#233 - How to Buy Less, Buy Better, and End Consumer Culture, with Aja Barber

July 12, 2022

#233 - How to Buy Less, Buy Better, and End Consumer Culture, with Aja Barber
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Do you ever wonder where old clothes end up? The simple answer: most of them go into a trash wasteland and end up contributing to climate change.


Do you ever wonder where old clothes end up? We see so many ads for unlimited types of clothing, the shops are full of people… When they’re worn out or just tired of a style, do most people donate items? Repurpose them? Recycle? The simple answer: most of them go into a trash wasteland and end up contributing to climate change.

Aja Barber is an eco-conscious fashion consultant, personal stylist, speaker, and author of Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism. Her line of work focuses on sustainability and its intersection with ethics, feminism, and racism, particularly in the fashion industry. 

As a sustainable fashion consultant, Aja makes sure to educate the general public about sustainable and ethical manufacturing, specifically with garments in the fashion industry, in the hope of creating a better and safer planet.

She has written for online publications such as Eco-Age, The Guardian, and CNN. Still, she is most active in opening up conversations and informing people about sustainable and ethical fashion on her Instagram.

During the conversation, Cory and Aja talk about the impact of the fashion industry on our climate crisis, how fast fashion contributes to colonial waste, the core of consumer culture, and what role we can play to creatively solve these problems. Aja also shares her journey in writing her first book and gives her advice on how to stop consumerism.

 

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🗣 TOPICS DISCUSSED:

  • Why Aja chose to write a book to advocate for change
  • The advantage of writing a book rather than posting on social media
  • How working with small brands influenced her interest in sustainable fashion
  • The different health care systems in the UK and the US
  • Her view on scaling multinational companies/brands
  • Aja’s realizations on her own clothing consumption and its impact on the climate crisis
  • The disturbing effects of colonial waste clothing 
  • The reasons why we have a consumerism culture
  • What individuals can do to take part and stop consumerism

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Transcript

Cory Ames  0:00  
Before we jump into this episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, here's a quick word from our sponsor. Being an entrepreneur is tough, especially when trying to run a business in a socially and environmentally conscious way. Having a community striving for the same type of impact makes the process easier, and knowing that others are reaching for the same goals is incredibly motivating. That's why our friends at Oliver Russell created the Social Good Network. The Social Good Network is designed to connect socially minded entrepreneurs and their employees with the community and tools they need to grow. The testimonials and reach that they've already seen have reiterated how much of a need there was for a community like the Social Good Network. They've seen heartwarming testimonials, one on one connections and engagement from over 10 countries so far. Visit SocialGoodNetwork.com to create your profile today. Again, that's socialgoodnetwork.com.

Aja Barber  1:07  
One thing that's always been really clear to me is that the smaller brands are doing the work. They are doing the heavy lifting in the sustainability conversation and the ethics conversation. It's the big brands that have the most to change. And you know, it's much easier to like, change the course of a speedboat than like a cruise liner, right? So like small brands are agile, they're inventive. If a small brand wants to change their supply chain, they can do that relatively quickly and easily. Where the big brands change one little thing and go, "Ooo aren't we so great?" And it's like, no, no, you aren't. Your clothing passes through 50 different hands. Sometimes you don't even know where it comes from, you know? 

Cory Ames  1:53  
Hey, y'all, it's Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. Today I'm joined by a very special guest, author Aja Barber. She's the author of the novel Consumed: the Need for Collective Change: Consumerism, Colonialism, and Climate Change. Aja lives in London with her partner and her two cats. And today on our podcast, we talk about the fashion industry, consumer culture, and likewise, how we can combat it. In today's conversation, Aja and I talk about consumer culture and how to combat it for the sake of averting climate catastrophe, and effecting positive collective change. A really lovely conversation with Aja, I really enjoyed reading her book beforehand, here, and I'd highly recommend it. Again, it's Consumed: the Need for Collective Change: Consumerism, Colonialism, and Climate Change. 

But before we dive into this conversation with Aja, I want to recommend that you sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter - newsletter that I write and publish myself every single Monday. This goes out to our community of changemakers, and innovators from all sectors all over the globe. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter. That's growensemble.com backslash newsletter to join in on the discussion.

Aja Barber  3:22  
My name is Aja Barber, I'm the author of a book called Consumed, and I educate people in the general public about ethical manufacturing, particularly as it deals with the garment and fashion industry. I feel like there's not enough good information out there for people about what it looks like to actually, sort of, live your values, especially when it comes to what we buy. And so much of consumerism is really so embedded in our culture. And I think we tend to tie consumerism to our identity, because there's so many like, signs within our society telling us to do that. And so I have an Instagram platform where I just unpick all of these systems and I dive into the language because sometimes, you know, we have these conversations about sustainability and how we get everyone on board. But then the language and the barrier for entry is too high for the average person to even feel like they can be a part of the conversation.

So I try and break down all of that on my Instagram platform, but also try to encourage people to like not take the bait when it comes to, you know, rampant consumerism that's being pushed through social media. And, yeah, it's just always a good conversation and I like to play with clothes and get people excited about wearing the things that they already have in their closet.

Cory Ames  4:50  
I love that and thank you so much for the introduction. You showed your cover there that is, looks like the UK version, just folks watching this on video. I have the US version, both equally beautiful covers. And, you know, believe it or not, the book is mostly the same on the inside US or the UK.

Aja Barber  5:08  
It is. You do get a few illustrations in the UK one and the second edition of the US one. I'm going to work to make sure that it's a little bit more uniform. But yeah, that's pretty much the same.

Cory Ames  5:21  
Well, I think, speaking to the book, specifically, I think it's one thing to feel very passionate about a particular perspective, issue or, you know, industry or area. And, you know, it's one thing to think about writing a book, it's another thing to actually approach that task, that feat, because it is something of a serious one. Why did writing a book feel like the best fit for your way to kind of speak and advocate for change in fashion, and you know, our broader consumption habits?

Aja Barber  5:50  
I think while social media can be a really great thing, and can make things really democratic and bring things across the board to bigger audiences, there's a level of, I guess, impermanence to social media, where the ideas are free flowing, but often the credit is not given. Our people will read it and forget it five minutes later. There's something really tangible and beautiful about a book. I've always wanted to write a book, I never thought that I would, but I always wanted to. And I just wanted to get my ideas, in my words, somewhere besides an Instagram account. Because let's be honest, like these apps, they own everything you put on, you know what I mean? So like everything that you put on an app is owned by the app, which means that the app can kind of do it at once. 

And I think it's better to sort of spread yourself around a bit - put yourself in different areas. But also with books, you can reach an entirely different audience and readership. And I love the idea of somebody passing the book on to a friend. There's something about that, that's just-- you can't replace that with social media. I mean, I tried with like the e readers, but I can't with them, either. I still love books. And so I just felt like it was a different way of getting the message to a different audience.

Cory Ames  7:12  
I'm with you on that. I definitely feel like social media can be the best and worst of everything all at the same time. And so, the impact of the book for you, I believe that published in fall of 2021?  

Aja Barber  7:26
it did, yeah, 

Cory Ames  7:27
So we're not yet up on a year, but how do you feel about that impact, especially with-- I mean, thinking myself of writing a book, or, if I were to have that exact goal of having someone ideally hand that off to a friend, refer or recommend it to a friend - that seems to be like, a very intangible but tangible writing goal that you'd like to seek out. Like, how have you felt the reception and the impact of the book since its publication? Has it met some of those those aspirations?

Aja Barber  7:55  
Yes, absolutely. And the reception has been wonderful. Like, I have to say, on social media, like, I have to say, I think I have like the best online community. I know, everyone is biased, but mine is the best, let's just be real. And so the reception has been wonderful. It's been really great. I mean, I think the book has been a success. And the fact that when I set out to write it, I got a lot of noes because a lot of publishing houses didn't think that a book of this nature would do well, commercially. Typically, it hasn't always. So there were a lot of passes on the book. And so to sell as it has, to be a consistent seller - dream come true. 

It's been really, really great. And even though, you know, I did write it in lockdown- and I always joke that like, for the first year, none of this really felt real, because it was all happening in lock down. So I wasn't actually like, seeing my agent or meeting with my publisher in person. So it almost just felt like, "I'm writing a book," you know what I mean? Like, the none of the perks of being an author, were being sent my way because the whole world was in lock down. And now I'm getting back out there and going to festivals and whatnot, and it really feels real, and that's pretty cool.

Cory Ames  9:16  
I noticed that from scrolling through your Instagram account, it seems like you've now had the opportunity to sign some books in person and perhaps have some some conversations about it face to face with with readers. What's that been like for you?

Aja Barber  9:29  
Oh, it's just so important. I mean, you can form community anywhere, online or in person, but there is something about meeting people in person, about putting a face to a name. I mean, the people that comment pretty consistently on my post and are in a bunch of different community spaces, I know them by, like name. And to meet some of them is really, really special. It's really really-- it's like breaking the fourth wall, you know, but um, it's a wonderful experience. I love being an author, it makes me really happy. 

Cory Ames  10:03  
I can imagine, it's that, this spending hours with your work, like someone not knowing you personally at all-- like, I have the great pleasure of reading your book beforehand, before this conversation, it's like, that's a dedication of time and effort for someone to you know, spend, you know, 200 or so pages with you like that, and all the work that went up into it, just to get that final product in their hands. So it's a very connected and, you know, intimate but still oddly impersonal experience. So it's a really interesting thing that I'm glad you're getting to enjoy. 

But, so people are intimately familiar, the title of the book is Consumed: the Need for Collective Change: Consumerism, Colonialism, and Climate Change. And so I'm curious what publishers kind of pushed back on? Was it-- I'm imagining maybe something of like such a broad field of subject matter? Kind of, like, you know, curious as to-- for me, reading that just title right there, I was like, "Oh, how are these all exactly going to tie together? Because they're very large topics, very broad topics." And so my brain got really fascinated with ii, like, let's see how this goes. And I think I was particularly struck by the way in which you did it and explained it very nicely. But was that some of the pushback that you were receiving in conversations with publishers?

Aja Barber  11:11  
I think people were just seeing it as a fashion book. "Oh, it's about the fashion industry." And, yeah, it is. But it's about so much more than that. And the title wasn't there when I was, you know, selling the manuscript. And so I think, you know, the title really speaks to a lot of things. And I don't do a deep dive on all of those topics, per se, but because they're, you know, there are people that have written amazing books about colonialism, and I could never match some of that literature. But I try and give people an overview and the linking pieces, so they can link all these subjects together. And I hope to sort of spread a breadcrumb trail so that people will read it, and then maybe go off in a different direction and read more work about these topics from different authors.

Cory Ames  12:01  
I mean, the interconnectedness is there, you know. Not my own quote, and I think a previous podcast guest's, but, "The environmental issues are ultimately human issues at the end of the day." And so many of these things are-- there's a lot of great overlap. I mean, I don't know if 'great' is the right word, but there's a lot of overlap, nonetheless. And it's important to see those things connecting together. But Aja, if you wouldn't mind, I know you share this story quite nicely throughout the book, but what brought you into the fashion industry specifically?

Aja Barber  12:29  
So I always want it to be in the fashion industry, but not from a position of critique. I think you sort of take the position of critique when you see the things that are wrong with the system. I mean, one of the things I talk about a lot on my platform is privilege, and the fashion industry has these various straw bridges of privilege, where, depending on who you are, and what your background is, you might not ever get to be in the fashion industry, because the system of unpaid labor through unpaid internships means the only people that can really do four or five different internships until someone decides to hire them, are people who are independently wealthy. 

You know, if you are not coming from a place where you have the Bank of Mom and Dad on your side, which I never did, my parents are-- I grew up pretty lower middle class. I mean, now my family has got upward mobility, so we've moved in a different direction. But growing up, my parents didn't have money to just pay my rent in New York, so I could work for free for a bunch of different fashion companies, that just wasn't going to happen. But that was who I noticed was getting hired within the industry. When I moved to New York, which I talked about in the book, I foolishly asked some of my fellow interns, like, "So how do you guys pay your rent?" And they were like, "our parents," and I was like, "oh," and then I felt so silly. I felt so silly. 

But then I thought, well, wait a minute - if that's the only way you can do this, then what that does is it makes a class system where only certain people can participate. And when you have a class system where only certain people can participate, then only certain people are presenting to a culture, because that's essentially what the fashion industry is. It's our culture. It's zeitgeist, it's telling the story of us through clothing. And if you only have a certain type of viewpoint, then what sort of industry does that create?

Cory Ames  14:34  
Certainly. I think you made mention in the book too, just the different experience of, you know, security of healthcare if you're living and working in the UK, as an example, versus living and working in the US. The list goes on and on. Of course, you know, rent prices can certainly be quite high and feeling out of control in the London areas as they might in, you know, Boston, New York or whatever it might be. 

Aja Barber  14:57  
If I can be honest, I'm not sure if I would have a rising career if I were still in the US, because not having health insurance is really scary in the US. And I feel like having insurance, which, you know, is the NHS, which me and my partner obviously both have access to, has broadened the amount of work that I can do, and the fact that I can take a stab in the dark and go after this writing thing, where in the US, I just didn't have the security to leave myself open like that, you know?

Cory Ames  15:28  
Absolutely, it's a backwards set of values, especially in how much we enjoy the things that contribute to culture, you know, be it fashion, art, broadly speaking, but how little it seems that we want to support what sort of lifestyle or livelihood can best contribute to that. Because it's very hard to feel in a state of desperation, or really just, you know, constantly attempting to make ends meet with unpredictable and unforeseen expenses, especially in the context of healthcare here in the US. But at the same time, want people, rightfully so, to take some risks on making art in one way or another. And I would even put independent, small boutique restaurants in that category, and things that we all really kind of seek to to enjoy when we're traveling or seek to enjoy when we're living in our own cities.

Aja Barber  16:21  
There's such a privilege to being able to take a chance in that way. But if the social barriers-- if the social garters aren't there for everyone to be able to sort of have those opportunities to go work in the arts, or to go work in fashion, or to go and start that independent business, then that definitely impacts the culture. 

Cory Ames  16:41  
Absolutely. And I mean, I have this particular, I don't know, fond view of Europe, generally. And, you know, speaking to the EU, specifically, I know that the UK is not in that category so much anymore--

Aja Barber  16:52  
I know, right? Bummer.

Cory Ames  16:55  
Yeah, bummer. Do you feel like the cultural awareness around those sorts of things - I mean, privilege, broadly speaking, do you feel like it's higher, or it's on par with the US, like-- I'm not sure if that's contributed to why you live there?

Aja Barber  17:10  
Yeah, I think there's some weak spots in both cultures, and they're different, and their unique. Like, when I first moved to London, it was 2003. I was a student, so really dating myself here. And I remember people in the UK sort of going, "oh, you know, the UK doesn't have the same race problems as the US," which is patently untrue. You know, what should have been said is, "oh, we just don't talk about race in the same way, because we kind of just sweep it under the rug. Like, we don't want to talk about the fact that Britain profited from the slave trade. It didn't happen on our shores, but we sure did collect those profits. But we don't talk about that. So that means that we don't have a race problem. You know, we don't talk about the Windrush generation." 

And now we do, so things are starting to really, you know, come up to the surface. But for so long, I think some people within the UK kind of thought that like, oh, America's the big, bad boogeyman of racism, because they just weren't ready to own it. Socially, I think there are some things that this country definitely understands, for instance, the NHS. I think that's something that people over here absolutely get. And I always sort of joke that, like, America, in some ways, some people have like Stockholm Syndrome to America, where they think that because there's this narrative of America being the best and greatest and the most awesomest, that like, any other way of doing life, it's just not as good because we have our freedom. You know, you've literally got people convinced that they don't need social services, like health care, and it's ridiculous, you know?

Cory Ames  18:55  
Well, I mean, exactly the opposite. In just that, it's like, how much actual kind of liberation and freedom can you feel if you are needing to make some particular income so that you can just have the medical care that you'll inevitably need, both basic preventative services, as well as scenarios in which it's unplanned and, unfortunately, unexpected. That is the quite backwards thing.

Aja Barber  19:19  
Yeah, exactly. So you know, there's some good things over here. There's some bad things over here. I always joke-- and you know, because there are certain people that will be like, and this is, again, like a weird America thing, where people get a bit annoyed that like, you've moved overseas. There's sort of like this idea that like, "Oh, you think you're better than us?" And it's like, well, no, I always joke to people that like, racism and oppression and the systemic issues that we talked about exist everywhere. But I feel like for me, particularly, America isn't serving me aside of anything. 

Like, if racism is a shit sandwich, and everybody's serving the shit sandwich, the NHS is a side of french fries, which are actually edible. The good public transportation, that's like some mac and cheese, I love mac and cheese, yummy, yummy, yummy. In America, I feel like I'm just getting the shit sandwich. And I would like a little bit more than that, you know, a long vacation for full time work, longer maternity leave, all of these things make the oppression that you deal with everywhere - it's still oppression, but at least you have something else that can make you feel a little bit lighter. 

And so that's how I talk about it like no, people will say, Oh, well, there's racism everywhere. And it's like, well duh, but at the same time, there are these other things that I also quite enjoy. You know, I don't have a child. But if I do have a child, I can breathe a little bit easier knowing that if I send them to school, they're going to be relatively safe. And I can't say the same in America.

Cory Ames  20:57  
Certainly, there's pros and cons to anywhere that you decide to settle in. And this can be weighted differently for different people, but I like your vision you're describing for me - except for the shit sandwich. No one nobody wants that.

Aja Barber  21:09  
Nobody wants a shit sandwich. But you know, that's what's being served sometimes.

Cory Ames  21:13  
Very true. So from what I understand, one of the first jobs that you took within the fashion industry was with a small brand in London called Rude, and I'm curious, how did diving in that way to fashion, you feel like influenced what's kind of continued to evolve into your perspective and experience with the industry?

Aja Barber  21:35  
One thing that's always been really clear to me is that the smaller brands are doing the work. They are doing the heavy lifting in the sustainability conversation and the ethics conversation. It's the big brands that have the most to change. And you know, it's much easier to like, change the course of a speedboat than like a cruise liner, right? So like small brands are agile, they're inventive. If a small brand wants to change their supply chain, they can do that relatively quickly and easily. Where the big brands change one little thing and go, "Ooo aren't we so great?" And it's like, no, no, you aren't. Your clothing passes through 50 different hands. Sometimes you don't even know where it comes from, you know? 

Working at Rude, it really brought to mind for me that this is how all brands should be operational. Like, we never wasted fabric. If we had a bolt of fabric that we had bought, we used that bolt of fabric. And this obviously was almost 20 years ago, but we had had this bolt of, like, cotton canvas denim looking material, and we weren't going to produce with it. So we didn't know what to do with it, so we made tote bags. And instead of giving people plastic bags with their purchase, we gave them a tote bag. Now today, we have tote bag overkill, where it's to the point where we got to stop with the tote bags, because it's too many tote bags, but at the time nobody was doing that, you know? 

And not only-- we weren't creating this from like, you know, fabric that we had bought, we were creating it from what we had left around the studio. So that's really interesting. We used to print t-shirts on demand in our shop, we had like a screen printing press. And today one of the big, high street brands, which I often criticize, in their store in London, actually has, like, a place where you can get something printed on a t-shirt as well. So like all of these ideas that we were just coming up with are now being reflected today 20 years later in the modern fashion industry, but because of the ways in which the big brands do business, it's actually ecological disaster all over. 

But I do think that the smaller the brand, the more agile they are in their thinking and the ways they do things. But additionally, a small brand is never going to have the same carbon footprint as H&M or Zara, it's just not going to happen. They can't waste that way. You know, when you look at the big brands, the big multinationals, they have warehouses full of fabric that they can't use and they don't know what to do with it. A small brand could never create that much waste. Additionally, I talk about buying local, buying small, versus buying for a big box store. And there's studies that have been shown that when you buy something local, particularly within your own community, more of that money is going to stay within your community. Where, if you're purchasing from a big box store, only a small percentage of that is going to stay within your community. 

And we all like strong communities. What do we get from strong communities? We get good schools, we get good places for children to grow up, we get places where we can blossom. So there's so much in thinking about all of these systems that make a lot of sense for people to be invested in it, because it's not just good for the planet, but it's good for us as well.

Cory Ames  24:58  
I totally agree. There's one thing that I really struggle with, and I'm curious where you fall on this spectrum. But I feel like this isn't spoke enough - that one, business is just kind of grouped into one giant conglomerate. Like, I think in very much a large portion of the mainstream conversation is that we put small businesses in the same context with these large, multinational corporations. And I find this extremely difficult, because I think exactly in the few examples, you mentioned there, just the quantity of material, the complexity of the supply chains, you know, the list goes on. Small businesses and large, multinational corporations operate on completely different planets. 

They should be complete-- the conversation, I think-- it certainly benefits the large multinationals. Like well, you know, these are pro business agendas and the small business owner may group themselves into that category. When we speak about business, I think that's a very important thing to decipher, is that there are a lot of small businesses, small brands, especially in fashion, who have committed from the very beginning to do it right. Or--

Aja Barber  26:04
Yes, sustainability and ethics. 

Cory Ames  26:05
Yeah. And much of the retort, I think, to that is just like, well, or, you know, in H&M changing or whomever these very large companies, corporations - it's kind of like we're pleading this complexity, or pleading some sort of thing of like, you know, it is much more difficult for them to change, incremental change. I don't know, I'm curious where you fall on the context of scale? Like, I fall a little bit maybe, aggressively. I don't know, if you do, but I'm like, well, do we need-- is there any benefit to having brands of that size and that scale? Or should we just be comfortable with...?

Aja Barber  26:34  
We're on the same page. Break up all the multinationals, break up all the conglomerates, this size thing isn't serving anyone except for a small percentage of people. That's really it. It's small. Anytime you have a business, where the person at the top is making billions of dollars a year, and the person who is the most depressed at the bottom of the food chain is making pennies to which they cannot feed their family, that's a business where I don't care if it exists in five years. I really don't. honestly, and like, no, I don't think that these big multinationals are serving anyone, which is why I always tell people, if there's one thing you can do today, spread your money about. Stop giving it to the same 20 companies, because they're not doing anything good with it. 

And like, the truth of the matter is, we've all known for like the last, you know, 20 years that these systems are actually killing the planet. So what have these companies done in 20 years time? Oh, just expanded, amped up our production, exploited more people. Oh, but they did build that well, that one time, and that country in the global south. But they had to build the well, because they had polluted the water along the area where most of the workers live and like, depend on. 

So yeah, I'm a hard line on these multinational conglomerates, it is time for them to get their shit together. It is past time, I don't have the patience. And you know what, we shouldn't have the patience, because we don't have time. This planet doesn't have time. If we want humanity to thrive, things have to change tomorrow. So like, I don't know why we have like, more patience with like corporations than we have for our fellow humans. But we do do this thing -- well, I know why, because corporations have done a really good job of humanizing themselves, and sometimes that is done through social media. But we have this thing where we're like, give them time. And I'm like, no, no, no more time for them. Tax them, let's put some taxes in there, there's a few things that we can do. 

Right now, no one is responsible for their waste. So like, extended producer responsibility programs, also known as EPRs is something that we should all be really, you know, championing. And we should do that through government and legislation. The truth of the matter is, is that if your business operates on a linear system, meaning, you know, material, product, purchase, waste, then you should be paying taxes on every item that ultimately becomes waste at the end of its lifecycle. 

And the truth is, these solutions that we can come up with, we can really sort of incorporate into fighting the climate crisis. So over in the UK, we have a group called Insulate Britain that has been very vocal about the fact that much of the housing in the UK, particularly social housing, is not well insulated. Now one of the things that we're going to be facing as we battle climate crisis in our everyday life, more and more, it's colder winters, hotter summers. And so social housing, the people that are the most vulnerable within the system, are going to be really cold. And so Insulate Britain has been raising awareness that the government should become made up of programs to insulate houses. 

One of the things that clothing waste can be used for is housing insulation. Every minute, a dump truck of clothing waste goes to landfill. What are we doing? That is an untapped resource. Like, if you actually tax these big, multinational billion dollar companies that can definitely afford to pay for it, we could actually create jobs, we could have textile recycling. Currently, we only have 1% of textiles being recycled. That should not be the case, no textiles should go to landfill. And they certainly shouldn't be being dumped on the global South, which is what's happening. 

But if we actually had some extended producer responsibility by taxing these multinationals, we could create jobs within our own markets, where people actually sort through waste. Things that are really, really out of shape and not good, we should know who's creating that, and they should pay higher taxes. That stuff gets ground up, turned into housing installation. There are so many solutions here, we just need lawmakers that are brave enough and courageous enough to actually implement them. That's really it. It doesn't even have to be scary. 

But it does look like all of us starting to care, and caring looks like, you know, buying less because we're all buying a lot of clothing and it's really unnecessary. Caring looks like supporting, you know, better businesses, particularly if you can. Not everyone can, but the average consumer is buying 68 items of clothing a year, which I would argue we're spending quite a lot of money. So maybe we could just do less, but spend a little more and feel good about our purchases? You know, it's a lot of different solutions. And it's acting at your intersection, because we know that not every solution works for every person. But there are solutions out there, and it's time for us to get our head in the game.

Cory Ames  31:51  
Absolutely. And for me anyways, exactly what you're describing there is like this, the creativity, the creative problem solving, of seeing what things we once considered as waste and repurposing them for some other very important purpose or need. That is creativity that feels good to me. I think it likewise connects with what you were speaking to earlier is, you know, contributing more so to the culture of things, the small independent brands, restaurants, independent bookstores, coffee shops, like, where do you go when you travel? Where do you like to spend your time on the weekends relaxing and enjoying? It's like, we're not racing off to go to Target, we're not racing off to go to Walmart. We want to support these small businesses that aren't companies so much as contributors to culture, you know, they are small businesses. 

Aja Barber  32:38  
Additionally, though, you know, when we talk about the climate crisis, which we need to be talking about the climate crisis every day - it needs to be front page news every single day - a lot of it can sound really scary. And some of it is kind of scary. I don't know what we're gonna do about the fossil fuel industry. YI think I have a few ideas. But when it comes to the fashion industry, which accounts for 10% of global carbon emissions, depending on who you ask, some people say it's less than that some people say it's more, that's not something that has to be scary, right? Like, clothing isn't the same as food. We need food to survive. And that's, that's another thing that we're gonna have to come up with some different systems. But clothing, ultimately, can be frivolous and luxury. And so that shouldn't be a scary problem to fix.

Cory Ames  33:26  
Awesome, well, I'm curious, was there a particular epiphany point for you, when you became acutely aware of of this overarching consumer culture as it kind of drove and ran throughout the fashion industry? Was it working within Rude, that small brand that we talked about earlier? Or was there some other point in which you became kind of struck with the dynamics that were running the fashion industry and the consumption of it?

Aja Barber  33:50  
So there wasn't one like, boom moment. It was a lot of small moments for me. First of all, just say, with fast fashion, you know, the first time I encountered it, I was very young. And I thought, "Oh, my god, this is amazing," because I was someone who grew up without a lot of disposable income, family with three kids, and at times, you know, the pocket book was pretty pinched. So I felt really excited that I could finally find clothing that really fit how I wanted to project myself to the world. 

But deep down inside there was a part of me that was like, um, why is it so cheap? You know what I mean? But I didn't want to dive into it because I just wanted to satiate this need that I had to fit in through material items. So like, deep down inside, I knew that, well, somebody has to make the clothing so how are they doing this so cheaply? But you know, sometimes when you're young, the pull of fitting in, you know, is stronger than the pull of diving into the ethics. 

So I've always kind of known. And then I got a sewing machine one birthday, and I started making my own clothing. And what I found was that it's really hard. And it requires skill. And for every three projects I made, only one of them was wearable. And these were really simple things that I was doing. And because I was doing this, and knowing that, okay, I spent $14 on this fabric, 20 hours of labor for something that is barely wearable, how is it that this company over here is doing it for $10? Like, how? How is this possible? 

So once I started to make my own things, I began to understand that like, there was something really fishy going on. But additionally, throughout my 20s and 30s, I kind of began to notice that everyone around me was buying a lot more clothing. Like, when you go to university, do you ever see the waste on move out day, when you live on campus? It's ridiculous, right? And I just kind of was always thinking, how can we afford to waste this way? How is this possible, but also like, how are my fellow students so wasteful? What is going on here? But even in my 20s, I knew people that would move, and they would bag up like eight bags of clothing to just give to charity - and this was not an uncommon thing. 

So I'm thinking, okay, I don't think we're out of the ordinary. Obviously, I did grow up in a very affluent area so like, there was money. But if everyone else is making similar moves and buying the same amount of clothing, where's it all going? You know, like, how is it possible that so many of my friends are very, very wasteful with their purchases, and if everyone else if this is the trend, that what is happening? 

And then one summer, I volunteered at a local charity shop. And I began to see the amount of clothing that was being donated. And I always say that like, that summer-- because I'm the type person, I'm very hard worker when I put my mind to something, and I come in, and the bags of clothing would be just piled almost up to the ceiling. So I would go through all the bags of clothing. And we would only keep like probably less than 10% of it. The other 90%, some of it would go to less affluent areas, and then some of it I had no idea where it was going. 

But I would go through these bags of clothing, marking clothing, checking for quality, and I would spend hours upon end, and I would go home and I would come back and the bags would be replenished. And I always said, it's kind of like that Greek mythology about Prometheus getting his guts ripped out by the great eagle, and then every night like the guts regrow, and the process begins again. It was like that, like opening these plastic bin bags and clothing just spilling out and then thinking, Okay, well, it won't be so bad the next time I come back, and it would just always be the same thing. 

So I began to understand that like, we are one charity shop among thousands in the US, which means that like, it's quite possible that this as an ecological disaster. Even though I didn't have the numbers, I'm just thinking if everybody else is getting the same amount that we're getting-- and that experience led to me sort of going to the mall and going, oh my god, it's all going to become trash. You know, have you ever like just looked at the sheer volume of stuff that we create in our society, you go to the mall, you just think, okay, but like if all of this clothing just gets worn for one season, what actually happens to it? 

So that experience of working in the charity shop just took the wind out of my sails of consumerism. But it was good, I needed that. And all of these, you know, experiences sort of led to me becoming more and more curious. Additionally, when I moved to the UK, I had to get rid of like 75% of what I owned, and I just found myself thinking, I'm never going to amass this amount of stuff again. So there were a bunch of different things. And because I also knew, when I was moving, I knew that charity shops were overloaded, I really tasked myself to thoughtfully get rid of things. 

So that meant putting things on Facebook or buy nothing groups. I didn't just want to dump all the stuff on a charity. And that process took me well over a year. I mean, when I go home to my parents house in Virginia, I am still doing that. I will tackle a drawer or two and go through stuff and go, "How do I repurpose this? How do I rehouse this, how do I recycle this?" And that's a long process. So when you go through that process with your own items, you kind of are like, I never want to do this again. So all of these little moments sort of just led to me realizing that, like, consumerism is a plague.

Cory Ames  40:19  
Yeah, and it seems in the US for things that we've considered waste, we have quite the skill of making that disappear. But it does have to go somewhere.

Aja Barber  40:27  
It does go somewhere, and it ends up in somebody's backyard in the Global South, where it becomes pollution and colonial waste. And, you know, obviously, you know, with recycling - we don't recycle our own goods, it gets exported to other countries. With our clothing, it's the same thing. The 90% that doesn't get sold in the charity shop is either going to get landfilled, if it's in really bad shape, where, you know, the majority of our clothing that's being made today is being made from polyester fibers, which means it doesn't decompose when it goes into a landfill, it will sit there, and it will be on this planet for far longer than you and I will, and the next generation, and probably the next generation after that. 

And so the clothing that's going to landfill isn't decomposing. And if it's not going to landfill, it's gonna get sent to, you know, Rwanda, Uganda, or Ghana, which I talk about in the book, where it becomes colonial waste there. Because the amount of clothing that Kantamanto Market receives in Accar, Ghana, is 15 million items a week - a week. Just an onslaught of clothing, only 40% of that is going to get sold, which means the other 60% becomes waste. It's filled up the municipal dump 10 years ahead of schedule. Like if Americans had someone dumping their trash on us, we'd be so mad because like, Americans hate that stuff. But that's essentially what we're doing to people in the Global South. 

Additionally, the clothing washes up on the beach, it's in neighborhoods - it stinks, it's gross, it's pollution. And so this is a really, really, really bad system. Recently, the Or Foundation who is on the ground in Kantamanto did receive groundbreaking money from Shein, which, that is a business that I cannot stand. But they're the only ones to hold their hands up and be like, Yeah, we should probably send some money in this direction, because we're a part of this cycle. And I think every brand on the High street in the UK should be doing similar.

Cory Ames  42:30  
And so, we've woven it throughout our conversation a bit, and I know this is much of the subject matter of of your book, but for us, if you wouldn't mind spelling it out: Why do you believe that we have the consumer culture that we do? Why are we sitting with this level of consumption currently?

Aja Barber  42:47  
Oh, it's everywhere in our society. It's in our media-- you know, I talk about films and how like, cult classic films, particularly the ones that are geared towards like, young women, always involves some sort of makeover scene where a character who's treated really poorly by society undertakes, like, a makeover that involves a lot of clothing, maybe a haircut, and then all of a sudden, people that were like mean to them aren't mean to them anymore. Like, that's in so many films, and like, when you see an idea that's portrayed so many different ways, you do start to internalize it, this whole idea of like, "New Year New You." 

And, you know, also, this idea of like retail therapy. Buying things is not therapy, therapy is therapy. Attaching buying things to our idea of therapy and healing ourselves is arguably part of the reason why we're in this mess. There's dopamine, there's social media, there's so many different parts of our culture in which there are opportunities to partake in consumerism, but also, I think the culture of America has consumerism woven into it. I mean, our politicians certainly encourage that. Have you ever like-- well, I mean, you probably haven't, but I've been in a fitting room before where I've heard someone go, "Yeah, I'm not really sure about this. But you know what, let's just support the economy and buy it." 

There's this idea that like, you could support the economy by buying things from a multinational corporation that probably doesn't pay its taxes. And it's like, no. So, you know, there's so many different ways that like, we're sort of signaled to that buying things makes you a good, upstanding, upright citizen. I mean, after 9/11 George W. Bush definitely told us to shop. Rishi Sunak definitely said a few short years ago, that if you had savings because of the pandemic, you should be like, spending it on the economy. Rishi Sunak I think is, if not a multimillionaire a billionaire. So like, no Rishi, maybe you should just be taxed higher. I'm going to keep my money because I'm not as rich as you, how about that? 

You know, so like, there's all these signals within our society, that are just like, spend your money on things you don't need, because that will make you happy. And additionally, I think, with our generation in particular, we're facing such monumental problems, that sometimes the only source of power that we feel is buying things. Like we don't feel in control of a climate crisis. Our politicians are pretty laughable these days. How many recessions does like one person have to live through? Most people cannot buy houses, because it's really hard. The job market sucks. So when you've got all these things going around, and you're just sort of like, I guess I'll just go and buy this dress from H&M, you know what I mean? So I, I totally understand. But we have to find ways to harness our power differently.

Cory Ames  45:56  
Well, certainly. And I've been becoming more and more aware of those messages, historically, of where it means in the context of being a good American, it's also, you know, being a good consumer. We put a lot on that quarter four, you know, consumer spending for the holiday season, that seems to be indicative of some health of our economy. It seems like we're mismanaging the numbers and looking to our GDP to see how satisfied we are. Although that doesn't seem to be actually what produces satisfaction for the average person.

Aja Barber  46:27  
Can I also say in the UK during lockdown, I can't remember whether it was 20-- it was 2020. It was the first year of the pandemic here, and they basically released everyone from lockdown right before the holiday season. And then they put everyone back on lockdown for the holidays. And that made me so freakin' mad. Because you know what that was about? It's like, oh, well let them out so they can go and spend money because it's the holidays, but then don't let them see their family. That's what the holidays are about. So they literally like, you know, allowed people this hope and this idea that we were going to, like get together with family at the holiday season. But really, it was about boosting the economy, and that's messed up.

Cory Ames  47:17  
Absolutely. Well, I mean, like, something that that I've been thinking about more and more as this particular phrase kind of keeps running over my head of like, "Are we wanting to encourage people to be contributors to the economy, or be contributors to their communities, you know, the world at large?" Like, those seem to be the the important messages that we need to shift and kind of redirect.

Aja Barber  47:36  
Yeah, it's definitely the latter that needs to happen.

Cory Ames  47:39  
Absolutely. And Aja, what can you offer up for us? I know, there's definitely different perspectives from what the individual does versus what we think about at a systemic level. But, you know, how can we stop this level of consumerism? What can maybe we do as individuals - we've mentioned a few items throughout this chat - and then you know, at large, what do we seek to do differently?

Aja Barber  47:59  
So we always have this conversation in the space that I'm in, the individual versus the collective, but we actually need the individual actions so that we can get our head in the game to change things at a collective level. Like, if everybody is just like, consuming like normal, then no one will be inspired to hold anyone to account. I know how that is, I was that person. So you know, you, as an individual, need to think about how you participate in this system? Are you the person that buys 68 items of clothing a year? Be honest! Because everyone likes to say, "oh, no, that's not me." But that is a lie. Someone is buying the clothing, and when I was in my 20s, it was definitely me. And it was definitely my friends, because I didn't have the same funds as some people I knew to do that amount of damage. 

So like, being honest with like, who you are, and where you fall in the system is really impactful. And then, you know, starting to really understand, like, who needs to change and putting pressure on those corporations to change. One of the things that we have going on in the UK currently is there's a washing machine bill that's being argued in Parliament. So, this is a great way to sort of talk about systemic action. So, what people don't understand is your polyester clothing is made of plastic, and it leaks microfibers every time you wash it, and the microfibers go into the ocean, they go into our water supply, they get in your food - they found microfibers in a human placenta last year. Grim. 

So we need to stop the flow of microfibers from going everywhere. And part of that is looking at the washing cycles. So there's a washing machine bill that's being argued in parliament that every washing machine sold in the UK should come with it's a microfiber filter. Because currently, if you want to do something about microfibers, you've got to buy into that as a consumer. You can buy a filter for your washing machine which then you have to pay someone to install it. You can get a guppy bag, you can get some little ball things that collect your microfibers. But wouldn't it be great if on like a systemic level, no one could buy a washing machine that didn't have a microfiber filter, since this is clearly a problem? 

Like we do need to stop virgin polyesters from being created, there's more than enough polyester to go around on this planet. But like one short term solution is to definitely make sure that we're filtering that out of our water supply. So there's things big and small happening. There's garment worker, legislation being argued everywhere, there's good conversations about extended producer responsibility happening. And getting involved in those conversations, getting more information about that, that's a good thing to do at the systemic level. But like, also, if a corporation is doing something that like, pisses you off, be loud about it. Let them know. Be on social media. 

This is where social media is great, you can actually force a corporation to like, apologize for something if you get enough people just being really vocal about it. I've done it before with H&M, with my friends, we think that H&M was being very misleading about something. And so we just spammed them in their comments, and eventually, they did apologize. And that feels very, very powerful. And so harnessing the tools that you have at your disposal, but ultimately, changing yourself and how you interact with this system - that's what we need to do most.

Cory Ames  51:34  
Excellent advice there for us. It seems like there's the two components, you know, the washing machine bill for one. We can take those small actions, perhaps, seek to, if we do acquire clothing, not with those materials, but likewise, the Guppy bag. But you know, supporting where there are those systemic changes, that would really make things so much easier.

Aja Barber  51:56  
If everyone just bought like a few items secondhand instead of going new, that would have huge impact in the waste stream. So like, I buy probably about 50% of my clothing secondhand now, and we've got so many great places to do it. Like, it didn't used to be as accessible, but it is. And then people sometimes will go, "oh, well, you know, if I buy secondhand, am I displacing someone who doesn't have money?" No, that's a myth. Because the fashion industry actually pumps out 150 garments a year, the human population is only 7.9 billion. So there's actually more than enough clothing to go around already on the planet. 

Now, when people say, "Oh, secondhand is becoming gentrified." What they really mean is there's less good quality because of fast fashion. That's really it. There's more than enough clothing, but the quality has definitely gone downhill. And once again, at a consumer level, we have the ability to change that and who we support and who we give our money to. Before you buy it in the store, ask yourself, is this gonna last me 100 wears? If I don't want it will someone else? 

And I think we all know deep down inside, when it's a t-shirt that's paper thin and has like a silly logo on it that's some weird inside joke, no, no one is gonna want that. So like maybe we need to, you know, start thinking about whether or not the item sparks joy while we're still in the store instead of thinking about after we brought it home and it's in our house.

Cory Ames  53:29  
And absolutely with the holistic conversation that surrounds what that T-shirt or whatever it is that you're buying represents. Who's behind it? What materials and what kind of level of, you know, exploitation and extraction are required to get that to the retail shelf? 

Well, I really appreciate your time. I want to be respectful of it. But before we wrap up, do you mind if I ask you a few rapid fire questions?

Aja Barber  53:52  
Absolutely. I love this. 

Cory Ames  53:54  
Awesome. So first one for you, what's a book or film that you might recommend to our listeners? Something you either always come back to or something that's impacted you recently. It can be about what we talked about here or kind of out of left field. Whatever speaks to you.

Aja Barber  54:09  
It's a Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Katharine Wilkinson. It's Truth, Courage, and Solutions to the Climate Crisis. Yes, the climate crisis is a terrifying prospect, but we need to read things that not only uplift us but fill us with ideas for the solution, because then we can all get excited about getting involved and being part of the solution because the conversation needs all of us, really.

Cory Ames  54:33  
Excellent recommendation. Next one for you: what's one daily habit or morning routine that you feel like you have to stick to if anything? 

Aja Barber  54:41  
I don't want to say caffeine because that's extremely unoriginal. I try and ground myself every morning. I try and sort of take a moment to do a breather and remind myself of my positioning on this planet. What I am here to do, who I am, who I love, what makes me happy? Just a little reset so that I can sort of come up with a coherent mission for the day. 

Cory Ames  55:06  
I love that. And a next one for you: what's your leisure time look like? What are a few things or maybe a single thing that you really look forward to doing as a hobby?

Aja Barber  55:17  
It used to be reading, but now I read all the time for my job. I do like reading still. When I'm not really really busy, I read about 50 books a year. But when I'm writing a book, that's impossible. Leisure time, I like to do ballet. I think everyone should have a hobby that isn't attached to capitalism. Because you do this thing in our society where it's like, somebody really likes knitting, we should like tell them, "Oh, you need to sell that." And it's like, no, maybe you don't need to always sell your labor, maybe you should be able to do something that you enjoy that is completely separate of capitalism. And for me, that's ballet. I'm way too old to be like a professional ballet dancer. But I'm pretty good. I've been doing it for like 15 years now, so, not too shabby.

Cory Ames  56:06  
I love that. And I love the recommendation there, too. I think that's quite important. There is an obsession with trying to like monetize your, your hobbies, or like build a side hustle. Maybe we should just, you know, enjoy it for enjoying it.

Aja Barber  56:18  
Hustle culture is not where we should constantly exist. Like, yeah, if you're trying to get someplace, I'm not going to tell you, "Oh, don't hustle to get there." But like it shouldn't be our permanent existence.

Cory Ames  56:32  
Yeah. It's very important to be attentive to, you know, where we think that's coming from, like our concern to do that or a desire to do that. It's like, do we genuinely want to do that? Or do we feel like that's, you know, it's something that's unproductive if we're not doing it? Just something to be attentive to. 

Last one for you: what's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These folks are change makers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, hoping to leave the world a better place than they found it.

Aja Barber  57:01  
Unpick consumerism within you. Unpick the idea of lack, and need, and want, and desire. You know, I did this thing where, when I was of an age where I was dreaming about having the career I have today, I thought about what amount of money I needed to lead a really nice life. And I have this number in my head. And I've always told myself, if you can make that amount of money, then the rest is gravy. And once you realize the things that you need-- and for me, it's enough money, to support myself, to have a beautiful life, to be generous and kind with loved ones and to treat people. That's really all I want, to be able to take a holiday every now and then. But like, this idea that, like, "oh, I want to own a sports car and a helicopter," who needs that stuff? 

So I think unpicking this endless desire to make all the money can actually really free you, because you realize you don't need all the money. And once you get to that point, it also gives you a level of integrity in your work where you can say no to the things that don't work for you. So for me, I very boldly said on my platform way before I had a book or whatever, that I wasn't going to take money from fast fashion. It was tempting at times, because those were definitely the people that were like paying. But that level of integrity allowed me to build a platform where my work is supported. And I'm able to continue to say no to things. Because when you have the power of saying no to things, and you're able to maintain your integrity, you're able to do a lot of really, really cool things. 

So I always tell people, "unpick the desire of constant consumption, whether it is greed, money, big houses, and ask yourself what it is that you truly want? Not what is it society tells you you should want, but what do you want out of life?" Because once you can actually fulfill your own needs, you can do incredible things with what's leftover. I donate, you know, 15% of my income every year if I can, and, you know, there's something that feels really good about being able to do that. So yeah, unpick consumerism, unpick want, unpick greed, unpick all of these things. And once you do, you might find that you're left being a much happier person.

Cory Ames  59:29  
Lovely advice for us to end on, Aja, thank you so much. Last, last item, best places to keep up with you and follow along with your work?

Aja Barber  59:37  
Yeah, so Instagram, I'm there constantly. @AjaBarber is my instagram handle, it's my name. I support my work through Patreon where I do a pretty semi-regular newsletter about sustainable and ethical fashion. That's a really fun space. If you like what I do online and you want more of me, that's that's where you can find me. So yeah, those are the two places.

Cory Ames  1:00:02  
Perfect. We'll have all those items linked up in our show posts at socialentrepreneurship.fm and growensemble.com. Aja, thank you so much for taking the time.

Aja Barber  1:00:11  
Thank you so much for having me.

Cory Ames  1:00:14  
All right, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world does the newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There, you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. And these sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. All right, y'all. Until next time.

Aja Barber Profile Photo

Aja Barber

Writer, Consultant

Aja Barber is the author of the novel Consumed: The Need for Collective Change, Consumerism, Colonialism and Climate Change. Aja lives in London with her partner and two cats.