collective conversation and the need for change: Aja Barber’s ‘Consumed’

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The idea of sustainability and how we can work to become more sustainable has captured the attention of the digital sphere in recent years. Social media provides a platform for popular influencers to assert that they are leading the most sustainable lifestyle. As sustainability has become an Instagram trend, it seems we tend to forget the reasons behind why it is necessary in the first place. In her ground-breaking new book, Consumed: On Colonialism, Climate Change, Consumerism, and the Need for Collective Change, writer, stylist and consultant Aja Barber makes the powerful case that ‘colonization is everywhere’, explaining the plethora of ways that colonisation filters into our society. Her book is an incredibly useful way in to discussing colonialism in a wider context, particularly in relation to climate change and the fast-fashion landscape. 

Barber begins with a personal take on her relationship with her chosen field and how she has evolved in her work regarding sustainability and colonialism. From here, she embarks on a journey with her reader, assessing how to go about defining one of the most popular and romanticised concepts of the digital age. Many of us are aware that fast-fashion brands such as Pretty Little Thing and Boohoo, known for their infamous Black Friday deals with dresses on sale for as little as 8p, pose a deep-rooted ethical problem, for both their exploitative labour practices and the environmental costs of these kinds of sales. But colonialism feeds into almost every industry in the British economy, not just fashion. In her chapter ‘Colonization: The Root of the Problem’, Barber explains the ways in which British exports are innately tied to colonial histories, practices and discourses.  

In her mission to define sustainability for her reader, Barber consults the work of Slow Factory, an organisation that “advances collective liberation for people and nature by preparing historically marginalized people to become climate leaders through regenerative design, open education, and narrative change.” As part of their work, Slow Factory have developed a framework outlining three areas of focus for an understanding of colonialism — religion, fashion and media. Barber emphasises that she often uses the Slow Factory framework as a tool to introduce people to the concepts of sustainability and colonialism and the understanding of the ways they lean on one another. Their Executive Director, Céline Semaan, highlights the cross-bordering nature of the problem — that if we are to truly understand colonialism and its impact on modern industries, we must look beyond the confines of our own countries:

“Colonialism is at its root a question of exploiting across geographies. Its roots are in setting up colonies to extract resources and labour. Therefore the move away from colonial systems is towards a more local, symbiotic and egalitarian system, in any way possible” 

Barber also cites Kimerbly Jenkins, educator and founder of online platform, as offering three central ways to aid the move away from colonial frameworks and systems: to divest, educate and communicate. Barber emphasises the need to pay attention to the past as a way of understanding present systems of oppression, as well as actively challenging those systems:

Although colonialism may not exist today exactly as it did centuries back, legacies of that time persist in interfering with global value systems”

“So much of the information we learn about the systems of governance is provided by those who hold the most amount of power” 

Barber’s message about the need for change could not be more urgent. With the continued presence of colonial frameworks, exploitative labour will only continue to thrive across many parts of the world: “as long as marginalized people are constantly looked at as resources and afterthoughts, there will always be loopholes for exploitation”.

After finishing Barber’s book and longing to hear more from her, I turned to her social media for further education. Barber’s own activism and use of her social media presence, including sharing infographics and resources, is an ongoing and constantly brilliant extension of the book that has influenced the minds of so many. A particularly captivating insight into Barber’s work and philosophy was her appearance on The Last Night Podcast, an intersectional feminist podcast created and hosted by activist, writer (and good friend of mine), Thea Rickard. Barber discussed how sustainability has become a theoretical concept, almost mythologised, now a seemingly inaccessible ideal. She again mentions the Slow Factory framework, explaining that with the help of social media, sustainability is presented as a lifestyle choice (rather than a culture), only achievable through privilege, in which we should strive towards a kind of unattainable perfection. Instagram’s prevalence as today’s most popular marketing tool poses problems for productive conversations about sustainability. She shared her sentiments that sustainability should not be aspirational. Barber stated that indeed the most sustainable people she has met in her lifetime are indigenous folk or those who have been marginalised, living on or well below the poverty line. However, as social media fails to promote these communities’ green practices lifestyles, washing over them with what I would argue as performative sustainability, these people are prevented from being the face of sustainability. But it is them who should be at the centre of the public’s perception with regards to the movement for sustainability.

In her book, Barber repeatedly reminds us and asserts that in order to tackle the various issues pertaining to sustainability, consumerism and neocolonialism which permeates materialistic practices, what we truly need is collaboration and communication. For Barber, active learning and education serve as the most powerful tools for change. And when we collectively engage in these, in our respective communities, adapting to our world’s requirements, we can achieve a much greater and tangible impact. In the words of Barber: 

“We should constantly be learning and growing. That’s the reality of what all these conversations should look like. No one is (or should be) the voice of everything”

What we need for sustainable practices to be effective is collective action, and there is quite simply no substitute to that. 

Article by Evie Robinson

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