books climate change consumerism race social justice

Book review: Consumed, by Aja Barber

Aja Barber is a writer and consultant on ethical fashion, and a self-confessed former fast fashion addict. Consumed draws together some lessons learned within the industry and makes the case for change in fashion and in the wider economy.

Most notably, Consumed investigates the intersections of consumerism, racism and climate change, and that feels like it’s breaking new ground. I’ve read plenty of books on consumerism, and while they will dive into psychology, ethics, economics and the environment, I’ve not read one that talks about race and colonialism. But then this is the first book on consumerism that I’ve read by a Black author, and that is clearly no coincidence.

“If you think the conversation about race doesn’t apply to the fashion industry, you’d be dead wrong” writes Barber. “Most of the clothes are produced in the Global South by BIPOC, these clothes are then consumed in the Global North by white-majority countries, and then when the clothes are unsold/used they are dumped right back on the Global South as ‘donations’.”

The book looks into every aspect of that injustice, from the exploitation of women in the global supply chain, to the over-selling of clothes to people who already have too many, to the dumping of used fabrics in Africa. Some of these issues are relatively well known – most people seem to know that clothing brands use sweatshop labour, though caring about that seems to be less common. Other issues here are less familiar, such as the percentage of clothes given to charity shops that actually end up dumped overseas. Added altogether, it’s a damning portrait of an industry that exploits people at every level. “Who does this system benefit?” asks the author. “How has this system of hyper-consumption made our world better?”

That could be a pretty heavyweight subject, but the book strikes a nice balance. Aja Barber is deadly serious about the injustice that she describes, but writes with a wry self-awareness that keeps the book light on its toes. There’s frustration and anger, all caps declarations of outrage against how unfair the industry can be. But there’s also hope, humour, the joy of what fashion can be at its best, and all kinds of useful suggestions for slowing fashion down and moving towards a fair and sustainable future.

Finally, it would be amiss of me not to mention that Consumed is nicely presented. Barber breaks up the text with bullet points or highlighted quotes. Some sections read like conversations, and all interspersed with illustrations from her friends at the Rude graphic art studio. That makes it a rewarding book to dip into, especially if you have an active interest in fashion.

2 comments

  1. It’s great to have all these books giving details of how and why but how can we get any of it done decently with governments who just don’t act anywhere near enough and too many people who can’t, or, aren’t able to care enough.
    Fear for safety and comfort underlie it all yet we have to overcome this to get to an adequate place. It’s kind of ‘catch 22’.

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