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How our cheap clothing perpetuates colonialism
Aja Barber explains how the fast fashion industry punishes the people who have the least to do with creating it
Welcome to Gen Dread, a newsletter about how the climate crisis is making us feel, why that’s happening, and what we can do about it. Subscribe now to find community, comfort, and practical coping and acting strategies from experts all around the world.
Meet Aja Barber
She’s a fierce critic of the fast fashion industry and how its racist and colonial systems are perpetuating the climate crisis. If our conversation below feels as eye-opening to you as it did for us, pick up the book Aja recently wrote about this issue: “Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism”. It’s divided into two halves: the “learning” half, where she details the deep and alarming toxicity of fast fashion, and the “unlearning” half, where she explains why we consume the way we do, and how we can opt out of these systems.
We think that’s a pretty rad way to go about things, so this week we bring you the first part of our conversation with Aja, which explores the problems with fast fashion. Next week, be sure to catch Part 2 for concrete tips for changing your shopping habits.
So, wait: what does my H&M shopping spree have to do with climate?
GEN DREAD: A lot of us have been conditioned (or perhaps brainwashed) to see retail therapy as an act of self care and a way to take care of our mental health.
AJA BARBER: Oh, hell yeah! All the films that were cult classics growing up have that scene. From Pretty Woman, to The Devil Wears Prada, to She's All That: the main character starts out as an ugly duckling. Then they have this makeover scene that always involves lots of shopping, and then all of a sudden everybody's treating them differently. We don't want to say that we internalize that…but we totally internalize that.
GD: For those who haven't read your book or given this much thought, what’s the connection between fast fashion and climate injustice?
AB: The fast fashion system is contributing to a large percentage of carbon. But the problem isn't just the production of the pieces, or the growing of the materials, or the transportation of the pieces, or the fact that if you buy a dress in a store, that dress might have visited more countries than you did last year just to arrive in that store: it’s also the labour abuses that largely impact non-white women of colour in the global south. 80% of the textile industry is poor women. And at the end of the supply chain, there's a waste stream that’s rather large because the fashion industry is producing over a hundred billion garments every single year, which is 13 times the human population in garments.
Every element of this system, whether it’s the start or the production – like the Citarum River in Indonesia, the world's most polluted river because of the factory runoff of clothing factories – or the end of the supply chain where we donate our clothing and it somehow ends up in someone's backyard in Ghana, polluting their beach – is a pollution issue. These are what I call colonial waste sites, which is where a lot of our waste goes. The system of donating clothing at the rate we're buying clothing means that things are not getting resold. They're being packed up in a pallet and shipped to countries in the global south, where they’re also not being resold. Instead, they’re just becoming waste and burden and pollution.
And then on top of that, big box brands are incinerating clothing they can't sell to the tune of millions of garments.
If we are hurtling toward climate crisis at the rate that those of us who believe scientists know we are, we're going to be looking at scarcity of materials and things like cotton and water. It’s just a giant mess.
Okay, but I can’t afford expensive clothes.
GD: As you mentioned, a huge interlocking component of the climate justice issue is racism. How do our shopping habits perpetuate racist systems and contribute to the oppression of people of colour?
AB: Start to finish, the system exploits non-white people. Most of the time, your clothing is made by nonwhite hands in the global south. It’s a linear system: production, consumption, end of life cycle – and ultimately it’s also going to end up in a brown or Black person's backyard in the global south, polluting their environment. It’s a racist system built on years of colonialism. And yet another example of the people who have the least to do with the climate crisis being harmed the most. Most of the garment workers who work within the fashion supply chain cannot even afford the clothing they're producing.
People say it's classist to critique these systems because “oh, you just don't like poor people”. You hear this a lot. But they're deliberately obscuring the facts of the system: the person making the clothing is actually more impoverished than the person buying it.
Poverty in our society is a real systemic thing. But people who really live on the lines of poverty aren’t sitting on Twitter arguing all day about how it's their right to do a haul from Shein. In not discussing wealth honestly within our society, we now can't even get to a place where we can say, actually, this person over here has a responsibility to buy differently. The single parent who has to get school uniforms from a place that probably isn't that ethical, but that's their one option? The responsibility isn’t going to lie with them in the same way. But the person who can afford to buy an entirely new wardrobe because they're going on vacation? Actually, you do have some responsibility.
You might not think that you're the person, but if you can follow trends in such a way where you're donating a lot of clothing every year to a charity shop…you're definitely the person. Obviously, these systems don't change with individual action alone, but if people aren't galvanized to even consider the ways in which they play into these systems, how will they be inspired to push towards the biggest change we need with legislation? Nobody is going to regulate an industry that everybody is perfectly okay with. If we're all still participating in it, no politician is going to be like, “well, all my constituents love Zara, so you know what, let's destroy Zara.”
GD: Was there a moment of epiphany for you when you realized you were participating in these destructive systems?
AB: There were all these small moments of me just starting to feel ickier and ickier.
There were years where I wasn't making living wages in the D.C. area. I was making less money than anyone I knew. I couldn't afford to move out of my parents’ basement. Then, to soothe my bad feelings about these things that weren’t accessible to me that should be accessible to everyone – the security of buying a home or starting a family – I was leaning into fast fashion because of those other things I couldn't fix. Like, I might not ever be able to get on the property ladder or have a family…but you know what I can do? Buy a dress.
So I was looking around and going, “oh, well that's really nice if you can afford it, but I don't make that much money.” But I was giving a LOT of money to H&M. That dress that I said I couldn't afford? Maybe I could have afforded it if I hadn't bought 17 dresses I really didn't need from the fast fashion store. The reality is that in our society, more people fall in that particular situation than people want to admit. But we're like, “well, I'm not a high earner”. No, you’re not! So why are you buying this much clothing, cosplaying like a rich person who has endless options? Endless options that come from someone else working in a sweatshop are not actually endless options – that’s you perpetuating a terrible system.
When I look back on my own participation, I was always like, “wow, how do they get these prices so cheap?!” I don't think enough people really ask that. We just put our heads down and buy it. But I couldn't drop it. So back in my twenties I was like, “I'm gonna get a sewing machine and learn to sew!” Well, it turns out it's really hard! But people will walk into stores and be like, “I’m not paying money for that, I could make that!” And it’s like, no, you can't actually. You can't make it because I can't make it because it's hard. I would go to the fabric store and buy from the scrap pile and that scrap fabric would cost me $14, right? And that's just the fabric. We're not even talking about the labour and the hours I would spend making something that wouldn't even be wearable 9 out of 10 times.
That got me thinking that there's no way H&M could be selling these dresses for $10 without someone being exploited. Just the fabric itself should cost more than that.
Then I volunteered at a charity shop, which really put me off everything. Every day, the piles of clothing donation bags would be almost up to the ceiling. Just a mountain of clothing! We wouldn’t put anything out in the store that was stained or wasn't in perfect condition. The stuff we were putting out was pretty close to new, so 90% of that donated stuff we were passing on to someone else. I began to think, hey, we are not unique in this. There’s no way that this isn't happening in thousands of other charity shops. If we are getting this many donations, what does that mean for the world? I would look at store windows and think, all of this is going to be trash one day, and it's going to be someone else's problem. I knew in my heart of hearts that stuff doesn’t just “disappear”. It’s gotta go somewhere.
Stay tuned – next week we’ll be back with Part 2 of this conversation where Aja will offer practical advice for folks who want to hop off the vicious cycle of fast fashion.
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We are learning just how much climate change impacts the physical and natural world around us—but how is it impacting our emotional well-being and mental health? How can we address the mounting mental health challenges that are speeding our way in a warming world? Our own Britt Wray will be sharing her knowledge and exploring these topics in a keynote session at #APA2023!
‘Till next time!