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Grapey Book Club: Aja Barber’s Consumed (2021)


The main thing I want you to take away from this is the following: you need to read this book. Even if you think you don’t, you do.

Author Aja Barber is a writer, stylist, and fashion consultant, and a self-confessed (previously) fast fashion addict. She grew up in Virginia, America, and currently lives with her husband in London.

I had some issues with Aja Barber’s new book, Consumed, which was published in the second half of 2021. It’s important to be up-front about that.

The subtitle of this non-fiction book is apt: “The need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism”. The main issue I have is that this book is not marketed as a generalised discussion of where these ideas intersect; it is marketed as a book critiquing fast fashion. That is what I thought the book was about. I loved Dana Thomas’s 2019 book, Fashionopolis. I wanted something like that when I started reading this book; something that would aggressively yell at me to MAKE SOME CHANGES TO YOUR HABITS AND YELL UNTIL OTHER PEOPLE MAKE CHANGES, TOO.

Rather, it is more accurate to say that Barber uses fast fashion (and discussions of the fashion industry overall) as the glue that binds these issues together. Her central thesis relates to our over-consumption of everything, from fashion to food to every-day material objects. Our materialist consumption of everything, Barber seems to be saying, is the problem.

The statistics around the issues that fast fashion is causing for our planet and our society are simply examples that Barber uses to illustrate the cost of materialism and consumerism.

But what is “consumption”? Barber does not define this term for her reader, nor does she define the other, more complicated lexicon that she employs. I understood this language because this is a topic I have done extensive reading on in the past. However, I fear that others who are reading this book as an introduction to the issues surrounding materialism and climate change might find it more challenging. Be prepared to use a dictionary as you read.

Moreover, I must confess, the author’s writing style did not jive with me at times. She writes in a comedic and colloquial style that shows she is aware of herself (and doesn’t want to take herself too seriously) and that she is aware of her reader. Barber’s goal with this book is not to stress people out to the point of tears, but to hold your hand and say, yes, you’ve made mistakes, but I’ll show you where to go from here. She wants us to have hope that we can achieve climate and social justice – though I’m not sure that I do.

A review by writer Jeremy Williams from his The Earthbound Report blog says that Consumed “investigates the intersections of consumerism, racism and climate change, and that feels like it’s breaking new ground.” This statement is emphatically incorrect; this book is only “breaking new ground” for those who don’t understand (or care enough to understand) the inherent intersectionality of climate justice and socio-economic and political justice. This is a Venn Diagram that most climate activists have been operating within for years now.

Barber writes: “Because of intersecting oppression anyone who is marginalised will have that status exasperated under a climate emergency.” Climate justice is social justice.

Barber writes of the cycle between the Global North (whom she terms the colonisers) and the Global South (the colonised), quoting Liz Ricketts from the OR Foundation: “raw resources are extracted from the colony, sent to the coloniser for value to be added by patented technological processing, then exported back to colonies to consumer and, in doing so, to pay money back to the coloniser.” The example she gives to solidify the theory of this cycle is the production, advertising, and then trading of fast fashion.

Barber asks readers to reconsider language they’ve used countless times before, especially students. She asks us to think about that time you (whether for comedic purposes or not) described yourself to your friends as “poor”, or used your “poorness” (indicating a lack of money) to justify your bad spending habits at fast fashion stores because you can’t escape the indoctrination of corporate entities insisting that you need to buy the thing. I’ll admit, I’ve said it too.

Barber writes: “being broke is a state; poverty is systematic.” She goes on: “People lean into their lack of money as a way to explain their participation in these unethical systems, ‘because that’s all they can afford’. But here’s the thing: if you are buying clothing online multiple times a month, generally you aren’t poor.” However, in repeating the cycles encouraged by fast fashion monoliths, you are the reason you are consistently “broke” – you are the criminal and you are the victim. That is different to being poor, because poorness is a state perpetuated by the socially and economically unjust situations of those in the Global South, that Barber describes as “an endless well that’s impossible to climb out of […] It keeps you living in poverty, and it keeps generations and countries poor.”

Neither myself or Barber are saying that poverty does not exist in the Global North – of course it does, and it statistically and practically affects communities of people of colour more often than white people. What Barber is saying, however, is that by comparison, even inhabitants of Western countries that live in lower socio-economic conditions do not qualify as living below the poverty threshold.

In the West, Barber concedes, “[i]nheritance is becoming an increasingly important determinant of life choices.” This is something I think about a lot – and this is something Barber discusses in relation to the fashion industry – because if you have been brought up in a state of wealth and inheritance (whether that be emotional or financial) you are, more often than not, able to take that unpaid internship and establish a network of connections. When you have to work to study – or otherwise work to have a roof over your head – your life choices are more limited. This is the case outside of the fashion industry, too. And that is why we say the system is broken.

But, wait. Is the system really broken? Barber disagrees:

“When people say the system is broken, it’s a tad bit misleading. The system of extraction [of materials] and exploitation [of workers] was built by centuries of exploitation and colonialism. The ‘system’ is actually working just as it’s supposed to, with little legality and liability […] This is exactly how it was built to work – exploitation and destruction of the world’s most marginalised people for the benefit of others.”

Barber wants us to see how our society was built on the back of exploitation and destruction. People are so scared of anything other than capitalist societies, but I would argue that you should be most scared of the economic system we live in: the one that is purely motivated by financial profit, no matter the cost. The very human and planetary cost.

Towards the end of her book, Barber says: “Your worth isn’t the value of fashionable garments you wear or own, but the care with which you treat yourself (and others, and the planet) and the things you already have. […] What you wear doesn’t define you. What you do does.” Barber hit the nail on the head.

The underlying case that she makes to readers is this: these issues are not just affecting our planet, but they are affecting our society, on micro and macro levels. Think about your part in colonial structures. Think about how you actively respond to climate change. And, most importantly, think about how much you consume.

Please read this book. I promise it will be worth it.


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