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  • Writer's pictureStephanie Dickson

#019 Aja Barber: on racism, colonialism, consumerism & the fashion industry

How can we stop funnelling money into billionaires’ pockets? What is the link between racism, colonialism, and our current fashion industry? And how can we really move beyond performative allyship? Big questions that we are deep diving into with Aja Barber—writer, stylist, consultant, Instagram influencer, working in the intersections of sustainability and fashion.

Aja Barber is a writer, stylist, and consultant who works in the intersections of sustainability and fashion. She’s been doing the work for a long time with a very engaged and active community of over 230,000. Last year, she had a video on Instagram go viral titled “Why Performative Allyship is Triggering”, where she called out brands and influencers for monetising the Black Lives Matter movement. The video accumulated over one million views.

Aja is known for her honest, unapologetic, no-nonsense view of the world. You can find her words in Eco-Age, The Guardian, CNN among others. She also publishes daily microblogs on Instagram with exclusive content for her patrons via Patreon. And she has a book forthcoming called CONSUMED: On colonialism, climate change, consumerism & the need for collective change.

For speaking truth to power on all things fast fashion and more, Aja Barber is one of our Green Warriors this year. (The Green Warriors list is our annual list of changemakers, this year from around the world and not just in Asia, who are shaking things up on sustainability and modelling the way in their communities, or even on an international level.)

In this interview, we talk about being raised in a consumerist society and breaking free, why we need to shift the system of power and money, creating a more inclusive fashion industry, and how to do the work to move beyond performative actions and truly be an ally. You can listen to the whole conversation on the Live Wide Awake podcast here or read the highlights below.

On our consumerist society…

I think that we are raised in a society that prizes us as consumers and not citizens. We live in a society that doesn’t encourage us to actually think about these things. Because every element of our society encourages us to consume mindlessly. Consumption is such a huge part of being a citizen in our modern world. Consumption is pushed at you at every point of the day. On Instagram, you’re being pushed to buy something. If you get on Facebook, you’re being pushed. You get on social media, the bus, if you open a magazine, if you pass a billboard… so we are raised in a consumerist society. And when you’re raised that way, you don’t think about these things. Because it’s not encouraged.

If it were encouraged, people probably would buy a lot less. And that’s the root of it. It’s even pushed by politicians. They say, when we come out of lockdown, if you save money, it’s your responsibility to buy stuff. Then of course, you see it in movies as well. In any cult film that’s worth its salt, always has a make-over scene. The lead character gets this transformative make-over that involves lots of clothing. And then they’re magically taken more seriously by someone. All of a sudden, everyone’s going to treat you differently, and better. So consumption is insidiously inserted into our society, in a way that doesn’t exactly leave much room for you to question its harms.

On how it’s not poor people keeping fast fashion alive…

One year, I saved all my receipts from a store that I used to shop from a lot. At the end of the year, I tallied them up and wanted to punch myself because I was so mad that I had spent so much money at this store. And there were no purchases that I couldn’t live without.

I think if the vast majority of people who regularly buy fast fashion actually add up their receipts, they’ll find that they’re probably in the same boat. Because there’s this huge misconception that without fast fashion, like, where will poor people shop? But it’s not just poor people who are buying into these systems. And it is not poor people who keep these systems profitable and powerful. A person that lives in poverty in the US makes up less than 1% of the wealth in the US. That’s a fact. So this notion that fast fashion only exists because people are poor? That’s a nonsense narrative, but it gets pushed out a lot.

On oppression and privilege in the fashion industry…

[In my forthcoming book] I write about my own experiences with the industry and I’ve done a few placements. What I found was at fashion magazines was that the system of interning was creating a class divide. Of who could participate in fashion, at that capacity. People ask why magazines are so white. Really, it’s because it attracts a certain class of person, who can afford to work for free, or pennies, for multiple years. When I did my own interning, I was living in New York. I had to save for a year to move up there. I worked nights and weekends to work for free. And I remember another intern telling me that this was her third internship. And I asked this person, how? Because I knew that my money was dwindling. And she was like, “my parents pay for it”. Duh. And I felt so silly in that moment.

Little by little, I began to realised the vast majority of people that I was interning with were from extremely wealthy families. Nobody was having to work nights and weekends. And I just thought this game is so rigged. There’s no way that anyone who isn’t from a certain socio-economic class can actually survive. And this isn’t just the traditional fashion industry, it’s celebrity lines too. I remember a certain celebrity line got sued by their interns. And I just thought, “you are richer than God. Are you kidding me? You use free labour, even though your wealth is noted and legendary!” And I have to say after that experience, I was really turned off of the fashion industry for a while.

On how society doesn’t cater to plus-sizes…

I am plus-sized myself. I’ve always petered the line. For me, if they had a large, or an extra-large, I was good. And I knew that if it’s really small clothing, I wasn’t going to be fitting in it. So I didn’t even question—which is ridiculous—the fact that society conditions us to believe that if you’re not a certain size, it’s your fault. It’s not their fault for not making the clothing, it’s that you should fit into this clothing, and shame on you for not fitting. I bounced through life blissfully not even questioning that. I was the person where, if I went to a sample sale and it was a certain designer, I would just skip past the trousers, go straight for the dresses and the tops… And I should’ve questioned that.

If you’re the person who can go into the store and buy your size, you’re probably not even thinking about the people who can’t. But we all need to because it’s a messed-up system. I don’t even really include plus-sized people in the consumption problem, because the vast majority of the world doesn’t make their size. My plus-sized friends, who are more expansive in size than me, really wear their clothing until it falls apart. Because if you know that there’s only a few people that make trousers that are going to fit you really well? You’re not going to be bagging up your entire wardrobe at the end of every season to get new stuff. And so… Until we get to a place where we can create a more dynamic fashion industry, that serves everyone, we can’t be like, “fashion is for everyone” because that’s just categorically untrue.

On performative allyship and greenwashing from brands…

Black Lives Matter and that period of time was exactly what we all thought it would be. A moment for everyone to look woke, while not actually being woke. In actuality, in order to shift these systems, you need to shift power and money, and we don’t see that happening. It’s like brands greenwashing. If we’re going to get to the real root of the problem? It’s the scale of clothing produced. It is the resources being used, and the amount of stuff that gets incinerated and dumped in the Global South. It seems like every bigger brand that claims that they want to be sustainable refuses to recognise this. No matter how you slice it? It doesn’t matter! Make less stuff.

So it’s the same with inclusion and diversity. If you aren’t shifting the power towards marginalised people, then what are you actually just doing? Trying to make yourself look good? Using our movements as a PR moment, for you to make it seem like your company is a safe and inclusive place? With the black squares during the Black Lives Matter movement resurfacing, some brands really capitalised on a movement about Black people being murdered while mistreating Black people within their organisation. I’m glad they got called out—particularly, I’m talking about L’Oreal with Munroe Bergdorf.

So no, I don’t think anything has changed. It’s performative in so many different ways. Like you see brands posting black squares while dressing Melania Trump. The Trump administration is by far one of the most divisive, racist, bigoted, violent administrations of modern-day history. And Melania fed into his racist nonsense too. She went on talk shows, pedalling the birtherism lie… Anyway, I really respect fashion designers who took a stand and said they wouldn’t dress that administration.

On her no-brand rule on Instagram…

I’m not going to tell you where to shop. I’m going to give you some hard-hitting facts. So you can make your own decision. I’m not going to create an Instagram, which I run for free, to just encourage you to consume more. It’s not beneficial for me to run a platform based on consumption. Nor is it beneficial for the environment. Nor for people on Instagram, where it’s already constant consumption.

My no-brand rule also means you can’t name brands in your comments. People love to snitch tag—which is when I write about something, and then someone comes in and says “that’s right, Zara”. Instead, I want to encourage people to get in this conversation. I don’t want to be the only person pointing to stuff and going, “that’s wrong, and here’s why”. I want people to do that in their own space. Have that conversation on your page, with the consequence of fall out—which does happen. It can be really not fun when you’ve got hundreds of people fighting on your page. So my no-brand rule is a way for me to tell people that if you feel this needs to be taken up with a brand, then you need to take it up in your space.

If there’s a specific brand that we are talking about, and I tagged that brand, then by all means. But I want people to really get away from this idea that you can come to a certain space, expecting this one thing and demanding it. Because I don’t think that that’s really healthy. Boundaries are good for everyone.

On how we can live wide awake…

You can live wide awake by listening to other people. You can’t understand a lot of these conversations without doing a lot of listening. And listening while being vulnerable and taking off your defences. A lot of people enter conversations, waiting for their turn to speak. But if someone’s more marginalised than you, your job there is only to listen. Because chances are if you belong to a dominant system that’s oppressing that person? You get more time to speak anyways.

So when people ask, “how do you understand all these things?” I’ve spent so many years listening to people more marginalised than myself. And I still will, because it’s a journey. There is no summit to doing this work. And conversations surrounding oppression change all the time. You have to just do a lot of listening, to actually understand how to serve the greater good, to serve people. And to understand how to really look at these systems in a way that can help the most amount of people. But if you just go in acting like you know everything? You’re not actually helping anyone. It’s all about your ego.

Three things I’m taking away from this conversation with Aja:

1. No matter how you slice it, we need to produce less stuff. 2. No more performative allyship. We need to do the work to support BIPOC and marginalised people, instead of posting black squares or using hashtags. 3. You can’t understand a lot of these conversations, and how to serve a greater amount of people, without listening. Specifically, listening while being vulnerable by removing your defences.

Listen to the whole conversation with Aja Barber on the Live Wide Awake podcast. Stay connected with Aja, via her Instagram, or her website.

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