By Aja Barber
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A call to action for consumers everywhere, Consumed asks us to look at how and why we buy what we buy, how it’s created, who it benefits, and how we can solve the problems created by a wasteful system.
We live in a world of stuff. We dispose of most of it in as little as six months after we receive it. The byproducts of our quest to consume are creating an environmental crisis. Aja Barber wants to change this–and you can, too.
In Consumed, Barber calls for change within an industry that regularly overreaches with abandon, creating real imbalances in the environment and the lives of those who do the work—often in unsafe conditions for very low pay—and the billionaires who receive the most profit. A story told in two parts, Barber exposes the endemic injustices in our consumer industries and the uncomfortable history of the textile industry, one which brokered slavery, racism, and today’s wealth inequality. Once the layers are peeled back, Barber invites you to participate in unlearning, to understand the truth behind why we consume in the way that we do, to confront the uncomfortable feeling that we are never quite enough and why we fill that void with consumption rather than compassion. Barber challenges us to challenge the system and our role in it. The less you buy into the consumer culture, the more power you have. Consumed will teach you how to be a citizen and not a consumer.
NOTE ON THE US EDITION
Hello there, Reader,
I’m an American but I’m based in London. What that means is some of the language and rhetoric you’ll see here might pertain to the UK and some might pertain to the US. You get both—lucky you! Sometimes I code switch; sometimes I use facts and figures from both places in the same section, sometimes I talk about one or the other. Language is flexible, and all the stats here are verifiable. Roll with me!
MY LETTER TO THE FAST FASHION CEOS
Hello there, my dudes,1
Aja Barber here.
I’m one of many of us with platforms, telling my following and anyone who will listen to not support your brands and your businesses anymore and to seek alternative options (if they can). I hope you read this book, and I hope you know that I have no plans of stopping until something changes. Or I die. But the women in my family tend to live long, healthy lives, so I might just be here for a while. That is, unless the climate emergency kills us all (enjoy your underground bunkers, dudes).
I wanted to let you know that, upon publication of this book, I will have donated $10,000 of my own hard-earned money to both garment worker unions and organizations at the end of your supply chain. I am not a billionaire (but most of you are). I am not even a millionaire (but most of you are). I’m an individual who put way too much of my money into your pockets for far too long, when it should have been in the garment worker’s pocket all along.
But back to you.
Every single day, you have plenty of opportunities to do the right thing. And the power with which to do it. And you choose not to.
You could pay more money for your clothing at the factory, agreeing on an absolute minimum for certain items at cost, which would eliminate the race to the bottom globally.
You could give your money directly to garment worker unions and stop union busting.
You could clean up the waterways that your clothing factories are spewing waste into at an accelerating rate.
You could simply choose to make less stuff and stop pushing consumers to buy more of it through manipulative and expensive marketing (and perhaps consider, if you didn’t spend those seven- or eight-figure sums on pushing products, where that money could go—yes, you guessed it, to the people who created your products in the first place).
Of course, all of this looks like smaller profit margins for you, but let me tell you, it looks like a better and more sustainable world for everyone else.
We all know this planet has far too much stuff, and that’s a problem you’ve created—one that is harming the people, the climate, and the planet.
Every year, month, day, and even hour that you choose not to do these things, you are willingly turning away from the problem you have created and profited almightily from. Some of you have so much money that you could give away 90 percent of it and never run out of money in your lifetime.
So that’s what I challenge you to do.
Use your money to clean up your mess. Use your enormous fortunes to make this system better for everyone. Step away from this slash-and-burn cycle. Stop with the “cute” recycling bins in stores, which your market research has taught you only incentivize consumers to buy more. Cut it out with the sustainable lines that account for less than 1 percent of your business. Reform your entire business from top to bottom—from how you treat people at the bottom right through to the growth targets you set yourself. Think about other growth targets, like 0 percent carbon emissions. First person to use their own money to do this wins, and I’ll stay off your back (until you do something else crappy). The days of hand-over-fist profit over humanity are over. It’s kind of a bad look.
I still believe you might have a smidgen of humanity left in you, behind those piles of money you are so keen to grow, with no real purpose other than capitalist ambition. So, prove it. Because here’s the thing: you can’t buy integrity.
Now read on.
1 It’s safe to address you as “dudes” because 95 percent of you are men (according to “The Route to the Top 2018” report by Heidrick and Struggles), which is frankly a problem, but that’s for another book.
“Every consumer has the right to know who produces their clothing and under what conditions, whether it be labor conditions or environmental, just like the ingredients written on the food packaging that you buy.”
—Anannya Bhattacharjee, Asia Floor Wage Alliance, and Garment and Allied Workers Union
Welcome to Consumed. This is a book about stuff (particularly apparel) and why we need less of it, and what information you need in order to climb out of this mess.
The book is divided into two sections: part 1 is everything you need to know, but maybe didn’t (I mean, I didn’t know either until a short while ago) about how we got here, and why this problem is historical and endemic and tied down to oppression along the way. It will get heavy, but we will hear from the people who need to be heard.
In part 2 I address you. Hi, consumer of stuff! It isn’t your fault that overconsumption has become a part of our culture. The likelihood is that you do it, just like I did, because you’ve been taught to. Who else is going to change this system other than you and me?
SUSTAINABILITY AND ME
How did I get into this conversation in the first place?
From a very young age, I understood the power of sartorial choice. When I got to high school, my passion had turned from an interest in fitting in through material items and consumption into a genuine love of fashion, but I was also very aware of my placement in life. I knew there was very little room for Black girls in the fashion industry, but my progressive (though not that progressive) parents had taken the approach to education that many an ethnic parent has taken. I knew that in our society you need a degree to do anything so, gosh darn it, I did my time. And even though it was abundantly clear to me that working in fashion was so out of my reach (I mean, at the time, the Parsons School of Design in New York was three times the cost of my yearly university tuition; it seemed like a no-win game), that didn’t stop me from trying. I always kept my eye out, read everything I could, and kept an ear to the ground. I began to find my people through various fashion boards, where commenters from all over the world would weigh in on various subjects and give insight into fashion trends I had very little access to in northern Virginia.
During my sophomore year of university, my older sister (similar to many other twenty-somethings) decided to make a move to New York City, and I helped her, driving up with her and another friend. Once we had settled her into her dingy and overpriced new living space in Queens, we set out into Greenwich Village for food, drinks, and debauchery. That night, we ended up in a bar on the Lower East Side, catching up with a friend of a friend whom we happened to bump into on the street. At the next table over, there was a birthday party going on, and I quickly spotted an editor of a magazine I used to read, Lucky. Never one to miss a moment, I slid up to her and said, “I think I know you from a magazine. You work for Lucky, right?” It was Andrea Linett, the founding creative director of Lucky, and she was kind and gracious, and she told me to get in touch if I was interested in interning. I didn’t even realize how generous she was being at the time, but I did think to myself: Fuck an internship, I need a job. How does anyone work for free, no matter how fun it may be? I’m just acknowledging this now, but that was the beginning of me questioning the mere idea of internships (despite the fact that I would, in fact, intern in the future; see here).
While the concept of interning seemed to me to make it impossible, I still regret not emailing to stay in touch. I also still remember that emotion of being starstruck and feeling as though anything can happen in cities. You can meet a fashion editor you really admire on a random night out on the Lower East Side. But that’s totally why people who live in certain metropolitan areas, and have a certain socioeconomic status, always have an advantage over those that don’t when it comes to certain industries. Because you have to be in the right place for things to line up, even if by happenstance.
One thing my parents agreed that I would be allowed to do was study abroad and, lucky for me, my school had an abundance of programs to pick from. I made a list of my top cities (Paris, Rome, Tokyo, London), listing the pros and the cons of the programs, but eventually settled on London, because I already had friends in the city (from traveling) and already spoke the language. (This is honestly one of the most sloth-like, most American things I’ve ever typed about myself… but no one can drag you for it if you drag yourself—just kidding, drag away.) As someone who’s always been aware of social settings, I was quick to realize that going to study in a foreign city where I already had a handful of friends would only help me to get the most out of the experience.
THE RUDE YEARS
I visited London in February of 2000, and it looked like a very optimistic, bright place. Electronic music was king, and London was the place to be. I remember the excitement of riding the Tube. I remember how everyone in London looked far cooler than my peers in the US, and I remember the casual attitude toward sex, drugs, and alcohol among my peers, which seemed alluring. I was home. I had to get back here as soon as possible, even if I couldn’t attend school here full-time.
London was happening.
Despite being a pretty hard worker, I was never a scholarly type, and the only way I got through university was thinking about all the things I would do once I was able to leave. I frankly couldn’t wait for my life to begin, and a semester abroad in London was exactly the way forward.
My school offered a “Work Abroad” program, and that sounded right up my alley. You mean they were going to give me credit to lay the groundwork for a career in another country? I’ll take that, thank you. But trying to work out where I could work and make it work was a whole different issue…
A few summers earlier, passing through London Heathrow with my dad and my sisters, I had dipped into a WH Smith in the airport terminal to pick up an armload full of British fashion magazines. They introduced me to brands I hadn’t heard of, but the real kicker was that UK fashion magazines always came with little extras. That summer, a magazine that is no longer in circulation and had been reissued from the sixties, Nova, caught my eye. They were offering a weird little tank top. Yup. That’s how abundant clothing is and was.
Once aboard our flight from London to Barcelona, I tore into my stash and began to flip through Nova. It had good fashion layouts and articles from notable people in London, and on one page there was an advertisement full of fun young people wearing bright clothing adorned with beautiful minimal line drawings. It was a barbecue scene on a rooftop. Why are Londoners just so fun? I thought to myself. The advertisement was for a little streetwear brand called Rude, and I was immediately obsessed. What I didn’t know at the time was that the people in that advertisement weren’t just models, they were two people who would become two of my very best friends, Rupert and Abi. While I sat on that flight, scheming about how I could jump into this ad and join the party, I was cementing a crucial bit of my future that would bring me to this moment where I am today, sitting on my couch in South London, typing to you. Because some things are just meant to be.
From my history of letter writing to CEOs and companies (when I was a child, I was the go-to letter writer for my family whenever we had something we needed to say to a corporation; this also made me realize how much money these corporations had to give away), I knew how to craft a good letter. I had searched the Rude website and found a contact email for a person named Abi. I imagine it looked something like this:
Hello! My name is Aja Barber. I’m a student in the US who has the fantastic opportunity to do an internship in the UK for a semester. I’m a big fan of your brand. Currently I am in school, but I also do promotions for a record label. [I did… I was the DC street-team rep for Astralwerks, and it was great, all the free gigs and free CDs you could want.] In exchange for all the free clothing of my choosing, I would love to come and work for your brand as your in-house PR. Please find my attached résumé. Look forward to hearing from you.
And Abi wrote back something like:
Great! When can you start?
I couldn’t believe it! This cool brand that I was really into was going to let me come and work in their head office? Well, it’s all about moxie, kids. (And a lot of things lining up for me in the right way… some of which came from moxie, some of which came from a boatload of privilege.) Moxie is a funny thing: not too much of it, because that turns people off, but using just enough in the right moment can be one of the better decisions of your life. Seventeen years later, Rupert told me that when Abi announced that she had agreed to take on some random student from the United States off of one email, he asked her, “Okay, but are you mad? Some weird American writes you an email and you’re like ‘sure’?”
I knew several families who lived in London, but I knew of one family in Hackney whom I always had a lot of fun with, and I decided I would ask them if I could rent a spare room for the semester. I didn’t know much about Hackney, besides the fact that people said it was “a bit rough,” which sounded perfect. I wanted the real experience. If I was going to go to a place, I really wanted to live it and immerse myself. And moving to Navarino Road would provide just that experience (today, Navarino Road is actually a pretty upmarket location, but at the time people still called it “rough”). Upon hearing back that, yes, they did have a room, and I was free to take it for a small fee, I clasped my hands happily. It was all coming together.
Roughly two months later I sat aboard the most turbulent flight to this day I’ve ever flown on. The jumbo jet bounced up and down like a tennis ball against the night sky’s racket. I was pretty sure I was going to die, and I thought to myself, God, if I survive this, I know London will be worth my while. By the time the turbulence decided to stop making me pray for my life, I peered out of the plane window and was totally in love. I’ve never felt more like “I’m home” to a place I had never spent extended time in. Sometimes you just know.
The weekend before I started at Rude, I went to scope where exactly the studio was based so I wouldn’t be late on my first day (gotta make a good impression). In those days, Spitalfields Market existed pre-development and gentrification. The neighborhood—Shoreditch—was, frankly, rough. Half the buildings were abandoned, and one could describe Shoreditch circa 2003 as a post-industrial wasteland. But it was also a total playground for creative people, and man, did they flock there. My partner once described Shoreditch then versus now; he said: “When you were hanging out in Shoreditch, it was kind of wanky but full of beautiful people, and some of them might be wearing lampshades on their heads as part of an artsy music video. Today it’s still wanky but full of beautiful people, and so many of them are posing for Instagram shots with iced coffee because no artist can afford it anymore.”
Shoreditch has always been a bit of a joke for the hipsters, and I was happily one of them. When I arrived at the Rude building the following Monday morning on a damp January day, I rang the buzzer and was let in. This studio was like no place I had ever seen before in my life. I could tell immediately it was a place of creativity and joy. I couldn’t believe I got to work there.
The sum of what I know about clothing production was learned at Rude. The advantage of doing a work placement with a small company is that you get to have a hand in everything. You get to be present at meetings and learn about the ins and outs in a way that bigger companies rarely provide. Rupert and Abi were generous when it came to including me in interesting discussions, and they were good at giving power to those within the company and delegating responsibility and credit. One graphic designer had a lot of work on her plate and showed me how to cut out images on Illustrator to help her with the catalogue for spring/summer 2004. I had never even opened Illustrator before, and there I was using it and getting a quick crash course. I was invited to my first ever trade show in Battersea Park, so I could understand the full process of how a small streetwear brand meets buyers and sells to different vendors.
When Rude opened a store on nearby Hanbury Street, I learned how to stain floors (sometimes I still wander into that shop today, look down at the well-worn floors, and smile to myself, remembering that I did that eighteen years ago). In the store you could get any of their designs printed onto a t-shirt, or use a design of your own, and they also sold a main line of clothes. One of my favorite details of all the Rude collections was that all the clothing from a single season matched with the other pieces. You could pair literally every item together and make a bunch of different outfits. I call it “getting dressed quickly and effectively.”
Getting the store ready was a feat. I talked on the phone with countless PRs ahead of our launch and became known as “that chatty American girl.” Rude had a ton of ready-made designs with simple line drawings, which was our signature. But our idea of printing made-to-order t-shirts was actually pretty out-of-the-box, and few people were doing it at the time. (Today, almost twenty years later, a famous chain has a similar operation at their Oxford Street shop, but their price point is far cheaper than Rude’s because of exploitation within their supply chain.) When your Rude t-shirt was ready to go, we placed it in our signature pizza box.
All of Rude’s clothing was made in Portugal, ethically, and the quality was impeccable. Most of my favorite pieces were made from cotton or linen, and the garments I acquired during my time at Rude I would go on to wear for the rest of my twenties until I could no longer fit a size UK14/US10. There were some mistakes, though, because when the factory messed up orders, they really messed up. One season they used cheap zippers in the dresses and skirts instead of the requested YKK zippers. YKK (which stands for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha) is a Japanese company and the largest zipper manufacturer in the world. While monopolies aren’t always the best thing for a healthy economy, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who wouldn’t say YKK’s zippers are sturdy and reliable. That entire season we got tons of skirts returned with broken zippers. But the absolute worst was when some poor woman got stuck in one of our dresses in the fitting room. Abi and I ended up having to cut her out of the dress, which couldn’t have been a fun experience for her.
The moral of the story: don’t cut corners. (This was something the factory decided to do.) But it’s little things that you think don’t matter that absolutely do and can ruin your selling season for a portion of your inventory. Even if you get your money back from the factory, that’s still money lost for an entire season, which you can’t pay your staff or yourselves out of. This was a lesson in quality which always stuck with me.
But there were also lessons in sustainability that I learned. The thing is, the legendary waste that we hear about within the fashion industry is completely counterproductive, and the industry learns nothing from the ways in which ethical brands have always operated. It’s not cool or practical to waste tons of fabric and, if your budget is limited, you can’t afford to waste it. Rude was a waste not, want not operation. When there was a leftover bolt of brown cotton denim-like fabric delivered to the office, from a sample that was never put into production, that bolt of fabric hung out in the studio until Abi decided what we were going to do with it. Throwing it away was never on the table. Eventually we put the bolt to use.
One day Abi decided we should make some bags to give away with purchases in our shop. At the time no one was giving away free tote bags because much of the world was still championing plastic. Of course, we have a free tote problem now, but… if it’s made of the leftover end of a fabric roll (deadstock), I still see no problem with it.
Another trainee and I were put to work making the bags. We came up with a very quick design that took five minutes to zip through on a sewing machine. They were tacky looking but charming, with fabric fringe hanging off the sides. Then we had an idea. We had learned that when you screen-print, there’s often a lot of ink left over on your screen. If you’re just washing the screen immediately in between colors and prints, you’re actually washing a lot of that extra ink straight down the drain. We would take those bits of fabric that would be turned into tote bags and allow the screen-printer to print on them using leftover ink on the screen. You’d end up with one of our signature prints on your free shabby tote bag. No one was really doing this sort of thing at the time, and it was a bit of an extra treat, which would always delight customers.
Mostly, I learned how small brands often operate on razor-thin margins with their cash flow, and how hard it is sometimes to just make it work. Doing wholesale with big-name department stores is beyond challenging for small brands. You’ve got a pretty tiny window to deliver your inventory to the vendor, and if you miss that window, all your merchandise gets returned to you. Sometimes this can occur halfway through the “selling season,” which can make it difficult for you to figure out how to sell additional pieces you hadn’t planned on having in your possession (this point can also be used in the conversation about moving toward a seasonless fashion calendar—see chapter 4). Oh, and a big department store can reject your goods for any reason at any time.
Rude was the first job I had ever had that I actually missed once my time was up. As cheesy as it sounds, my friends at Rude had become my London family. Big corporations love to refer to their workforce and employees as “family” because it makes it easier to get away with workplace abuse and to place guilt on employees to work harder in a job that often offers little to no upward movement whatsoever. Whenever a bigger company refers to their employees as “family,” I always shudder. If it’s so much of a family, why not make wages more evenly distributed throughout the entire business, instead of having a bunch of millionaires and billionaires in upper management and minimum-wage workers (and less if we’re counting garment workers) at the bottom?
But the thing that touched me most, which I only discovered recently, was that Abi had spoken to the company lawyer to look into how challenging it would be to sponsor me, so I could return and work for the company full-time after I graduated from school the following year. Unfortunately, sponsoring folks to come join your company from outside of the UK (and the US, too, for that matter) is notoriously difficult if you don’t have piles of money and aren’t a big company. This is another time when I question what makes a “skilled” worker. I think personally the UK could do with a few less finance people working in Canary Wharf, but this issue never seems to be a problem for the banks. Which forces the question, what sort of labor do we value in our society? Especially with regard to who gets to immigrate for work opportunities and who doesn’t.
Anyway, after a thoroughly fruitful and frankly life-changing time spent in the UK, making friends and having super-memorable experiences, it was time for me to pack my bags (full of clothes from my new identity as an East London wanker) and be dragged onto a plane home to the US, where I had a full year of university waiting before graduating.
When I returned home, I found I had never been so miserable before in my life. I had found my people for the first time ever. I cried for days. I missed my friends, I missed my life, I missed the constant buzz of creativity, and nothing else would suffice. But it didn’t seem like a very viable future for a Black girl from Virginia… and there was no fashion industry in Washington, DC, where I felt that I fit in. My dreams had fully reached harder than my bandwidth.
- “A rallying cry for collective responsibility. A call-to-action to bring about systemic change to textile industries, which has reaped the benefits of unfair labor practices, consumer exploitation, and caused environmental harm for far too long.”—Christine Platt, The Afrominimalist
- "Consumed takes us through the hideously complex topic of fashion and sustainability, from its knotty colonial roots to what everyday people can do to uproot those systems, today."—Yassmin Abdel-Magied
- "SUCH integrity. Aja is no bullsh*t."—Florence Given
- On Sale
- Oct 5, 2021
- Page Count
- 288 pages