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Colonialism & Fast Fashion Are Inextricably Linked — Aja Barber Explains How

Refinery29 logo Refinery29 21/09/2021 Maggie Zhou

For all its association with glamour and beauty, the fashion industry is riddled with ugliness. It can be tempting to bury your head in the sand and live in blissful ignorance, away from the harsh realities of an industry that perpetuates modern slavery and actively harms the environment. But Aja Barber is choosing to tackle it head-on.

The writer, slow fashion consultant, stylist and speaker doesn’t shy away from grappling with big, uncomfortable questions that hold those in power accountable. It’s how she begins her debut book Consumed — with a direct address to the CEOs of fast fashion brands.

“At the end of the day, this is their mess. Whoever made five billion dollars is the person who has the most responsibility to clean this up,” she tells Refinery29 Australia over Zoom.

“For any individual who beats themselves up because [they] can’t change [their] wardrobe overnight, I want to be like, ‘hey look, you’re not a bad person, there are some things we have definitely wilfully turned an eye to, but at the end of the day, it’s absolutely this guy’s problem more than it’s yours; he just hides behind a pile of money.’”

You can hear the exasperated tone in Barber’s voice when discussing the male CEOs heading these corporations (95% of global CEOs are men).

She points to a concept by Naomi Klein that suggests that if a corporation were human, it would act like a psychopath. Yet on the other hand, through social media, we have a romanticised narrative of brands masquerading as relatable and likeable people

Stop trying to humanise yourself, you are a corporation with way more tentacles than an octopus.

Aja Barber

When H&M came out on top in Fashion Revolution’s transparency index this year, the Internet criticised the brand for twisting the tale to seem sustainable and ethical — while in reality, the index only reviews brands who make a turnover of $400 million USD (£292.5 million) a year.

“So we did what we did on the Internet and we dragged them. It was the first time I saw them really apologise,” explains Aja. “But even in [its] apology [it] tried to make it seem like [it’s] just a little human instead of having a [massive] team people who work on the sustainability issues within the brand. It’s like, stop trying to humanise yourself, you are a corporation with way more tentacles than an octopus.”

Barber speaks on these issues as someone who has been deep in the clutches of fast fashion. In her book, there’s a chapter where she talks about living with her parents and not earning much money, and finding out that she’d given 10% of her paycheque that year to a single fast fashion company. Now on the other side of consumption, she knows how much better off she is.

“Do it for yourself. Because all this consumption isn’t actually good for us. As a person who lived that way and doesn’t anymore, I can tell you [that I’m] 150% happier, I spend less money on clothing now because I never needed to buy that much clothing. When a person is participating in this system in a way that absolutely sustains it, [you should do] it for yourself because there’s a better way to live your life.”

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Classism, racism and sexism are inextricably linked to the ethics of fast fashion. Approximately 80% of garment workers are women, predominantly from the Global South. So why has the relationship between fast fashion and colonialism been left out of our conversations until now?

“The vast majority of clothing that you buy at multinational stores has been brought to you by people in traditionally pillaged countries in the Global South. They have been paid an unfair wage… and because of that it is causing ecological crisis. It’s hurting people… it ends up being deadly,” Barber says, referring to the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,134 people. 

Our process of donating clothes is deeply tied to privilege too. “The average fast fashion consumer buys 68 items a year. Every season, you’re encouraged to clean out your wardrobe and donate it to charity… your clothing either goes to a landfill — let’s remember, they’re never going to be placed in the middle of a rich person’s backyard,” says Barber.

At the beginning of your fast fashion cycle, it is harming a non-white person in the Global South. At the end of your fast fashion cycle, it is harming a non-white person in the Global South.

Aja Barber

“If you donate it to a charity and the charity doesn’t sell it (only 10-20% of clothes are actually sold), the other 80% either goes to landfill or it gets packaged up and sent back to the Global South where people have to deal with your clothing castoffs that they don’t even want.”

From production to disposal, our fast fashion habits are continuing a cycle of oppression. “At the beginning of your fast fashion cycle, it is harming a non-white person in the Global South. At the end of your fast fashion cycle, it is harming a non-white person in the Global South,” Barber flatly says. 

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Barber’s use of the terms ‘traditionally pillaged countries’ and the ‘Global South’ are active choices to replace outdated terminology like ‘developing countries’ and ‘Third World countries’.

“Language is important because history is written by the victors,” says Barber. “Additionally, the idea that these countries we’re talking about in the Global South are underdeveloped is false. We know that there were a lot of extremely advanced societies in various parts of Africa; lots of medical technology can be traced back to places in the Global South. These are not civilisations that are underdeveloped in any way. These are civilisations that have been pillaged by the Global North.”

“There’s this notion that I hear people say all the time, ‘Oh well, that’s a good wage in that country, they should be happy for a job’. Investigate why you think that that person should be paid pennies to do back-breaking labour that you would never want to do. Once we do that and peel back the layers, there’s a rich history there: of robbing and thieving and oppressing.”

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We’re finishing up our video call at 9:30 am her time over in London. After deep-diving into fashion’s colonialist practices and the damage the industry has caused, I’m left feeling quite deflated. I ask if, after everything she knows, she still loves fashion.

“I do, but I struggle with hating the current fashion industry,” she admits. “The current fashion industry has a short-term memory. If I didn’t love fashion, I wouldn’t be writing about this stuff because on the current path, the fashion industry is eating itself… I would like the industry to save itself.”

But Barber is hopeful about the future and what our fashion industry might look like one day. “I would like for the industry giants to lose their power because they’ve been abusing it. I would like for the high street to radically transform,” she says. 

“Tomorrow’s high street has an independent sustainable store, it has a bigger brand that’s also ethical and sustainable, it has a community workshop about repairing your clothing, it’s also got a cobbler so you can get your shoes fixed. That’s what I want the high street to look like.”

And if she’s optimistic, we might as well be too.

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