don’t really need it, I’m just having a crappy day. So I’m gonna buy it, and then I’ll get home and maybe wear it a few times.
Maybe it wasn’t that great of a pick. But I felt like I needed it at the time.
So in the US, we are the people that do the most consuming, and it’s going to be on us. And the first thing we need to do is slow down the supply chain.
And you do that by not buying so much stuff. Maybe you set a limit and go I’m only gonna buy 30 items this year instead of 68. 30 items is still a lot of clothing, believe it or not.
And if we slow this supply chain, and eventually the super-fast fashion brands start to lose money because we’re not buying at the same rate, they’re going to have to change things.
So that’s one thing that every person at every income level can do is slow down.
But additionally, I would say, when I was that person that was buying, multiple times a month, I was always going, oh, I can’t afford this… I can’t afford that… But I can’t afford these brands.
Now that I look back upon it, if I had bought half of what I was buying and saved my money, I could have just had five nice items of clothing a year instead of 70 items of clothing, 20, 50 of which I probably won’t like the following year.
So like I really needed to sort of be honest about what I was doing. Because I think we have really gotten used to paying next to nothing for our clothing and always wanting it for cheaper.
But the reality is a fashion industry that is fair and equitable, we got to raise some prices. We have to. It means you’re not going to buy as much. But that’s okay because we clearly don’t need all this clothing.
But one of the things I talk about in the book is we actually paid more money for our clothing when I was a kid. We did.
I tell the story in the book but I had these overalls from Oshkosh. And I’m quite a bit older than you… this is like the 90s it’s like 1995 and I was like a preteen at the time.
And Oshkosh at the time had a factory in the US. And it was a union factory where people were paid fair wages. Now they have shipped all of their labor force overseas.
I think they’re now out of China and they don’t make adult clothing anymore, which is a real shame because I really liked their overalls.
But I wanted a pair of Oshkosh overalls because they were really cool and they were $55 at the time, which in today’s money is $83.
So I had to wait and my birthday rolled around and somebody got me a pair of overalls, but they weren’t the Oshkosh ones, but I did return them to the store.
And then I had to use 20 of my babysitting money — which that was like, at the time, five, six hours of babysitting — to get the overalls that I really wanted.
But I wasn’t like, oh, I can’t believe I had to pay $55 for these overalls where someone got paid fairly to produce them.
I wasn’t. Because we didn’t have the alternatives. And so I think we need to realize some of these alternatives that are being offered to us aren’t necessarily good.
And is that really how we want to like spend our money and live and exist?
And I wore those overalls, two days a week for like, two years until one of the legs just like ripped, just couldn’t take it anymore.
But I think back upon that, and like today, if you told… I have so many friends that are designers and create their own clothing and sell their own clothing and have their own brands and like people will be like, oh, I can’t afford this.
But as a 13-year old, I knew that I had to save and wait for those dungarees.
So that’s the crux that every independent brand faces are people going, your stuff is too expensive! Because they’re literally comparing it to the high street where the vast majority of prices you see are exploitation prices.
So people need to really understand that if we want to live in a better world where everyone’s paid fairly, then we need to realize what’s exploitative and what isn’t.
But the first thing I say is just slow down.
The surprising thing for me about all of this is how much money I had in my pocket when I stopped. When I got off the treadmill, the hamster wheel of fast fashion, I was like, oh crap, I’m actually saving money.
But now with that money saved, I can put that into a brand that I really want to support and one that isn’t harming the planet.
And so I think we need to realize where we fall in the scale and what we can do with our money.
But additionally, I buy a lot of stuff secondhand.
Obviously, my situation has changed. I’m a writer now. But for a long time, there were brands that I’ve always loved, but couldn’t afford, so going to like eBay was my go-to.
That’s how I have half of my wardrobe easily. It forces you to be more slow and more intentional about what you’re buying because you don’t get that instantaneous dopamine kick.
And I would argue that craving that dopamine is a part of why we’re in this mess. But I prefer it — I feel like I have a much nicer closet.
And I feel like I don’t feel as bad about my wardrobe anymore.
So even if you’re just buying secondhand, that’s a great place to start.
We’re all going to have different intersections. So for me, yes, I can afford to pay more money for my clothing, I should do that. I can also wait and buy things secondhand, I do that too.
I also buy things for friends and kids. People’s kids that I know, I’ll be like, oh, look… I was on eBay, and I saw this really cute little thing and it was super cheap s I just got it for your child.
But it’s gonna be different for different people. For the person that really truly feels like they can’t move away from the fast-fashion system, I’m not going to come and shun you for that.
But what I will say is, can you repair it? Is it truly broken? Or is it just oh, I don’t want to repair this? That’s a great way to start as well.
But yeah, it’s a multifaceted thing. I mean, we need individual change, but we also desperately need regulation for these consumer industries.
But I don’t think that we get that regulation without the individual change, which adds to individual interest and gets it in front of our lawmakers.
ELIZABETH: Right, the bigger the interest, then it gets picked up by media outlets, and it becomes a bigger conversation.
AJA: Yes. And also our lawmakers aren’t going to care as long as these companies continue to just get all of our money.
I would argue that the reason why these companies are powerful is because they’re incredibly wealthy.
So someone like me who just has like disposable income is just like I’ll just give it to StefanPerrson, then like nobody’s gonna regulate stuff on Perrson.
But once these companies really fall out of favor, I think that’s when we get the regulation we need.
And sort of piggybacking on something you said before, I think that also when we tried to sort of responsibly rehome our used garments, that also slows down our consumption.
Because the charity drop-off bins make it so easy to clear out our closet and start new.
But I’m experiencing when I try to sell my clothes, it takes time.
People can’t get rid of it like that. It takes time to sell it and it slows me down because I’m not going to go buy something new because my closet’s full.
AJA: Yeah. When I moved to the UK about four years ago now, I had an adult’s lifetime worth of stuff.
And because I was already really starting to, like come on to all of this, I was like I can’t just like dump it on a charity. I can’t do that.
So I spent a solid year trying to, like, thoughtfully decrease the number of items I had.
And it was work!
First you have to really, really be cutthroat with your wardrobe. So go through all those pieces. Some of that stuff is too small because I’ve changed in size.
So take out all the stuff that you can like sell secondhand. Go around to like the different stores in DC that buy clothing, have them pick through, and see who will give you money.
And then it was okay, now I’m left with this amount of stuff. Can I put it on eBay? Can I do The RealReal? What can I do with this? Can I do Vestiaire Collective?
Okay, now I’m left with this amount of stuff. Let me put up a photo album on Facebook and offer it to my friends.
Like if I had had an Instagram platform, then I would have just been like, okay, I’m just gonna give away all the stuff on Instagram. But I didn’t have that. So I really took my time.
And I’m still a work in progress. When I go home to my parent’s house, there is still stuff at their house that I go through every time I’m home, and I haven’t been home in a few years because of the pandemic.
I go with one suitcase and then I leave with two because I got stuff I got to go through.
And having that experience means that our place is actually fairly minimal.
Because once you have to go through that, like moving has definitely got us as punishment for gross materialism.
And once you have to go through that you never want to go through it again.
So now when I’m in a store, if I feel tempted to buy something, I always ask myself, but would I want to move it overseas?
Because even if I’m doing like a short move, like even I’ve moved several times in my 20s when I lived in Virginia.
And even if it’s a short move, there’s always a point in the move where you’re just like, I just want to throw it all away!
So yeah, I recommend moving. But if you can’t move, I at least recommend slowing down.
That’s the first and foremost thing that we can all do.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, absolutely.
And so you talk about our consumption choices, how much we consume, where we consume, if we can. Of course it depends on various factors, various types of privilege, but how do you sort of balance that aspect with the activism aspect?
So how do you balance giving advice to people on an individual level and collective level?
So we can’t shop our way or consume our way into sustainability, but at the same time, it does matter. So how do you sort of balance that I don’t know the gray area?
AJA: So the first thing I tell people is also when you’re like on the wheel of like fast fashion, it actually takes up a significant amount of your free time.
You don’t think that but like if you’ve ever gone to one of those websites where there are literally 14,000 items of dresses, just dresses, just styles of dresses.
You are spending a lot of time on that site. Now I spend my time researching brands learning about brands and writing about this topic.
It has become a real sort of full-circle moment for me.
But the balance part of it is that I read about this stuff every day and the first thing I think is okay, what can I do?
Like a law just passed in California. SB62 just passed and sharing and learning information about that has been really really good.
And that’s something that you can do on social media. The people that you follow on Twitter can inform you about ways that you can get involved.
One of the things I hope to do once the book stuff is kind of getting quieter is to really sort of lead more activism movements.
And the thing is, I think that sometimes we do the work especially online and we don’t even get credit for it.
Like two years ago and Fashion Revolution’s Transparency Index came out. H&M was at the top of the index so they kind of bragged about that, but they were also greenwashing in their brag.
They were like hashtagging it #sustainability, but like transparency doesn’t have anything to do with sustainability.
And they also said that they were the most transparent brands in the world, which is ridiculous. Because you need to sell $400 million worth of clothing in a calendar year to even be rated on the index, which means that like small brands that would walk you to their factories and show you every person on their payroll in a small afternoon, are never going to qualify to be rated on that.
So how can you say that you are the most transparent brands in the world, H&M? So they did that.
And like five years ago, we all would have just been like, okay. But because people are more informed now and understand that transparency doesn’t actually equal sustainability at all.
There’s a huge outcry. They were forced to apologize, and that’s good.
So there’s something to be said for online activism.
And one of the things that Anannya Bhattacharjee says in the book when I interview her or no she didn’t say that in my book, she said it in Remember Who Made Them the podcast, is that believe it or not, consumer outcry is a huge thorn in a brand’s side.
They do not want to look bad to customers. So if you see something crappy, and you and just like 20 of your good friends, just start like really going after that multinational. Oftentimes it has to get raised in certain meetings behind closed doors.
So don’t feel like Internet activism has no impact because that’s not true, it does.
And if you want to go even deeper than that, I love a good old-fashioned letter. Because people can delete an email, but a letter has some sort of weight to it.
So like, even as a child, I was writing to CEOs, by the time I was 12 and saying, like, this is what you could do better; this is what you’re doing wrong.
So if you have a bit more time on your hands, that’s something great that you can do. But there’s various ways to get involved in this and you just have to find what works for you.
But there are ways that we can change this game, and it’s going to look different for different people.
But I hope to sort of offer some insight into how to get involved. Once you really start to see the systems for what it is you almost can’t look away, at least that’s how I feel.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, and I think you do quote somebody in the book who talks about how even a couple of consumers raising an issue to a brand….
AJA: That wasAnannya Bhattacharjee.
Yeah. They’ve seen it traveled down the pipeline, and suddenly the brand is like, maybe not feeling so good about, like that mistreatment that they were doing to garment workers, you know?
ELIZABETH: Right. And they rely on their reputation so much. That’s basically what they are. Because they outsource the manufacturing. Their brand is basically their perception and their design.
So when the perception isn’t so good, they’re going to be forced to clean that up.
AJA: Yeah. And there’s already so much good activism happening on the ground from garment workers.
So just amplifying that is a great thing that you can do, you don’t have to be the loudest voice in the room.
And I hope that I can continue to sort of amplify the good work that others are doing.
But it’s just important that we say something.
I mean, I remember a few years ago, garment workers sewed a note into a coat that was put out in Zara, where they look like, they’re not paying our wages. That worker is like, do something about this, otherwise, they wouldn’t have sewn that note into that coat.
So I do think in some ways, it’s on us. We need our lawmakers to regulate, we need to stop supporting the system if we can find better ways to do things.
But we can’t just keep going, Oh, well, I guess I’ll buy 20 dresses this summer. We just can’t do it anymore.
As Ayesha of Remake says, our roles as sustainable fashion advocates were allies for garment makers… we have to listen to her demands and amplify that.
AJA: I agree we should be listening.
So yeah, there’s so much that you can do, and don’t feel overwhelmed. I get it — it’s a lot.
But look at it from this perspective. Like not to get really dark, but we are headed towards climate emergency, and we know that the fashion industry according to different reports, accounts for like 10% of carbon emissions.
So like, that’s 10% of the problem right there. If we can change how we dress and change this game, we can change a lot of things.
And also, don’t forget that polyester and other synthetic fibers, come from fossil fuel. Fossil fuel industries, that’s going to be a tough one.But I think fashion is something that is within our grasp, I really do.
And that’s why I’m here talking about this stuff, because I want to empower people to change the things that we can change today. And I think that this is one that we can do.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, and your book is very empowering for the reader.
And I will definitely link that in the show notes, episode description, all that stuff. So everyone can check it out.
To round out this interview as well — Aja, this was such a fantastic conversation, and I have one final question for you.
And that is what does a better future for fashion look like to you?
AJA: The multinationals do not have the same amount of power they do because they’re competing with brands that are doing things the right way.
And we’re giving those brands our money when we need clothing because we’re probably not buying 60 items of clothing a year anymore.
But when we need something we’re going you know what… I’m going to go with this brand because I know that they’re working on sustainability and that everyone that works for them gets paid a fair wage with benefits.
So I’m going to go to them instead of going to my usual place.
And then all of a sudden, the fast fashion brands are like, hey, we want your money too, so I guess we have to do things better as well…
And then you go to the high street in the UK, and it’s not just the same five brands over and over again. You’ve got new brands that you haven’t heard of before — there’s doing really important things. And they’re actually social enterprises in your community. So they’re lifting up your community.
Then you’ve also got a repair shop because we’re all repairing our stuff now. And you’ve got workshops and community spaces.
It looks so different from what we have today. But we can have that we can have all of that we are deserving of that. And that’s what I want the fashion future to look like.