Aja Barber is a hero of mine. Not only has she become one of the most outspoken people against fast fashion, but she also uses her platform to talk about fashion as a feminist issue and why, if you are a feminist, you should shop consciously. I recently spoke to Barber about the impact of fast fashion on justice movements from feminism to Black Lives Matter – and why it’s time for brands and influencers who promote them to stand up, accept responsibility, and change.
LIVIA FIRTH: How do you feel right now about everything that’s happened surrounding the pandemic and the resurgence in the justice movement with Black Lives Matter?
AJA BARBER: I feel hopeful. I hope that people can keep the momentum going, because part of the issue is that we have short memories. We’re all fired up now but where will we be a year down the line? Will we just drop the conversation or will we continue to allow it to guide us into a future that we can all feel a part of? If anything positive could come after such a terrible thing, which is Covid-19, it’s that we were all forced to slow down and think about what we were doing and how we shop.
On your platform on Patreon.com, you define yourself as a writer and fashion consultant with expertise in race, intersectional feminism, and fashion. How, as active citizens, do we have to consider all these elements? In many people’s minds, sustainability always translates to environmental impact only.
Unfortunately, many people also think sustainability is unapproachable and only accessible to the wealthy. It’s a huge misconception that in order to have a sustainable wardrobe, you have to buy the most expensive items. I try to help people think about these things in a way they can apply it to their lives and realize that sustainability is for everyone. For so long, the fashion industry has maintained racism, colonization, and feminism as separate. In actuality, the fashion industry, especially in certain companies, as we found recently, is very white. Sometimes people of color can feel isolated. Our clothing is manufactured along the same colonialist lines that have existed since the beginning of colonialism. When you examine all of these issues, there is so much room for discussion, so why not talk about it so we can have a sustainable future where everyone feels like they can belong?
Exactly. Let’s start unpacking this. Let’s talk about race.
As a black, lower-middle-class girl from Virginia, there were not a lot of outlets for me or spaces where I felt like people were looking for my voice. The time that’s come now is important. Through the Black Lives Matter movement, people are starting to listen and brands have decided that Black Lives Matter is finally an acceptable message (the movement started in 2013 and for the first seven years it was considered controversial). Many brands decided that they were going to jump in and start posting their black squares [on Instagram]. Then former employees began exposing prejudices within those companies. People began speaking the truth about a lot of operations. It appeared like the fashion industry was once again completely out of touch. It also looked like brands were attempting to capture the zeitgeist for marketing, but not walk the walk.
Obviously, the Black Lives Matter movement is the primary focus right now. Meanwhile, garment workers in Bangladesh are still starving…
As a marginalized person, I stand with all marginalized people. If a company is claiming to care about the things that affect me while mistreating garment workers, I’m sorry, but I won’t buy from them. These garment workers exist on starvation wages. Sometimes, on social media, brands try to talk like they’re an individual instead of a corporation. That’s extremely dangerous. The corporation can only act in its own best interests. People talk about social justice with far-left views. Then, in another breath, they will talk about shopping at Forever 21. It shocks me. How is it that they can’t apply their leftist values to what they’re putting on their backs and understand how it’s harming other people? If we had to look people in the eye – had to face the human side of who’s making our clothing – I think people would look at it differently. You know those messages they put on cigarette packs to dissuade you from smoking? What if they did that with fashion garments? You pick up a piece and it has a tag saying how the factory building collapsed. Unless people face the reality of the problem, they won’t make concrete changes.
One thing that bothered me during the Me Too movement was that many celebrities stepped out to say that they were against sexual abuse and harassment, but they were the same influencers stepping out on a red carpet promoting a dress. Do you know how many garment workers are sexually exploited, abused, and beaten up every single day? By buying these fast fashion brands they are perpetrating this.
I think some people don’t understand how clothing is made. They don’t realize that most of the clothing they wear is handmade. There is a lack of education. Furthermore, the fashion industry has always been shrouded in mystery. That has not helped the general public to be informed about such matters. Once they know, they can make a decision for themselves.
There are consumers who argue that they buy fast fashion because it’s all they can afford.
People love to pick the poverty line with me. The average garment worker lives on US $40 a month. Technically, they are the poorest people in this equation. We should put their needs first. If we’re talking about poverty and income levels, why are we not looking at the person who truly has less?
That’s so true. I never used to think about the link between fashion and human rights, until I went to Bangladesh and met with the women at the factory. It made me question, am I exploiting these women by buying at Primark or H&M?
That’s the million-dollar question. I feel that as long as the major fast fashion companies have a stranglehold on where the money is, they will not be inclined to change anything. I tell people to start thinking about where they put their money. Work with a smaller factory. There are all sorts of beautiful companies that manufacture in India and Bangladesh. I urge people to start supporting small businesses that look after their staff.
What’s your vision for the future of fashion?
I want a future where there are no fast fashion billionaires. You hear these companies say, “Oh, we can’t do anything about this.” But they can. They can take all that money sitting in the bank and invest it in the places where they made that money. They can own the factories and make sure that people get paid a living wage. I also want to see the average consumer supporting small businesses and those that give back to the community. We should create an app that sends a trigger every time you purchase a fast fashion garment so it instead donates $20 to a garment worker.
As a feminist, what would you say to girls who are ashamed to wear the same thing twice?
Nobody “cool” makes fun of other people’s clothing. Do your own thing and recognize that if you stay the course, the people who do make you feel small eventually come around and want to be your friend. If someone is making fun of your clothing, that’s because they don’t have anything else to talk about.
Originally published in the July/August 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia