CONSUMED: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism and the need for Collective Change by Aja Barber

About Aja Barber

Aja Barber is a writer, stylist and consultant whose work deals with the intersections of sustainability and the fashion landscape. Her work builds heavily on ideas behind privilege, wealth inequality, racism, feminism, colonialism and how to fix the fashion industry with all these things in mind. Source:

Consumed – A Summary

Early in the book, Barber writes, “It isn’t your fault that over-consumption has become a part of our culture. The likelihood is that you do it, just like I did, because you’ve been taught to.” In a blistering polemic against our collective shopping addiction, she links consumption to colonialism, racism and the continued exploitation of countries in the global south where much of the production of fast fashion takes place. Consumed draws on Barber’s experiences in the fashion industry, lessons learned and makes a case for exercising the power each of us have as consumers to challenge glaring power disparities.

The book is divided into two parts. The first explores systemic and structural underpinnings of how the fashion industry functions, its roots in colonialism and how it continues to this day in the form of worker exploration and the degradation of the environment. “Who does this system benefit?” asks Barber, and “How has this system of hyper-consumption made our world better?” As she unpacks the answers to these questions, Barber examines the role of colonisation and how it functions in continuing to work against citizens of the global south. First, by extracting resources, exploiting workers in the supply chain, destroying the land and rivers and then dumping unwanted clothing right back at their doorstep. She cites the example of Kantamanto market in Ghana—the world’s largest secondhand market which receives 15 million garments a week. She contextualises this with data on how much used clothing actually gets re-sold in charity shops—only 10-20 percent. The rest ends up in markets like Kantamanto and when clothing is still not sold from there (about 40 percent), it winds up as “waste and are taken to landfill, informal dumping grounds, or burn piles, or are put into the sea.”

She challenges the recycling bins placed in stores that urges people to be do-gooders but actually encourages them to buy more. In doing so, clothing waste becomes someone else’s problem and promotes a throwaway culture. “Our world has created a society with messaging that wearing the same thing twice isn’t cool. And we have to reverse that, because it’s a huge part of the problem,” she writes.

Barber brings to light a damning portrait of the fashion industry, from the overselling of clothes to the exploitation of women workers in factories and the havoc it wrecks on the local environment. Yet, by interspersing it with her own observations and openness about her own relationship to buying, she strikes a good balance with what could otherwise be a weighty subject.

In the second part of the book, Barber turns the lens on what makes us buy consumptively and what to do about it. She writes, “The constant need to consume is built off the back of you, the consumer, and your lack of awareness about your habit, and the need you have built inside you to chase a better and improved version of yourself, which you can then project to the world.” It is a pattern fuelled too by social media and the pressure to always ‘present’ to the world.

She then describes what each of us as individuals can do to challenge this. She quotes Anannya Bhattacharjee, a garment worker part of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance and Garment and Allied Workers Union in India, who says, “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”. Barber urges readers to raise their voice and use their privilege to make others aware of the fast fashion crisis, to reach out to their peer networks through social media and as a bottom line, to buy less. “The business model of consumption is making you feel bad, and then selling you something to make you feel better,” she writes. By challenging this power disparity, she points to how as consumers, it becomes possible to reclaim ownership.

To Know More:

– Watch this interview by Lighthouse Bookshop with Aja Barber – This is one for the clothes lovers (and everyone else who gets dressed in the morning)! Aja Barber loves clothes, loves fashion and design, and she’s here to tell us how your clothes came to be, and why you should care about their backstory.

— Read this interview by “Not everyone feels they can move away from fast fashion for income reasons, body size or whatever, but we can all slow down.” She quotes behavioural scientist Matt Wallaert saying, “two basic needs for psychological well-being [are] to feel we’re special and unique in some way, and to feel like we fit in.” Keeping up with fashion trends is one way for people to feel that sense of belonging – and fast-fashion targets those urges. Barber promotes wearing what you have and questioning yourself when tempted.

Discussion Themes and Questions:

– What was your overall impression of the book?
– What are the main themes that this book explores?
– What is your relationship to fast fashion?
– What are ways in which you feel you can engage with this conversation in your peer circle?
– How would you like to hold your brands accountable? What would you like to ask of them?