Aja Barber, Consumed: The Need for Collective Change

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Episode Summary

Aja Barber is a writer, activist, creative teacher, and fashion consultant. She’s fierce, she’s smart, and today Aja joins the Stitch Please podcast to share her book, Consumed: The Need For Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change and Consumerism, and the inspiration behind her words surrounding unethical and unsustainable consumerism in the fashion industry. Aja shares her perspective on how consumerism and capitalism feed on our insecurities. This opened up the conversation as we talked about the exploitative nature of the fashion industry, why transparency doesn’t equal sustainability, and the interlocking systems of oppression that coincide with capitalism. Aja also shares how consumers can use their collective power for positive change and why we need to start investigating our shopping habits so we can change how we participate in the system.This episode is an insightful lesson on the perils of fast fashion, the reasons why,as a society, we tie our happiness to consumerism, and how to make more sustainable and ethical choices with our clothes. So tune in and be inspired by this impactful episode. [Photo Credit for Aja’s podcast cover photos: Stephen Cunningsworth]

Episode Notes

Aja Barber’s website, instagram, facebook

Aja Barber’s book, Consumed: The Need for Collective Change

Aja intentionally has only one sponsor, Vestiaire Collective and provides special access to her  Patreon supporters.

Aja mentions Fashion Revolution, the world’s largest fashion activism movement

What should everyone watch? Aja says “The Story of Stuff!”

BlackWomenStitch Instagram,  homepage, Patreon

Read Full Transcript

Lisa Woolfork 0:09

Hello, stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.

Hello everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And as I say for every episode, this is a very special episode. And I mean that especially today, because I am talking with Aja Barber, who is not only smart, fierce, creative, such an active and productive and creative teacher; she also has recently created this amazing and gorgeous book in my favorite colors.

Aja Barber 0:59

Ah, that's the British version. Yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 1:08

Oh, so this is the American version.

Aja Barber 1:14

That's the North America. And then this is like Europe, and like, Australia. So yeah.

Lisa Woolfork 1:20

I like our version better because we like all those bright colors. It's like, Oh, teal!

Aja Barber 1:27

I could have kept them the same. But I actually really liked both covers a lot. And so I was like, yeah, so I really like the American cover.

Lisa Woolfork 1:37

I think you made the right decision. Not always does she have this gorgeous book in two distinct different covers, she also narrates the audio version of the book. So you really feel like you're traveling along with her throughout this journey. Aja, welcome to the Stitch Please podcast, and thank you for being here today.

Aja Barber 1:58

Thank you so much for having me.

Lisa Woolfork 2:01

I am so excited about this, y'all. This just shows you that it pays to shoot your shot. Aja came on Instagram Live to do something completely of her own will and volition. And she was on for like, three minutes. And I was like, Oh, real quick, real quick. Can you please be on the podcast? Like, I typed it as fast as I possibly could. And then she hung up and I was like, Oh, no, she didn't see it! But then she did, y'all! I took screenshots, I shared with friends. I was fangirling. It was a moment.

Aja Barber 2:32

I think I messaged you. It was like, Yeah, this is my publicist's information.

Lisa Woolfork 2:36

Yes, yes. And I was just like, AH! All excited. I am so glad to be here. I want to start, actually, with the very beginning of your book. Now the name of the book, everybody, is Consumed: the Need for Collective Change. And it talks about colonialism, climate change, and consumerism. And you talk about your grandmothers in the beginning of the book. It's just like an acknowledgement. And because y'all, Aja narrates the book, you can hear the love in your voice when you read this scene. When you said: to the grandmothers I've known in this lifetime, who have taught me so much, and lived more sustainably than anyone I know. And then in parenthesis, you said, Grandma, you would be so proud. My goodness, you'd tell everyone.

Aja Barber 3:23

She would. My Grammy would brag on you. She would brag. She would brag on you if you had an accomplishment and you told my grandmother. She was like everyone's cheerleader. She'd be like, Do you know what she did today? And so yeah, she would, there would not be a person within a 10-mile radius that wouldn't know that her granddaughter wrote a book.

Lisa Woolfork 3:42

And what a book it is. And so the book, it seems to it's divided into two sections. And it's like you are trying to kind of make a case for all of us to be better, and to make a case for us to make daily decisions in order to make the world more sustainable for everybody. That seems like a very simple idea. Why do you think it's so vexed? Why do you think that talking about these things, about consumer habits, about what you buy, what you don't buy - why do you think that strikes people so deeply?

Aja Barber 4:25

Oh, because consumerism is sold to us from the minute we arrive in this planet. Like honestly, it is scary how like, my niece, when she was like three years old, she knew how to swipe my credit card. Consumerism is sold to us through, like, media, movies, books. And there's a whole movie called Shopaholic, and it's been based on a series of books. And it is sold the hardest, of course, to cisgender women. You know, like we are told, "women be shopping," which, I laugh, like I use that phrase jokingly, but like, there's a bit of truth to that idea. And there's also this idea that if you are a woman who doesn't like shopping, you must be broken, what's wrong with you? You know, and so consumerism is so heavily woven into us. And there's this just underlying message that consumerism is a part of your identity. And so when you're asking people to change the ways in which they interact with some of these systems, I think sometimes it can feel like we're asking them to, like, change their identity, but in actuality, the farther you get from interacting with the system as a consumer, I think the more you get parts of yourself back.

Lisa Woolfork 5:43

Yes. And I mentioned this to my students last week, I said, You know what, it is very hard to sell a free person anything. If you are free, if you define yourself as someone who is free, you will be a lot less susceptible to marketing, to email incentivizing, to discounts, to sales, and to the must-have item. None of that is going to appeal to you. Because so much, I think, of consumerism, and capitalism more generally, is based on insecurities. You have an insecurity that can only be solved by buying something,

Aja Barber 6:27

You're an imperfect person, so you need to sort it out by doing this, that and the other. Your body will never be perfect, your wardrobe will never be perfect, you are not good enough, you won't get that job if you don't get a new outfit. That person won't fall in love with you if you wear that. All your friends will laugh and call you a loser if you don't have the newest style of this, that and the other. Oh, yes, it feeds on our insecurity. And at the same time, we're told that like, you should like this, you should enjoy this, this should be fun. But in actuality, I have never felt more happy and free than when I stopped talking fast fashion. I didn't think I would feel that way. I didn't think at first. No.

Lisa Woolfork 7:12

it's interesting because, and I'm hoping that we'll - of course, y'all, because we are a sewing podcast, and we will talk about the sewing. That's one of the reasons I invited Aja to the program: I wanted to talk about sewing, and sustainability, and some of the stuff and foibles that we have in the sewing community. But before we get there, I'm very interested in, as you were saying - because your book is, you know, bicultural, the fact that it's an American-based, but also British-based, that so much of one's national identity, like you were talking about after the tragedies of 9/11, that George Bush, when he went to advise people about how we can deal with and rebuild as a country. We could have, like you said, people could have turned to you know, grieving, they could have had praying, workshops, a national day of mourning.

Aja Barber 8:00

Shop, shop.

Lisa Woolfork 8:02

No. Go shopping. And the same was true in terms of COVID. Like you were talking over here.

Aja Barber 8:06

Rishi Sunak said the same thing. And it seems like the UK's favorite thing to do is to relax restrictions, particularly around the holiday season, only to threaten to put the lockdown when the holiday comes. And it almost feels like the relaxing of the restrictions is tied to the economy and making sure that we're all getting out, and spending that money, getting into stores. And then, you know, the Christmas before last, you know, everything was free and open only for them to go back into lockdown on Christmas Day, which is the day when it's supposed to matter most. When you're supposed to be with your loved ones when you're supposed to - I mean, if you celebrate Christmas, obviously not everyone does. But it just felt a bit like, let them out to build the economy. And then when the actual holiday comes shut it down again. Which is cruel.

Lisa Woolfork 9:02

Yes. And this idea that somehow one's participation in the national project of nation building doesn't come from voting. It doesn't come from paying your taxes. It doesn't come from other --

Aja Barber 9:17

It certainly doesn't if you're Donald Trump.

Lisa Woolfork 9:23

It doesn't come from civic engagement because you were on the Lions Rotary Club or because you were in a guild. It all comes from how you spend your money,

Aja Barber 9:35

Spending money, buying things you should. And I think our society tells us from a very young age that like, you should always be thriving for bigger and better. That's the American way. You should always want a bigger house. We don't talk about contentment as much as we talk about striving for more in our society. Once I began to sort of unpack that within myself, which I did in my twenties, all of a sudden I began to see everything differently. Because I remember thinking - in my twenties, I never made, you know, good money. I was always sort of in and out of work, moving in and out of my parents' basement. And I remember feeling very much like a loser because peers were buying property. And, you know, little-known to me at the time, a lot of those peers were buying property with their parents' money and pretending like it wasn't, you know? And that's really sucky. But anyways, I felt like a big old loser. And I remember asking myself, like, what do I need to be happy? What would make me happy? What amount of money would I need? And so I started to really do the math and be like, Okay, if I made this amount of money, I could get on the property ladder. If I did this, I could do that. And once I began to really understand that I didn't actually need all the money in the world, all of a sudden, my entire worldview of what I should be striving for, what I should do with my life, completely changed.

Lisa Woolfork 11:03

Yes, yes.

Aja Barber 11:05

Once I realized I would never want a helicopter or jet or any of that crap, or even like, five houses. The idea of having to maintain that much property, actually, isn't that appealing to me. Because then you have to hire staff to maintain the property. And if you're a busy person making all that money so you can pay for all that stuff, you don't get to enjoy that stuff. You know? And so, the more I began to think about these things, the more I began to feel like ostentatious wealth was actually quite gauche, you know? And like, I think a show that does a really good job of pointing that is Succession. I don't know if you've watched it.

Lisa Woolfork 11:47

I've not watched Succession. Is it Showtime?

Aja Barber 11:51

I think so? We can get it over here on Sky. But it really makes it all very unappealing. You're like, Oh, they're all so unhappy and miserable. And just gross, you know? And so I had that realization in my twenties, that, like, I didn't want all the money, I just wanted enough money to survive. And I think most people will find that that's what we actually want. But our society doesn't allow for us to really have those thoughts. It sort of tells you, you should always want to be the media mogul who's written about in Forbes, and this and that. And it's like, no, I don't want that at all, actually.

Lisa Woolfork 12:31

Right. And what I appreciate about what you're asking us to think about by identifying consumerism as a component of our identity formation - it just goes to show, at least it shows me, the seductive nature of capitalism, as well as all of the other interlocked systems of oppression that go with capitalism, and how we go to support them. You know? I mean, there's a reason that they sell things for kids like little tiny cash registers, so they can practice shopping.

Aja Barber 13:00

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I had one of those when I was a kid, funnily enough. And I think about my life as it is, and me and my partner, we don't have all the money, we didn't come from extreme generational wealth of any type. But we have a really good life. And I think that's what most people want. Like, you know, if you have the healthcare system, which is something that the UK definitely has going for it, it really changes your quality of life if you don't have to worry about those sorts of things. You know, we live in a small flat, but hopefully we'll be moving soon. We have enough money, and we can go out for a nice dinner every now and then, you know; if the world were open, and people were going on holiday, we could go on holiday. We could do some really nice things. And that's really all I've ever wanted out of life.

Lisa Woolfork 13:52

Right. Like, make memories, like having experiences.

Aja Barber 13:56

Having experiences, being able to pay your bills, you know, being able to care for your loved ones. Like, I think my greatest goal would be to be able to take care of my parents, because they both still work and they're in their 70s. And I would like for them to be able to just enjoy life, and not worry about money and bills, you know.

Lisa Woolfork 14:15

Yes, I hear that. Especially as you talked about in the book, they were always there for you, like a backbone for you, that allowed you to help to pursue these dreams. For example, in the book, you talk about the completely exploitative nature of many aspects of the fashion industry, but most notably, in my reading; the internship.

Aja Barber 14:36

Yes.

Lisa Woolfork 14:37

The internship, which really, you said cost most people around $30,000?

Aja Barber 14:43

Yeah, there was a study done by some students, and they sort of asked around and, you know, quizzed their peers and surveyed their peers. And it was like, yeah, I think it was like thirty-something thousand dollars that the average student will spend on doing free internships. Which means that the internship system is a classist system, because for the students that don't have that money, they can't do the internship. But if you need to do the internship to get in the door, then you can't get in the door. Which means you've just created an entire problem where only a certain class of people can work in that industry if the free internship is the requirement for entry.

Lisa Woolfork 15:22

Yes. The idea that unpaid labor is somehow mandatory, and that you have to be able to work for free in order to participate is a huge barrier. And at least to my understanding, that's not because the system is broken. That's because the system is working exactly as intended.

Aja Barber 15:42

Exactly. The amount of times that people would be like, You should do an internship. And I was like, I need a job/ I got really tired of being told that in my twenties, like, no, I have to pay my bills, my parents aren't going to just deposit money into my account. That's not how it works in my family, we don't have it like that, you know? So just this idea - and even when I did do internships, I would scrimp and save and, you know, have three jobs. I had three jobs in university, and that was not the only time in my life where I've had three jobs. And so, in order to get the experiences to even be here talking about this stuff, often I had to go above and beyond in a capitalistic society, because I don't come from a pile of wealth.

Lisa Woolfork 16:32

Right. I think one of the beautiful contributions of your book is that you are able to walk us through this story of your own growth and development within the fashion industry, as well as your decision to step outside of that. Can you talk a bit about how the world of social media, how the world of your blog, for example, made it possible for you to move more independently? And how that might - I don't know, I just think that this is a really important part of your journey.

Aja Barber 17:05

So it does allow you to move independently, but even social media has a barrier for entry that people don't want to acknowledge, right? I'm on Instagram. My Instagram took off when I moved to the UK, because there is something very appealing about a Black American living in London. There is something appealing about a foreigner in any city, and on top of that, I'm married to a British person. So there's that appeal to that. Additionally, my partner takes most of my photos, and he's a really good photographer. And he's got a good camera. That's a barrier for entry that people don't acknowledge. So we act like social media is just anyone can do anything. But it hasn't been that way for a very long amount of time, where everyone's taking pictures on their iPhone. That's just not the reality. Or even having the time to create a reel. I put an outfit reel up today: that outfit reel took me an hour to do. You know? For someone who has a fulltime job on top of other responsibilities, maybe they're a parent, where are they going to get that free time? And so I think we need to really talk honestly, even about, like, the barriers for entry in order to stand out on social media. Because it's just having the time to write, and to come up with these things. I mean, my platform grew because I moved to the UK, and I couldn't work here because I didn't have my settlement visa. I had to wait until I got my settlement via after we got married, and then I was able to work. So you have a time period where you can't do anything. And I had saved a bunch of money to be able to live here, because I knew that my partner's salary couldn't support us both. But I wasn't going to spend that money. Because anytime you leave your front door on Monday, and you sneeze a 20 pound note out of your nostril, you know, it's an expensive city. And so I started to write because you've just got nothing else to do. But it's a privilege to be able to have a chunk of time where you can actually really formulate and get a platform up and running. And so I would argue that yes, in some ways, social media does make certain things a little bit more democratic. But in other ways, I think there are still barriers for entry that we do not talk about, that we should talk about.

Lisa Woolfork 19:31

I agree. One of the reasons, actually, you helped me considerably - I just started my Patreon maybe, I think, a year ago. I had started it when I started the podcast back in 2019. But I didn't pay attention to it really. And I was just like, I just don't know if I want to do this, or how, and you know. And I'm like, how am I going to get money to sustain this project, but do I really need it? But you came on, and you were - this was when you came on Instagram and you said, "Y'all, I have a Patreon. And I am not going to continue to give so much of what I'm doing for free on this platform, that helps build and sustain Instagram and also Facebook, but doesn't give me, Aja, anything material to sustain what I'm doing. And so instead, I'll come out here every so often, but if you really want to connect with me, you should sign up for my Patreon." Like, that is a genius idea. I don't know why it struck me - again, people had told me for a while, like, You should try, you should try it. And I was like, I don't have the energy, I don't have the time. But you made it make sense, and that you can move ethically through this process, and not feel like you had to make concessions that you didn't feel comfortable with. Could you say more about why it's so important?

Aja Barber 20:54

Yeah. The reason why I really took that route is because a lot of the ways of monetizing Instagram are through the most unethical companies ever. And so when it's like, Hmm, I'm talking about ethics and sustainability, and I'm giving real talk, I can't then turn around and be like, hashtag ad, hashtag sponsored by the very same company that's ripping off the garment workers that I'm talking about. I just can't do that. I can't. And so, for me, I had really reached a rock and a hard place. And it was funny, because my platform started to take off. And I remember my partner at the time, we were pretty broke. Like, I always say broke, not poor, because we have plenty of resources. We have, you know, parents who can, you know, try and help where they can. I mean, they can't pay our bills, but you know what I mean, we've got resources. If we need to move back in with our parents, we could do that. But we were pretty broke. We had gone through a wedding, which we went very lowkey on the wedding; a visa, which was very expensive; hiring lawyers; and we only had one of us who could have a job during that time period. So we were pretty hard up for some cash at that time. And my partner was a bit like, So your Instagram's taking off? What are you going to do, you need to do something with this, you know? And I kind of was like, I can't. And I remember, we were having beers one night, we were at a pub and someone had actually recognized me off of Instagram, which was nice. And we were having a chat, and Steve had said to me - at the time, he knew that like, you know, 10,000 pounds would have made a huge difference in our circumstances. And so he was like, So, I know you don't want to monetize this with fast fashion. If H&M came to you and offered you $10,000 to work with them, what would you do? And I remember like biting my fist, and then I was like, I would say no, because they're really bad. And at that point, he was like, Okay, well then, if you literally turn down that money, then we need to come up with an alternative way of monetizing what you're building. Because clearly, you know, Instagram's getting something from you being there, but you're not. And so I basically told people, Look, I'm not going to monetize this space in a traditional way. To this day, I only have one sponsor, and that's Vestiaire Collective, they're a fashion resale site. I can get behind that; there's a lot of clothing that needs to be resold, right. But I leveled with my readership and said, I'll keep posting here semi-daily if a bunch of you sign up to Patreon, basically. I'll keep it going here, because I enjoy writing and interacting with you all, but I can't do it for free. Like, I live in one of the world's most expensive cities. So, people really responded to that, and I think it was a right place, right time thing, because for me, I could see that there was a gap in the market where people wanted information about sustainability, but they wanted it untainted. And for a lot of people that had social media platforms, maybe they talk about sustainability on this day, but then the next day, they'd be working with Amazon, you know? And so I saw that if I could say, look, I won't do that. I won't work with any of the brands, and if it's a brand that you think that I would drag, there'd be no way I could take money from them. But, you know, if you all would sign up here, I'll give you more stuff, and I'll give you more information; more conversation. And people really took to that. So it was a right place right time, seeing a gap in the market moment for me, which - I've only had one of those in my life.

Lisa Woolfork 20:54

Hey friends, hey. What are you doing on Thursday around 3pm or so? You got 30 minutes to hang out with Black Women Stitch? You got 60? If so, come through for 30 Minute Thursdays. Thursdays, 3pm, Eastern Standard Time. You can chill with Black Women Stitch on Instagram Live, or talk with us through the two-way audio on Clubhouse at 3:30pm Eastern Standard Time. That's Thursdays for 30 minutes. Come hang out, chill, and have fun with us. See you Thursday.

I'm glad you hit it when you did. I'm really glad, I'm really glad. Because what you are offering is such a generous invitation. And it's to look within, and to understand that all the decisions that we make are interconnected all around the globe. It's a pretty awesome responsibility when you really pause to think about it. And that's one of the things that globalization has done, is that even though it's made, like, a lot of people billionaires, right, quite a few billionaires, it has also, at least to me, proven that we are connected. And I really appreciate the campaigns that you emphasize in your work about who makes your clothes, and when you say that everyone needs to know what's in the things that they're buying in the same way that you have nutrition facts on a product that you purchase at the store. What do you think people are most surprised by? If they were to buy a garment and flip the tag over and see the nutritional facts? What are some facts you think they might be shocked by? Like, if I'm at Old Navy, and I'm buying a pair of pullover sweaters for $15.

Aja Barber 26:32

They would be shocked by the fact that the fashion industry collectively produces 100 billion garments a year, which is almost 14 times the human population currently. And that 100 billion comes from a stat in 2014. So we know it means that the number is probably higher, in 2022. They will be shocked by the waste. This is the thing: these companies can waste millions of dollars a year in unsold merchandise, fabric, that sort of stuff. But they can't pay garment workers? Are you kidding me? And the companies themselves - and I've been in the rooms before to hear these weak excuses - will say things like, "Well, you know, it's not our fault that, you know, exploitation happens." Well, they won't say it's not our fault, they'll say the exploitation happens because: "The factories that we work with will outsource the labor to another factory. And that other factory might be exploiting people." That's a way of saying, "Well, it's not our fault." But here's where it is your fault. It's your fault because you know that the order that you're giving that factory cannot be fulfilled in the time limit in which you want it. You know that the price that you were asking for has drilled this factory to the place where they probably can't pay everyone, because you're paying 20 cents for a T-shirt, and you've got this massive order and you want it quickly, you know? So you could say that it's not your fault that this sort of outsourcing of labor happens within supply chains. But I would argue that you know what you're doing when you whittle them down to a price that's so low that you know that living wages can't be accomplished. So I would argue it's definitely their fault, and they're just pretending like it's not. But people would be surprised to know about those practices. And the problem is, is that all of these companies, all the stuff that I'm telling you, they know it, they know it. It should never be a surprise when an unsafe factory collapses on top of garment workers. Because if you shorten your supply chain, and invest in the places where you make the clothing, invest in the factories, invest in the people; make some of those people your employees, so they have the same benefits that your other employees in the global north have, then that sort of stuff wouldn't happen. Right?

Lisa Woolfork 29:01

Right. And what I also appreciate, is that you also make it not only the responsibility of the factories, and the companies, and the corporations and the brands; but also the consumers. That consumers have power. You've made this beautiful phrase when you talk about the ladder of the supply chain, and that brands are really concerned about their reputation, and that they don't want to be associated with something that looks bad. Also the power of writing letters - that if they see enough mail about something, then they have to address that.

Aja Barber 29:32

Yeah. And it's been surprising to me how little people do actually interact with brands, and I've got an example of this. Back in the day there was this photographer who - I won't name him but if you look him up, you can find him - and he used to take pictures for all the magazines, and he was a pervert. He harassed models, he did really creepy, gross things that were very well documented. And after all this came out, magazines continued to use him, as well as companies like H&M continued to use him. It was one of those things where one girl was just like, Hey, guess what happened when I shot with this photographer, and then all the other stories started to come out as well. It was Me Too before #MeToo. This was like, way before #MeToo. But all these stories came out and no one did anything. H&M continued to work with him, magazines continued to work with him. Nothing happened. You know, I called out H&M - and this was back before I had a platform - and called their corporate headquarters and said, I want to launch a complaint. Why is so-and-so doing your campaign when it has come out that this man is a predator, you know, to young women? The person logged my complaint. And then a few days later, I called back just to see if there was any followup. And they were like, Oh, yeah, you were the person that called about the photographer. "The person," meaning no one else had. And so that's an indicator that there's a lot of inaction going on on our part as, like, citizens, you know? And it was really shocking to me that I was the only person that was like, Why are you continuing to work with someone when there is a documented history of abuse going on here?

Lisa Woolfork 30:47

Wow. And you were the only person...

Aja Barber 31:39

The fact that they said, "You were the person that called?"

Lisa Woolfork 31:43

They remembered you. Wow.

Aja Barber 31:46

And they were like, Yeah, we passed your complaint up the line. And I'm just like, Great. Now imagine if 2000 people called them about that. What sort of response would we have gotten then? It would have been a much different response. And I've seen H&M respond to complaints and social media backlash. A good example of this was in 2020, Fashion Rev put out their transparency index. So for those of you that don't know what the transparency index is, it rates the biggest brands in the world about how transparent they are. Now, transparency doesn't equal sustainability or ethics or any of that stuff; basically means you're willing to open your books and give them the information that you know. So H&M ranked the top at the transparency index as far as being open. Okay, now you can be open about putting glass in someone's food; it doesn't mean you're doing anything good, you know what I mean? I could be very transparent and be like, Well, what's in this dish? Glass. You know?

Lisa Woolfork 32:46

"It's because I hate people."

Aja Barber 32:49

Exactly, exactly. Oh, I'm the most transparent person in the world. It doesn't equal sustainability. It doesn't equal ethics, it doesn't really equal anything except the fact that you were very open. Additionally, in order to be rated on the Fashion Rev transparency index, you as a company have to sell $400 million of stuff a year, of merchandise. So who isn't going to be rated on the transparency index? Every single sustainability brand that I like and know, because they're not making $400 million this year. But that also means that they're not a sizable, they're not a significant polluter. Because when you're moving that much merchandise, you're doing a lot more damage than a brand like Laura Jean, for instance, right? And so H&M writes this social media post: "H&M is the most transparent brand in the world." And then they hashtag sustainability. Now, why did they do that? They did that because they think the general public is too ignorant to tell them : One, you're misleading people, right? You're lying, like, one: you were not the most transparent brand in the world, because you are the most transparent out of the big corporate polluters. Congratulations, here's your metal for being open, but also being horrible, you know? Two: transparency will never equal sustainability at all. So to hashtag it sustainability, that's really, really deceitful. That's willfully misleading the general public, because if you have a sustainability team of 250 people, which I think they do, everybody on that team knows that transparency doesn't equal sustainability. So a bunch of us with social media platforms just went after them on social media. We were relentless. We were on all of their posts, people wrote blogs about them. And you know what, they sure did turn that around and apologize.But even their apology was so disingenuous, because they said, Oh, we made a mistake. That's what they said. And I just think it's so funny because I bet you at least 10 different people greenlight their social media posts before they go up. So you know, they're making it seem like they're me, they're an individual, they just made a little boo boo. Not that they didn't deliberately mislead the general public about the claims of transparency index, which Fashion Revolution also wrote a post, and said that they were disappointed with the ways in which H&M was misleading the general public about the findings of their report. And so basically, if you have enough outcry, you can sort of bend these brands and the ways in which you want to, but in the past, whenever I've had issue with something, I've never felt like I had an army behind me. And now I feel like I have that army.

Lisa Woolfork 35:47

Aja's army, y'all. Aja's army, check out her Patreon so you can have more.

Aja Barber 35:53

There's so many people, though, that are really doing the work. And it is not just me, it's so many. And I think when you have a few people who have a platform and a voice, and they're using it in a certain way, we're powerful together. You kno?

Lisa Woolfork 36:08

It's very true. And you really proved that when you talked about two hashtags that you had done earlier that went viral, and one was on the heels of Trayvon Martin's murder.

Aja Barber 36:19

It was Tamir Rice's murder.

Lisa Woolfork 36:21

Tamir Rice. Look at me. Look at me. Look at these two boys. Same first initial.

Aja Barber 36:27

And can you believe it's been 10 years since Trayvon Martin's death? I can't.

Lisa Woolfork 36:31

I can't believe it. I remember that verdict. I was in bed for two days. I couldn't.

Aja Barber 36:36

It still feels fresh to me, because I'm still mad as hell about it. Yeah, it still feels fresh for me.

Lisa Woolfork 36:42

It's so hard. And for me, I look at those boys, and I look at my boys. And it's just, it's very difficult to do, you know, just being a Black person in this country, and a Black person that loves other Black people and parents, some of them. And, you know, it's very painful. And you made it so apparent in - do you think it was, like, "America in five words?"

Aja Barber 37:03

Yeah, that was the hashtag. And you know, I live in the UK. And when making the decision with my partner where we were going to live, all of that played into the factors. You know, there's a lot of reasons why I live here. Healthcare is something I enjoy. I want that for everyone. Now, I'm not saying it's a perfect society without racism - please, this country invented colonialism. But I want to live in a country where my child doesn't have to go through active shooter training in preschool. I want to live in a society where there are not as many guns. I just don't want it. And so it coinciding with becoming an age of, you know, becoming a maternal age, and having Black Lives Matter be such a prominent part of, you know, the things that I was seeing and how I was consuming media, I just thought, you know what, I might hedge my bets somewhere else.

Lisa Woolfork 38:02

And I think you made a good choice. I really do. And also, I love how in the book, you had to explain to the British readers that, Hey, guess what y'all? If you happen to come down with cancer, you could be bankrupt in America. Because hospitals will sue you for every dime of the money that you do not have to pay?

Aja Barber 38:20

Yes, yes. I mean, I had a friend when I was in my 20s. This was a very privileged friend who didn't have health insurance. And you know, his parents had been saying he needed to sign up for health insurance, and he just put it off. Anyway, his appendix ruptured, and he ended up in the hospital, and his parents had to pay his bill out of pocket. And it was $14,000. And they were like, You owe us, you know what I mean? But he was lucky, because he had privileged parents that actually had $14,000 to slap down on a bill, where I don't know too many people that are in that situation. A lot of Americans live paycheck to paycheck.

Lisa Woolfork 39:03

Exactly. And it's absolutely true. And the thing that I find so interesting about this, is that even as we recognize and identify all of these things that are wrong with this system, when we recognize and we can see that there's exploitation, when we can see - there is something about the seductive nature of capitalism that still tells us, if you buy, you'll feel better. Just call it retail therapy.

Aja Barber 39:33

Exactly. Retail therapy. That's the phrase, when in actuality, can buying things replace actual therapy? Absolutely not. That's called dopamine. And don't get me wrong, I love a dopamine kick, but I don't get that through buying clothing anymore, where I think that perhaps the clothing might have been made in exploitative measures.

Lisa Woolfork 39:55

Yes, it becomes a buzzkill. For real. Like, I would enjoy this a lot more if there was less oppression in it.

Aja Barber 40:03

And now, I can't unsee it. Once you really start to, like, really internalize the messaging and understanding that like, this is all sort of built on a bubble of exploitation - I can't unsee it. Like, I couldn't walk into a fast fashion store and buy something even if I wanted to right now. Because I read about this stuff and write about it constantly, and it really - I wouldn't say it takes the fun out of it, because was it really that much fun to begin with? Or was I just participating in something that had been sold to me? I enjoy more the thrill of finding a vintage secondhand item that I really, really want. And putting a lot of effort into, you know, how am I going to wear this. You know, shopping secondhand and doing stuff online, it really slows you down. Made-to-measure, you got to wait for that item to be made. And you just, you know, you spend a lot of time thinking about it. Where a lot of my fast fashion purchases, there was very little thought, sometimes, behind that purchase. It was all about the dopamine.

Lisa Woolfork 41:11

And then you talked about - of all the things, like, you know, you mentioned that these brands, they make a $400 million minimum in order to be part of that index. They sell so many products, they make so many products, and we buy so many products. It wastes so many. But like, I think that one of the stats you shared was that after we buy something, and then six months later, how much of that stuff is used, still, after six months. So I was listening, I was like, Oh, okay, 20%. And you were like, not 20. It was one.

Aja Barber 41:45

Yeah. That is from The Story of Stuff, which I recommend everybody watch on YouTube, it's free. It's an animated video about consumer markets and our stuff. And the Story of Stuff tells you that 1% of consumer goods are still in circulation six months after being purchased, which makes me think about everything now that I buy. I think about things in terms - and there's been a few things, you know, writing and reading about all this stuff constantly helps. Moving overseas definitely helps, because I really had to decrease my possessions, but I wanted to do it thoughtfully because I knew about all these systems. And so, you know, now, if I'm in a shop, and I feel tempted to buy anything, I ask myself a series of questions. One: If I outgrow this item, will it have any value to anyone else? Two: Would I move this overseas? Like if I had to, like, pick the best of the best, would this be something that I would be bothered to move overseas? You know? Three: If this is sitting in a charity shop after I've used it, is it actually appealing to someone else in any way? And once I've worked through all of these questions, nine out of ten times I leave the store empty-handed.

Lisa Woolfork 43:09

Wow. It's so powerful and so important to do. Because the things that you buy, they kind of follow you.

Aja Barber 43:19

And they'll be on this planet for longer than we will, especially if they're made out of plastic.

Lisa Woolfork 43:23

That was one of the things that I wanted to get to. We could pivot now to talk a little bit more about sewing, because I tend to - again, I'm going to just full disclosure, full confession. I tend to think that sewing is a good way to be involved in this kind of process, because, like, I don't buy clothes.

Aja Barber 43:43

I think so. Yeah, I totally do.

Lisa Woolfork 43:46

I have not bought a pair of underwear in eight years. I haven't bought a bra in three years. I make all of that. Which is great, which I love. But I also have a smart aleck of a son, and he likes fast fashion. And I'm explaining to him, as someone he's committed to issues of justice and racial equity and Black liberation, which is something we believe in as a family, and I'm like, "When you buy these clothes, you are exploiting children your own age, sometimes younger. And they are making these clothes, and they are not being properly compensated. You need to rethink this." Right? He is like, 10. He was at the time. And he said, "Mama, if my clothes are made by these kids, who do you think is making your fabric? Probably the same kids making your fabric, so I don't see the difference." And then I was like, Go to your room until you agree with me.

Aja Barber 44:47

To be honest, I don't actually know much about textile weaving, and whether or not there's child exploitation involved in that process, and he's given me something to think about it. But at the end of the day, you should show him, you know, videos and images you can come on to market. Because regardless of how we feel, that's a system that fast fashion, fast consumption has built. And your sewing habits did not aid in the creation of that.

Lisa Woolfork 45:23

Another thing that also really shocked me was about the synthetic fibers. When you said that they have tested placenta, which is the thing, y'all, if you've had a baby, a pregnant person has the connection to your baby, food. That's how you feed the baby. It attaches through your - all that stuff. And you think that this is like a sacred connection between- the way that bodies get built, and the human body and all that. And they tested it, y'all. And they found some of the same elements of synthetic fiber.Could you talk about that?

Aja Barber 46:00

Yeah, so, synthetic fibers, for people that don't know - fossil fuel fibers - so your polyesters, your acrylics, your workout wear gear, most of that is synthetic. And it comes from fossil fuels, which - oil, that's what it is. And there has been a massive push by the fossil fuel industry to really infiltrate our fashion industry with these fibers that we always have a need for their product. Because they could tell that us environmentalists would start getting on them about the fact that they're trashing the planet that we all live on with this system. So they wanted to make sure to put polyester into everything, you know? Or even think about, like, Vaseline, petroleum jelly. That's in everything as well, you know? It's one of those things where I was raised putting Vaseline on my body, smearing fossil fuel on my body, you know?

Lisa Woolfork 47:03

It is petroleum, it says petroleum.

Aja Barber 47:06

So there's been a massive push by the fossil fuel industry to get oil products into everything. And we have definitely just eaten it up. In the fashion industry, we've got currently 60% of the fabrics that are in existence, and the clothes that are in existence come from fossil fuels. Now, fossil fuels fabrics shed, and every time you wash that polyester garment, microfibers are getting into the water supply, because of the way you're washing it. But there are some solutions for this, we could actually have mandates where every washing machine has to have a filter for that. There are filters that you can actually attach to your washing machine to catch these fibers. But you know, what would be a real level up? If every washing machine was required to have it. That's how we get this fix of regulation. But additionally, we have to stop the production of virgin polyester. That has to stop. There is enough polyester on the planet where we probably don't have to produce more for the next 30 years. And they're still just churning it out. You know what I mean? And so, there's a lot of things happening here that it's important to recognize. But in general, the thing that you can do as a person is start skipping that stuff in the store. We see it, sometimes you can't avoid it. Polar fleece, you know, that's going to be - I've got a polar fleece from when I was, you know, in high school, I think it's like 1997. Still going strong, because it turns out that stuff's indestructible.

Lisa Woolfork 48:46

Indestructible. And that's why it's not going to dissolve in a landfill.

Aja Barber 48:49

Exactly. So those are the things, you know - but we don't have to have the polyester t-shirt. We don't have to have the polyester dress. There are things that we can't avoid -swimwear. Swimwear is a tough one, you know? Dance wear, I haven't bought dance wear in seven years, because it's all polyester, basically. There's a lot of stuff where it's hard to avoid. But I think when we're shopping for our clothing, start reading those tags. And if it looks like, you know, it's more than 10% polyester, put it back. Honestly. Because this is going to be our demise. By 2050, there will be more microfibers in the ocean than there are stars in the sky, at the rate we're going at.

Lisa Woolfork 49:38

Wow, you all think about that. When you think about a beautiful starry night, and you can look up and see - we know how many stars there are. Well, we don't know how many, we know there's a lot.

Aja Barber 49:47

Infinite! Infinite!

Lisa Woolfork 49:51

And the idea of having that be out-numbered in our water.

Aja Barber 49:55

Yeah, and here's the thing, like, microfibers; you know, they're still testing to see, like, the effects on the human body. But I guarantee you, it's not good. The stuff that I've started to read is starting to scare me. So every time you wash that polyester outfit that you didn't need to buy or whatever, that is shedding, and that's going to go into the water, and it's going to end up in the ocean, our fish is going to eat it, and then we will eat the fish. It will end up in your soil; your vegetables that you grow, will grow, you know, because you've used the water to water it. So we've really got to tamp down on virgin polyester's being produced. We're good, we have enough of that. We need to limit it. And we need to stop it. Because that's just one small thing that could really have disastrous effects. And I think we need to start pumping the brakes there.

Lisa Woolfork 50:51

Yeah, I really do appreciate that. Because what you've given us is a clear example of something that is harmful and ways to remedy it. Make less of it, you know, improve the washing machine so that we're not like-

Aja Barber 51:07

Just going straight into the water supply.

Lisa Woolfork 51:10

Yeah, and I really do feel like globalization has really put a lot of blinders up, especially for Americans. Where we don't think about, you know, who makes your clothes.

Aja Barber 51:24

We think everything is harmless because it's out of sight, out of mind. Exactly. Or the acronym then NIMBY. Not in my backyard.

Lisa Woolfork 51:33

Yeah, exactly. Exactly. I am so grateful to you for this content. I want to ask you one last question. I've asked everybody this question. The slogan for the Stitch Please podcast is that we help you get your stitch together. And so I'm going to ask you, what advice would you give our listeners today? If someone asked you, Hey, how can I get my stitch together? What would you tell them? What advice would you give someone to help them get their stitch together?

Aja Barber 52:01

Buy less of everything. Buy less fabric, start using that scrap pile fabric, start recycling, swap more, stop tying your happiness to buying brand new things. Start investigating your shopping habits. Even if you're like, I can only afford to shop from this place and that place, that's fine. But you don't have to buy two items every time you're there that you know you don't need, because your wardrobe's already got plenty of good things that you can wear. Investigate how you're participating in systems and why you're participating in systems, regardless of where you fall on the socioeconomic scale. Ask yourself some hard questions about the shopping you're doing.

Lisa Woolfork 52:42

I love it. And on that note, Aja Barber, thank you, this has been a delight.

Aja Barber 52:47

Thank you so much for having me. I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Lisa Woolfork 52:54

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at Blackwomenstitch@gmail.com. If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month, you can help support the project with things like editing transcripts and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews, but for those who do, for those that have like a star rating or just ask for a few comments; if you could share those comments and say nice things about us. the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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