race, colonialism and fast fashion

For a while now I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid fast fashion as much as possible. I’m not sure what or who first opened my eyes to the destruction that fast fashion causes but I imagine it was through many a podcast episode about sustainability. More recently though, I was listening to an episode of Layla F. Saad’s Good Ancestor podcast featuring Aja Barber the writer and stylist who speaks a lot about fashion in general, but most importantly for this interview, how colonialism and racism have been allowed to openly continue through the means of fast fashion. The episode itself is one of the most interesting podcast episodes I’ve listened to in a while, it showed quite how much I still had to learn about the effects of both the way we consume and where we consume from.

When it comes to tackling the problem of fast fashion, Aja Barber makes it clear that it’s about punching up when in the interview she says,

“It is not your job to tell someone with less economic disposable income than you that they should be buying from all these ethical brands… it’s one of those things where I’m never ever going to look at the single mother of two and ask her why she’s buying her kids shoes from primark”

And I think that is an important distinction to be made, as in moving forward focusing the blame on select individuals does nothing for the cause. And although things of course need to be done on an institutional level within the fashion industry itself, as Barber points out in the interview, we all have a part to play because of the power we have through demand and supply which can have a ripple effect. This is already being seen with billion dollar companies like H&M worrying about their future and trying to put the blame on consumers for not buying enough and implying that this is what is causing more poverty, which is of course completely false. For those of us with some sort of disposable income, Barber points out how much is wasted just simply in the current culture of buying a new outfit for every night out and wedding, a trend that is particularly amplified by photos on social media. This is completely unsustainable for a number of obvious reasons, but one that struck me far more than the effects on the planet and climate, was about the factory workers themselves who are having to make clothes at an unbelievable speed to keep up with the demand for far more clothes than we could ever even use while making very little money, working long hours and having very few breaks. This is insane to even think about. But gets far worse after Barber brings up the deeply upsetting statistics on the number of people who have died in factory fires and collapsed buildings due to unsafe working conditions and improper regulations. One incident where a factory collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 and trapped those inside led to the death of 1,134 people. When I searched online for the factory fire in India they referenced, so many different incidents came up I couldn’t even find the exact one. Which in itself is horrifying. And all this so we in the West can have a whole new outfit for under £20. This being a prime example of the “us and them” rhetoric, where it’s seen as a shame that this happened but almost as if it’s necessary and unavoidable. As Saad puts it, it’s

“like Black and Brown people are just seen as disposable people”

The idea that this is unavoidable is completely untrue, and just utterly terrifying that this murder that brands get away with- even though they know their demands are too much and are causing these dangerous situations- is still seen as acceptable in our “oh so progressive” 21st century society. In the interview they also reference a map of the current fashion trade that was made by Celine Semaan, who is a guest on a previous podcast episode, which has unmistakably similar trading routes to the colonialist trade of the not so distant past. So today we are still unfairly exploiting other countries for their resources and their work force, often making it seem as if it is just an inevitable fact of society that we must outsource to other countries for all the dangerous and exploitative labour. All to keep up with our ever increasing appetite for cheap, quickly made material goods that won’t last, and then we even go as far as to dump this waste that we build up back on other countries for them to deal with once we’re done with it.

Barber also goes into the common misconception that fast fashion serves the poor and that sustainable ethically produced fashion is only for the rich. Which as she points out, when we buy a cheaply made new dress from Zara which costs £69 (or above), this is hardly serving those on the poverty line. Not to mention the very point of sustainable fashion is that you buy something made of good quality material that lasts. So when putting this into practise, we can stop buying for the sake of it and instead save up for an item we really love, building a wardrobe full of long lasting items you treasure, rather than a new wardrobe every season. This is something I’ve been trying to do more and more, and it’s not difficult when there’s so many wonderful independent sustainable brands out there, many of which can be found on instagram, two of my favourite shops are The Hippie Shake (my FAV for wonderful 70s prints) and Lucy and Yak (you’ll very rarely see me without my dungarees on) and not to mention the growing number of online second hand stores. Only buying things that need replacing or that I really love and don’t already have and going out of my way to look for the right thing has led to me falling in love with fashion in a way I never did in the past. Obviously being able to do this is a privilege in itself and I should add that I don’t buy new clothes all that often. And since, for the majority of us, buying fast fashion tends to end up with us buying more, particularly more than needed, this leads to it not turning out so cheap after all. Another important point Barber makes is that just because a brand is sustainable and/or ethical, doesn’t mean it’s inclusive. It’s been widely known for a while that buying second hand and thrifting is far more difficult for those outwith the so called “straight sizes”. And independent brands need to be held accountable for this just as much as the big ones, as that’s the only way we can ALL move forward away from a wasteful society.

It felt like such a necessary and important chat especially as we come out of lockdown which for many of us- both due to the lack of shops, and financial worries- put a stop to the usual steady consumerism we’ve been taught to think of as normal. And since we managed okay without buying many new items of clothing over the last few months, maybe we could keep that practise going forward and rethink the way we view fashion and consumerism in the broader picture. This has become even more pressing now with the UK government asking people to go out and shop for Britain, as Lucy Siegle talks about in a recent episode of the podcast Outrage and Optimism, where she describes their current motives as

“a disgusting dereliction of duty which turns citizens into consumers and consumption is their only worth”

This being a step in the complete opposite direction from that of one focussed on green recovery as many people had expected and hoped. And not to mention it’s simply a really dangerous narrative to be encouraging considering the economic impact this pandemic has had on many individuals and the residual impact it’s going to have on younger generations for years to come, so wanting us all to just spend, spend, spend, just seems entirely thoughtless. There’s a lot to be gained by podcast episodes like the ones I’ve mentioned, and so many more crucial points are made and topics discussed than the few I’ve mentioned here. I’d also recommend checking out Aja Barber’s work on Instagram and through her Patreon as I think this is a super good place to start given that a lot of people feel helpless when it comes to racism and climate injustice. Clothes are something the majority of us buy, and something we can all personally make an impact on through our own purchases, spreading awareness and holding brands both big and small accountable for their sustainability, ethics and inclusivity.


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