Colonialism and fast fashion are inextricably linked – Aja Barber explains how

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

The writer, slow fashion consultant, stylist and speaker doesn’t hesitate to grapple with big, uncomfortable questions that hold those in power to account. This is how she begins her first book Consumes – with a direct address to CEOs of fast fashion brands.

“At the end of the day, it’s their mess. Whoever made five billion dollars is the person who has the most responsibility for cleaning up this, ”she said. Refinery29 Australia on Zoom.

“For anyone who fights because [they] can’t change [their] wardrobe overnight, I wanna be like, ‘hey look, you’re not a bad person, there are things that we have definitely deliberately turned our eyes on, but at the end of the day this is This guy’s problem is absolutely more than yours; he’s just hiding behind a bunch of money.

You can hear the exasperated tone of Barber’s voice when he talks about the male CEOs running these companies (95% of global CEOs are men).

She points to a concept by Naomi Klein that suggests that if a business were human, they would act like a psychopath. Yet on the other hand, through social media, we have a fictionalized tale of brands posing as people who can be identified and who are likable.

Stop trying to humanize yourself, you are a company with a lot more tentacles than an octopus.

Aja barber

When H&M topped the Fashion Revolution Transparency Index this year, the internet criticized the brand for twisting the story to appear sustainable and ethical – when in reality the index only reviews brands with sales of $ 400 million (£ 292.5 million). ) one year.

“So we did what we did on the Internet and dragged them around. It was the first time I saw them really apologize, ”Aja explains. “But even in [its] apologies [it] tried to give the impression that [it’s] just a little human instead of having a [massive] teams working on sustainable development issues within the brand. It’s like, stop trying to humanize yourself, you’re a company with way more tentacles than an octopus.

Barber talks about these issues as someone who has been deep in the clutches of fast fashion. In her book, there is a chapter where she talks about living with her parents and not making a lot of money, and finding out that she had given 10% of her paycheck that year to just one company. fast fashion. Now, on the other side of consumption, she knows how better off she is.

“Do it for yourself. Because all this consumption is not really good for us. As someone who has lived this way and doesn’t anymore, I can tell you [that I’m] 150% happier I spend less money on clothes now because I never needed to buy so many clothes. When a person participates in this system in a way that absolutely supports it, [you should do] for yourself because there is a better way to live your life.


Classism, racism and sexism are inextricably linked with the ethics of fast fashion. About 80% of garment workers are women, mainly from southern countries. So why has the relationship between fast fashion and colonialism been left out of our conversations so far?

“The vast majority of the clothes you buy in multinational stores have been brought to you by people from traditionally looted countries in the South. They received an unfair salary… and because of it, it causes an ecological crisis. It hurts people… it ends up being fatal, ”says Barber, referring to the Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 that killed 1,134 people.

Our clothing donation process is also deeply connected with privilege. “The average fast fashion consumer buys 68 items a year. Each season you are encouraged to clean your wardrobe and donate it to charity … your clothes either go to the landfill – remember that they will never be placed in the middle of a wealthy person’s yard. », Explains Barber.

At the start of your fast fashion cycle, it hurts a non-white person in the Global South. At the end of your fast fashion cycle, it hurts 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 the clothes are actually sold), the remaining 80% is either landfilled or packaged and sent back to the countries of the South where people have to deal with your clothes that they don’t even want.

From production to elimination, our fast fashion habits continue a cycle of oppression. “At the start of your fast fashion cycle, it hurts a non-white person in the Global South. At the end of your fast fashion cycle, it hurts a non-white person in the Global South, ”Barber says emphatically.


Barber’s use of the terms “traditionally looted countries” and “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. “Moreover, the idea that these southern countries we are talking about are underdeveloped is wrong. We know that there were many extremely advanced societies in various parts of Africa; a lot of medical technology can be traced to places in the south. They are not underdeveloped civilizations in any way. These are civilizations that have been plundered by the Global North. “

“There is this notion that I hear all the time, ‘Well, that’s a good salary in this country, they should be happy for a job.’ Find out why you think this person should be paid pennies for back-breaking work that you never want to do. Once we have done that and removed the diapers, there is a rich history there: of theft, theft, and oppression.


We end our video call at 9:30 am its time in London. After diving deep into colonialist fashion practices and the damage done by the industry, I feel pretty deflated. I ask her if, after all she knows, she still loves fashion.

“I do, but I find it hard to hate the current fashion industry,” she admits. “Today’s fashion industry has short-term memories. If I didn’t like fashion, I wouldn’t write about this stuff because on the current path the fashion industry eats itself… I would like the industry to run away.

But Barber is optimistic about the future and what our fashion industry might look like one day. “I would like the industry giants to lose their power because they abuse it. I would like the main street to be radically transformed, ”she says.

“The main street of tomorrow has an independent sustainable store, it has a bigger brand that is also ethical and sustainable, it has a community workshop on repairing your clothes, it also has a shoemaker so you can get your shoes repaired. . This is what I want the main street to look like.

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

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