"It's a Monster": Aja Barber on the Fashion Industry
“I feel like it's a car that no one has fixed and they're just going to ride it until the wheels fall off,” said Barber, an ethical fashion activist.
You could look at the fashion industry at this stage of the pandemic as being in the throes of a glittery and inspired comeback — a return to glamour akin to the Roaring Twenties or post-war Swinging London. Only this age would be more like the Roaring TikTokies, and if that sounds horrifying, maybe that’s because it is.
During the pandemic, the industry myopically acknowledged its excesses. Too many seasons were producing too much stuff and that was a problem because the stuff couldn’t be sold, and if the stuff couldn’t be sold, designers couldn’t be designers. Entireworld by Scott Sternberg burst into the spotlight last year as a brand that really got all of this and was ready to thrive in the post-pandemic fashion hellscape, but just weeks ago that went bust.
Plus, the old pace wasn’t “sustainable” anyway, right? Perhaps that line of thought was more of a salve for a bad situation than anything, because fashion brands’ claims of “sustainability” have become as inescapable and fake as liquid leggings in 2008. Corporate fashion entities — media included — continue feigning concern over the carbon emissions required to make this sweater or that handbag. Yet a site called Cider selling $18 dresses has been Christened a “TikTok-inspired fashion brand.”
So is the now social justice-minded fashion industry going to help save the planet after this global crisis? Or just, like, hope everyone buys new dresses and bags and shoes to wear to holiday parties this year? If you feel unable to reconcile the group of people in one lane credibly saying, “Hey, this industry is doing irrevocable harm to the planet and its people,” and those in another lane enthusing over all the hundreds or recent fashion week shows from Los Angeles to Milan, you’re not alone.
Previously on Back Row: Sustainable Fashion Is a Luxury. It’s Also a Lie.
“I feel like it's a car that no one has fixed and they're just going to ride it until the wheels fall off,” said Aja Barber of the fashion industry broadly. Barber is a writer and activist and the author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change; Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism. (She would like you to buy her book at your local independent book store, but it is sold out in many of those, so I’m linking to Barnes & Noble.)
She argues that the only way to fix the fashion industry and its ravages on the planet and its people is to fix our culture, which promotes the idea that more is better than less and that corporations should be taken at their word when they claim to be “sustainable.” Too many of us are locked in a cycle of feeling like we need more clothes and that fast fashion stores, given their abundance of choices at low prices, are a reasonable place for us to buy those clothes. (Barber actually counted by hand the quantities of certain items on fast fashion sites; a popular one that claimed to be focused on sustainability was offering 13,333 different dresses – and that’s just dresses.)
Barber’s book is a must-read for anyone wanting to understand the connection between their clothing and human rights. “When it comes to the sustainability conversation, I feel like the industry has kind of been missing this key thing with relatability, where it's just throwing scary facts at people and expecting them to really act instead of being like, look, this is how I played into the system. Here's how you're probably playing into the system. Let's change things,” she told me when I called her this week. “And that doesn't mean you can't like fashion. It just means we probably don't need to buy 68 items of clothing a year.” Barber pinpointed another problem with the current coverage of sustainability: “The fashion industry will be like, ‘Everyone needs to jump on board with sustainability, but also let's totally gatekeep the conversation.’ So no one can get in.”
Here, a condensed version of our chat, lightly edited for clarity.
A lot of brands are advertising how “sustainable” their materials are. (This unsubstantiated corporate bragging is known as greenwashing.) But it’s spoon-fed to publications like Vogue.com and I’m like, why does this trickle down to consumers as gospel?
You can't add sustainability as an ingredient after you've made the recipe. It would be the equivalent of if you baked a cake without an egg and you brought the cake out and then went, oh shit, I forgot to put an egg in it. And then you cracked an egg on top and was like, Yummy. That's kind of what they're doing. It either has to be in the core of your business and the way you do things from the ground up, or isn't there at all. You can't just change fabric and go, “Oh, now we're sustainable.”
You wrote this about fashion magazines: "They, too, have a symbiotic relationship with some of the biggest polluters in the industry, as bottom line they're dependent on advertisers’ dollars. If you piss off your advertisers, it's going to be a struggle for your publication, even when asking those advertisers to lend you clothing for fashion shoots." This is an important point because these are the traditional outlets we turn to for fashion coverage, but they also exist to sell us stuff.
It's a tough one because I think people just shouldn't look to them for the best reporting on this topic. I think that there needs to be some sort of governing body outside of the industry that calls BS on stuff. Because if you put magazines in a position where they have to pick between keeping their lights on or telling the truth about the mess that is the fashion industry, it looks like everyone's picking keeping the lights on. I have seen beautiful reporting in magazines about these issues, but then you turn the page and it's like, We just reported on a garment factory where people are being abused. Now here's 14 new hot items from the brands that are buying from this factory that you need to buy at once.
The younger generation seems to be driving up interest in sustainable fashion, right? They’re shopping on Depop and seem averse to buying anything new.
They're concerned, but at the same time, they're not questioning enough. I feel like the problem right now is that people want to continue to consume at the same rate, they just want to consume differently, and not question why we need to have that many outfits.
What role does social media play in the over-consumption problem? I think many of us can admit from personal experience that Instagram advertising is insanely effective.
I hate when influencers act like they played no role in this. When it comes to placing blame, go after the billionaire first and foremost. But people need to realize that if influencers are selling fast fashion, they are playing a role in it. I've got 247,000 followers on Instagram, and my engagement rate is 4 percent, which is pretty high. But if just 1 percent of people bought an item, and if I had one item in stories to buy every single day – and some people do this – and 1 percent of my readership bought that item, that would be 2,400 items being sold. And then if I did that Monday through Friday, that's well over 10,000 items a week. It really adds up.
If you look at climate change, we hear ad nauseam about different “problem” pillars, right? There’s meat, there’s plastic –
Fashion’s plastic as well.
Right! But I feel like a lot of people don’t see it that way. They will swear off plastic straws, but not give the same consideration to their clothes.
It's because we've devalued the fashion industry while also turning away from the problems within it. Fast fashion has devalued the craftsmanship of garment workers. And we've always sort of had this issue with the patriarchy and [its idea that], [Fashion]’s frivolous and silly. What does it matter if you buy a cheeky little $10 dress? It doesn't have any impact, it's just a silly little purchase. So I think it's actually a greater systemic problem where we don't value garments anymore. We don't value the labor of others. We don't value the materials. And that's what fast fashion has taught us to do. I think it's so much different from something like driving a car or diets, for instance. Food is such a tricky subject to navigate because we need food to nourish our bodies to live, but nobody actually needs 68 new clothing items a year.
But we still will always need clothing.
Yeah, we do. We always will. So the industry will have to exist in some way, but I don't want it to exist in any shadow of its current iteration because it's a monster. I do love the industry, though. And I actually want it to be better. I don't feel like any person should feel like they have no choice but to buy a sweatshop garment.
That's what really frustrates me when I'm buying clothes. I just want to know where my stuff is from. And it's often impossible to know.
Unless a brand is very explicit about telling you, then it is virtually impossible. I read somewhere that a garment within a fast fashion supply chain can pass through 50 hands before it gets to you.
In the beginning of the book you talk about how colonialism is the foundation of the current fashion system. Can you explain this idea?
If we want to look at what really pushed the fashion industry to a place where things sped up dramatically, it was slavery — it was access to cotton at low prices. Look at British colonialism in India. Part of the mission of the East India company was to disrupt the textile trade in India because India was a super power in textiles. The English wanted a cut of that. They wanted to get in and they want it to mess with India's shit. And they did. But then today, we don't really think about the color of people's skin — who gets to do what in the fashion industry. Chances are, if you've bought something from a High Street store, even a mid-range store, if it's not made in the US or in Europe, it was made by a non-white person.
And then of course, to talk about the end of the life cycle, which we only recently started doing – when we donate our clothing to charity, whatever doesn't get sold ends up being dumped on the Global South. And that's, again, countries where non-white people live, particularly Africa. I focus on Ghana in my book. But if you go to Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, you're going to find same systems there.
Charity shops currently receive piles and piles of clothing and 10 to 20 percent of that is going to get sold. The other 80 percent [might] get landfilled. Dr. Robert Bullard’s research showed that the U.S. was intentionally placing landfills next to Black neighborhoods. So if your clothing gets trashed, it's going to end up in a landfill, which is going to pollute a Black person's neighborhood or a poor white person's neighborhood. If it gets packed up on a pallet and sent to Ghana, it's going to end up polluting Ghana. It washes up on the beach. It has filled up the municipal dump years in advance. There are rotting trash mountains. The neighborhood Old Fadama is basically people living on top of clothing and textile waste. It's not charitable – it’s a system of trashing another person's country.
The book includes the statistic that 80 percent of garment workers are women. Why is this so significant?
Fashion is a feminist issue. And if we want to get really intersectional about it, intersectionality is about finding compounding social issues and looking at them through a different lens. So we already know that we live in a society where a woman makes X amount of money in comparison to a man. If women's labor is devalued, and then you have an entire industry where the people that are doing the most backbreaking work are also women, that's a real shitstorm of inequality right there.
You talk in the book about "fast fashion” specifically, and I'm curious if you separate out the Guccis from the H&Ms, or if you see corporate fashion as all kind of the same.
Is luxury inherently better? Of course not. Luxury brands are wasteful. We know that luxury brands can often operate in not-great factories. However, we as a society value our luxury to a point where the life cycle of a luxury product is going to be far longer than a fast fashion garment. If you buy something that is a luxury item that you saved good money for, you're going to take good care of it. And if you decide that it is no longer for you, you're going to resell it to someone else. And it's going to stay in the cycle of use for far longer than a Primark t-shirt.
You suggest a list of questions that people should ask of clothing brands, like, “Is there a garment worker on record that will vouch for this brand and the ways in which the job has positively impacted and enriched their life?” And I'm wondering if you have found such a brand?
Oh yeah. There's this brand Tonlé. They're a sustainable and ethical brand, their garment workers in Cambodia are salaried employees with paid time off, sick days, vacation days, all the things that I never had because I never got a full-time job because I graduated into the gig economy.
Can you talk about how the pandemic exacerbated the problems with unethical fashion, particularly when it comes to human rights?
As the supply chain currently exists, brands have all the power and garment workers in factories have none of the power, and the brands say that they like the system of outsourcing because it allows for freedom and this and that — that is a heaping pile of bullshit. What COVID-19 showed us is, at the end of the day, brands don't do the fair and right thing when given an opportunity to. The factory is out of pocket sometimes with even the material – basically, the brands pay for everything as a bulk package at the end, they don't pay for much upfront, generally. Sometimes they do, but most of the time they don't. And so the factory's already out of pocket for the fabric and materials, not to mention the labor. And so they've got, you know, $2 million worth of your stock and you're basically like, Yeah, I'm just not going to take it. Sorry, shit's on you. And so it just exposed that they do have all the power and when given an opportunity to do the right thing, they don't. Like, these are brands worth billions of dollars. These are brands where their CEO could probably sneeze that amount of money out of his nostril.
What can be done from here? What will lead to change in fashion manufacturing?
It won't be one of those things where it's going to come from the good of anyone's heart because a corporation can only operate in its own best interests. And if that means destroying the planet and treating people badly to turn a quick profit, they're going to continue to do that. But if you're losing consumers because people are going, “You know what? I don't want to shop like this anymore. I want to buy one quality item. And I want to know that the person who made that item was treated well,” they're going to say, “Okay, well, we've got to show them we're going to do better, because we need to win back this part of the market.”
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