I used to love the thrill of shopping and the warm, fuzzy feeling when I impulsively purchased a new dress from the high street. I loved to walk out of the shop smugly praising myself that I bought the dress for a bargain price. But that feeling came crashing down when I felt the urge to buy more clothes and experience that hit again. I wasn’t content with what I just bought or by the reams of clothing that were spilling out of my wardrobe. It was never enough. It’s only now I realized that I was a fast fashion addict.
It wasn’t until summer 2020 that I reassessed my shopping habits. I heard about the #PayUp campaign, led by Remake, that pressured brands to pay for canceled orders during the pandemic. I learned how the fast fashion system exploits garment workers and contributes to the environmental crisis because of our insatiable consumption habits in the Global North. Clever marketing tricks from brands have easily convinced us that we can enjoy endless happiness and satisfaction when we buy, buy, buy.
One of the first sustainable fashion advocates I followed on social media was Aja Barber – sustainable fashion activist, consultant, and now debut author. Since following Aja on social media, I’ve subscribed to her Patreon, been inspired by the #IQuitFastFashion hashtag she started, watched her talks on Slow Factory, and now read her debut book CONSUMED: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism and the need for Collective Change.
The book is divided into two parts; the first part explores everything you need to know about fast fashion and how the system inextricably links to worker exploitation and climate change. The second part addresses how you, as a consumer, can change your consumption habits and use your voice to encourage others to rethink their habits. The book provides a thorough, critical assessment of fast fashion’s treatment of people and the planet. Here of some of the issues Aja raised that have galvanized me to make changes and take action.
Are the days of colonization over? Absolutely not. The fashion industry is just one example of how colonialism is still lining the pockets of CEOs today. Aja spoke to Cleopatra Tatabele, cultural educator and co-founder of the Abuela Taught Me collective, who said this about colonialism in the fashion industry: “They literally are taking resources from our lands, selling it back to us and burying garbage next to us; its colonialism at its finest.”
The fashion system works against citizens in the Global South by extracting their resources, exploiting the people who work in their supply chain, and then destroying their land by depositing masses of unwanted clothing. The colonization chapter is an eye-opener. Aja provides a broader context on how colonizers enforce their ideologies to make people more governable in the Global South and goes into details on how colonialism plays a fundamental part in the fast fashion system.
I imagine most of us cleared out our used clothing and dropped them off at a charity shop during the pandemic as we felt it was the ideal time to put our wardrobes in order. When you donate your clothes to a charity shop, do you reckon your donated items get sold and are taken home by a shopper? Here’s a statistic I want you to consider: only 10 to 20% of donated clothing gets sold at charity shops. The excess that does not get sold are turned into bale and are shipped to countries in the Global South, largely to Ghanian capital Accra, home to Kantamanto Market, the world’s largest secondhand market, which receives 15 million garments a week. Let that sink in, 15 million garments a week.
It’s a gamble on what clothing traders receive when they buy bales “because the traders are dealing in highly depreciating assets,” Aja says, “for all the sellers, however, it’s a risk they’re willing to take, because the options outside of the market are currently few.” The growth in fast fashion means growth in low-quality clothing infiltrating not just our wardrobes, but the traders searching for good quality goods to sell.
When clothing still doesn’t get sold in Kantamanto, which is around 40%, that clothing becomes “waste and are taken to landfill, informal dumping grounds, or burn piles, or are put into the sea.”
So think carefully before donating, and whether you need that fast fashion item in the first place, only to give it away later. As Aja states, “The things that we think we’re giving away and being ‘do gooders’ by doing so are simply becoming someone else’s problem.” Throwaway culture, constant trend cycles, and mass production of fast fashion need to end; that is the only way Ghana can stop suffering from the disposal of other countries.
The Race to the Bottom
We know that fast fashion production is problematic, but learning the extent to which fast fashion brands are willing to exploit factories and garment workers further is disturbing. “The race to the bottom forces factories to compete against one another, quoting lower and lower prices (racing to the bottom), in order to win the much-needed contract,” Aja explains. As a result, factories accept high production targets for cheap labor costs at a rapid turnaround or risk not winning the sought-after contract.
“Ever wonder how stores manage to get new garments into the store every single day?” Aja asks, “It’s the race to the bottom!” Brand pressure and consumer demand for new styles at low costs mean that factories and garment workers in the Global South are paying the price for our consumption habits. The race to the bottom is a practice rooted in the rich abusing their power.
In the second part of her book, Aja covers how we, as individuals, can use our voices to make a change. For example, I now feel empowered to write to my local representative and make them aware of the fast-fashion crisis happening right in front of us (Aja provides a brilliant letter template that’ll help you begin). Social media is another powerful platform; if I can encourage a few of my followers to think twice before buying fast fashion, I’ll be proud of that; it will only push me to do more. And more importantly, don’t buy as much clothing!
I have learned so much more, but you’ll have to read the CONSUMED for yourself to see how Aja educates, inspires you, and makes you realize this system doesn’t benefit you and the people who make our clothes.
I’ll leave you with this quote Aja highlighted, by Anannya Bhattacharjee, a garment worker part of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Garment and Allied Workers Union in North India: “The power of the consumer is huge. The brands really fear reputational risk, so they do not like it when it becomes public that their purchasing practices are causing so much exploitation and misery”.
Our actions, our voices, and our commitment have the power to make a difference.
CONSUMED: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism and the need for Collective Change comes out October 5th. Support local bookstores and pre-order on Bookshop.
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