How to Quit Fast Fashion, According to Aja Barber – Vogue

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“The future looks both bright and bleak,” Aja Barber writes in her first book, Consumed, as she reminds us that it’s not too late to create an equitable and sustainable fashion industry. But we need to act fast. True to the form that has made Barber’s Instagram account a must-follow for anyone interested in sustainable fashion, her book is not here to pretend the status quo is working for any of us. It’s here to jolt us into action.
Without question, the fashion industry is one of the leading culprits of greenhouse gas emissions (producing 10% of humanity’s carbon emissions, as reported by Business Insider), generating tons of waste, and allowing worker exploitation. In the first few pages of her book, now available in the U.S., Barber makes a point of asking fast-fashion CEOs within the first few pages to imagine what the industry could look like if they were willing to place humanity above profits. Barber remains skeptical of that ever happening, but she’s not going to stop asking. Still, most people who buy her book are individuals not CEOs, and it can be hard for a consumer to know where to begin when it comes to shopping in a more conscious way.
Barber has been building a career out of answering that question. She can effortlessly weave together personal anecdotes with the disheartening historical impacts of colonialism on the modern-day fashion industry one moment, and be laugh-out-loud funny the next. She reminds us that individual choices still matter and offer slivers of optimism amid the sobering reality that if our reliance on fast fashion doesn’t change, the planet is in big trouble. The book is a blueprint for anyone who wants to do better.
Ahead of the book’s release, we talked about the biggest change we should all be making, her own history as a fast-fashion consumer, and why she hopes one day advocating for sustainable fashion won’t be her day job anymore.
Marielle Elizabeth: The first half of Consumed really focuses on context—how we got to this place historically and the state of what modern fashion looks like. Can you share a bit about where we currently are?
Aja Barber: The fashion industry is eating itself, producing more clothing at a rate and price point that is impossible to maintain long-term. If I didn’t dislike these brands and what they were doing to the planet so much, I would almost feel sorry for them, because the only way that they are going to survive is if they rebuild their production model from the ground up. Unfortunately, they have boards that want a profit every single season, and investors who want to profit. You can get a CEO into these brands who is amazing and visionary, but if the board and the investors cannot see the long-term vision, they’ll just oust the CEO [and bring in] someone who will do things the same old way. So for a lot of brands, I actually think they’re in a hard place, because the change that needs to happen isn’t one that’s investor friendly, but at the same time, if they keep going at this rate, they’re going to eat themselves anyway under the climate emergency. There won’t be enough resources for the industry to sustain itself at the same levels that it’s going.
So if undoubtedly something has to change, is the answer government regulation, or does the solution to the fashion crisis come back to individual choice?
You can’t have one without the other, and this is what people get wrong. People will always go back and forth between regulation and individual change, and it’s the argument that no one will win, because you need both. The only way that lawmakers will care about this issue is if we as voters and citizens start to care about the issue, because nobody is going to change anything about this if there is no public outcry. And, yes, part of that also comes with not giving your money to these companies anymore, if you can afford not to. People need to recognize who they are in the system, where they fall, what privileges they have, and what they can do. It’s going to take all hands on deck.
Yes, I think distinguishing our roles in the fashion revolution is so important, because in my opinion, one of the biggest problems is that most people aren’t paid a high enough wage to afford to pay other people a livable wage. How broken is the system that a person working full-time has to buy garments that are made in exploitative conditions in order to afford them?
On the other hand, for those with the financial means to over-consume clothing, how do we begin to undo that impulse to shop? That dopamine hit, that craving to feel better by owning something new?
The first thing I’d say is, don’t beat yourself up, because it’s hard. From the minute we are born, we’re trained to be consumers. That’s the society we live in. I would also say if you’re thinking about quitting some of these cycles, just take a break. Stop allowing yourself to go into the stores that always get you—try it for two weeks, test it out. Give yourself a time when you can say, “I’m not going to go into these stores.” Unsubscribe from all the email lists, take all the apps off of your phone. See what happens.
Finally, track your purchases, track your spending, and also make note of what feelings pushed you to consume when you do spend. Really self-interrogate what’s going on there, because when you do, you might find that maybe you’re not enjoying all of this as much as society tells you you should enjoy it. Maybe this isn’t for you.
I really appreciated the candid nature of the book and how often you share your own failings and flawed shopping habits. You hold yourself accountable, and it adds a beautiful humility to the book.
I never want to sit from a perch of judgment, saying, “I buy these brands and that’s why I’m better than you,” because, one, that’s not true: I still wear my fast fashion. And, two, nobody really likes that person. I want to connect with people, and if you’re going to connect with people, you have to meet them where they’re at. You have to. Oftentimes the barrier for entry for the person who doesn’t feel inside the fashion industry is very high. We are trying to create movements that we want everyone to join.
When digging into your book, it’s clear that the issues facing fast fashion are so deeply entrenched in the industry and in our culture itself. I find myself at times wanting to throw up my hands and say it’s too much, it’s too late, maybe it can’t be fixed. I feel like I understand the problem, but so much so that any action feels inconsequential. What advice would you give to combatting the malaise of personal insignificance?
Stop buying so much. That is the one thing that we can do to disrupt the system, because as long as we say, “There’s nothing I could do about it, might as well go and buy 20 new dresses,” nothing’s going to change. So even if you take it all in and you find it very overwhelming, decreasing your consumption is a very conscious decision you can make in a system that feels like it has run amok.
And when it comes to people who have spent years over-shopping, how does our thinking need to change?
We need to stop thinking that new clothing is needed to have a better life. There are countless examples in the cult-classic films that we love—Clueless, Pretty Woman, The Devil Wears Prada, Funny Face—they all have a makeover scene where suddenly the person who is not accepted and not cool enough does a bunch of shopping, and now everybody’s looking at them differently and treating them differently. But in real life that’s not how it works. Moreover the “need” to get a new outfit for every single occasion, something that is very normalized in our society, is only adding to the problems of fast fashion.
I want to end on this quote: “The future looks both bright and bleak.” Can you talk about the brightness a little bit? Do you think we can fix the fashion industry?
The thing is, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. Because if I’m still doing this, it means that we haven’t fixed the problem. I want to inspire people to collectively fix the problems facing the fashion industry; I want to get money into the hands of people who deserve it—namely, garment workers—and then I want to dip out and write fiction books. I love what I do, but I don’t want to be the warning bell to people for the rest of my life.
The future could be beautiful, because when those small businesses we champion thrive, we all thrive. It helps your community to thrive, because when you spend money locally, most of it stays local, which is actually good for everyone. Everyone should be able to buy clothing with dignity, and everyone should be paid fairly for the work that they do. I think that we can truly have a world with space for that. It’s a world with not so many billionaires at the top, but it’s something I believe is doable. However, right now, if we just all keep spending our money in one direction, we’re not going to change that game at all. I think the future can be so bright for the fashion industry. We can build an inclusive fashion industry that we all believe in. And I want that so badly. And I know you do too.
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