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Fashion activist Aja Barber is encouraging us to change our buying behaviour

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By Fiona Pepper, ABC News

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Photo: David Cliff / NurPhoto via AFP

It was during the darkest days of the pandemic that Aja Barber had her revelation about fast fashion.

“A lot of us were sitting in our houses looking around going, ‘Holy crap, I have a lot of stuff’ and yet there were weeks where I wore the same two outfits,” Barber told ABC RN’s Big Ideas.

Yet beyond having an overflowing wardrobe, Barber began questioning how the price of clothing had gone down within her lifetime, while everything else was going up. The conclusions made her uncomfortable.

“There was always a feeling of, ‘But why are we okay with people in other countries making terrible wages?’. That feeling was always there and I couldn’t fight it,” she said.

Currently the average Australian purchases 56 items of clothing each year and sends 23 kilograms to landfill.

Globally, the garment and textile industry employs approximately 75 million people worldwide. The Clean Clothes Campaign estimated less than 1 percent of what you pay for a typical garment goes to the workers who made it.

Now Barber, the author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change wants to demystify the structural inequality embedded in the global fashion industry, and show consumers how they can change that.

‘I was part of the problem’

Barber was quick to admit that she was part of the problem from a young age.

“When I think about my own path to being a fast-fashion shopper, I was so ripe for the taking because I grew up being made fun of for my clothing,” she said.

“[I was] never being invited to subsequently sit at that lunch table with that group of snobs that were mean to me, thinking that maybe if I just had a T-shirt from the Gap, they’d be nice to me.

“And that’s how it starts.”

In her 20s, Barber read about the highly covetable leather Birkin bag and she set her sights on owning this expensive piece.

That is, even though she admitted she thought the bags were ugly.

“But I wanted one because of what it said about me. I’m a young black woman in a very white world, going into white business places and I want people to treat me well. That’s why I wanted the bag, not because it was pretty,” she said.

Barber bought the bag and this was just one example she said of her long-standing relationship with fashion and this belief that it could fix her feelings of inadequacy.

Now she wanted to remind everyone of what was lurking behind our desire to own the next big thing.

“Maybe you don’t even need that dress; maybe you need a hug,” she said.

Barber said we have grown accustomed to downplaying the scale of the fast-fashion problem, in order to continue justifying the purchase of sweatshop-made clothing.

“In devaluing the system, we’re entirely able to look away from the harm of the system,” Barber said.

By framing the issue as trivial, Barber said we were also devaluing the labour that goes into making garments, and the entire labour force propping up the clothing industry.

The 2022 Ethical Fashion Report found that just 10 percent of companies surveyed could evidence paying workers living wages at any of their final-stage factories.

“We have to value it because it is having a deep and profound impact on not just our planet, not just our fellow sisters, but our psyche as well,” Barber said.

Countering all the old excuses

A common argument that Barber came up against was that cheap clothing was accessible to everyone.

Her counter argument was simple: “Is it really accessible when it can only exist if we exploit other women?”

“We’re so indoctrinated into consumerism, we really squeeze and manipulate rhetoric to fit our particular situation, so we feel good about buying sweatshop clothing,” Barber said.

She also pointed out that the target audience for cheap clothing was usually the middle class.

“When I try and talk to people with platforms that sell sweatshop clothing, I’m like, ‘So you’re a rich woman, why are you selling sweatshop clothes?’,” she said.

Their common response was that it was what their audience and followers could afford.

“And I’m like, your audience is just like you, your readership is just as middle class as you are. Do not even pretend like they need you to sell them shite that they don’t need.”

Additionally, she said we need to change our mindset around ethical shopping.

If Australians bought ethically made clothing at the rates they currently buy fast fashion, the cost would likely be prohibitive.

But if we reduce the amount we buy and wear those items longer, then ethically made clothing will be cost-effective.

Another common justification for buying cheap clothing was that the sweatshop workers were better off working than not.

But Barber argued this was straight up colonialism.

“This is the idea that all of these systems can only exist, if a corporation from a foreign entity exploits everyone,” she said.

And she pointed out that there were brands that do pay fair wages. And these companies could challenge others to do better.

Social media and excess consumption

In 2017, environmental charity Hubbub, found that one in six young people did not feel they could repeat an outfit once it had been seen on social media.

Barber said this message was starting to become normalised.

“I grew up wearing second-hand [clothes]. I did not tell my little snot-nose peers because that would have been another thing for them to make fun of me for,” Barber said.

“I think there’s still stigma there. That’s a hurdle that we’re going to have to get through culturally in our society.”

She also wanted consumers to slow down and rediscover their individual style.

“Fast fashion has gotten us so away from knowing our personal style, knowing what we really like because you’re having a lot of stuff pushed at you,” she said.

“And once we get back to that, it really narrows down what you’re purchasing … It’s a lot more considered, which means it’s probably going to stay in your wardrobe for a lot longer.”

Yet Barber admitted, while encouraging people to buy ethically, second hand or educating young people were all important steps forward, she said individuals could not be expected to fix the problem.

“We need legislation, we cannot group hug our way out of this.”

For example, Barber suggested the introduction of an extended responsibility tax being placed on all fast fashion garments would mean that companies would have to pay for the end of the life of every product manufactured.

Additionally, imposing financial penalties around non-compliance of Modern Slavery Acts.

And as an individual, Barber said: “If you already have clothing you can wear, then you don’t need new things.”

And the next new item of clothing you do buy, “has to be from a company that pays everyone fair wages, that’s it”.

ABC

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