Weekly Reads: “Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism” by Aja Barber

You get a collapsible metal straw but realize the packaging is plastic. You’ve cut down your dairy consumption, but come to learn almond milk can require more water usage than whole milk. You switch from chicken to tofu, but find out Paraguay suffered from slash-and-burn farming for soy plantations, which then poisoned indigenous lands. You try to buy organic and non-GMO products, but quickly see the expense difference. You remember California farms are drying up, so you try getting your fiber from nuts like cashews, but learn that their harvesters across the world endure harsh working conditions at the cost of the West’s demand. Thanks to our current systems in America, it seems we can never win in our efforts to help the environment. However, rather than discouraging us, let this be a sign to shift the way we interact with the world if we want to combat climate change. 

Throughout my time growing up with social media, I have witnessed countless trends take over popular platforms; though, there was always one which stuck with me, even after scrolling past a video showcasing it: overconsumption. While it seems broad, the videos that gain popularity are typically of individuals creating a large dish or buying lots of clothing, often from a company called SHEIN.

Massive splurges on food or clothing always left a poor taste in my mouth. For the likes of strangers on the internet, many hands suffered to produce the product many carelessly waste or support. Then, fortunately, I was given a reason to dive into this niche interest of mine thanks to ENGL 201 with Professor Martha Silano. My final paper was titled, “Social Media and the Promotion of Overconsumption,” and to better understand the fashion world’s correlation, I read a book I came across during my research. 

“This book is divided into two sections,” reads the introduction of Aja Barber’s “Consumed: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change & Consumerism”. “Part 1 is everything you need to know, but maybe didn’t (I mean, I didn’t know either until a short while ago) about how we got here, and why this problem is historical and endemic and tied down to oppression along the way. […] In part 2 I address you. Hi, consumer of stuff!”

I found Barber’s book to be impactful for three overarching reasons: tone, research and personal history. 

From that quote in the introduction, you can pick up on some of Barber’s traits. She is blunt, but benevolent and impassioned with importance. She dives into many topics that pertain to climate change, the fashion industry and beyond, but because of her understanding of the society the privileged West has grown up in, she has a positive way of relaying the hardships of our world: “It isn’t your fault that overconsumption has become part of our culture. The likelihood is that you do it, just like I did, because you’ve been taught to. Who else is going to change the system other than you and me?” Even before her introduction, Barber included “My Letter to the Fast Fashion CEOs.” She recognizes that a mere average American is not going to stop climate change, and that those with money, and therefore power, are the only ones able to make a big enough impact. However, collectively, we can advocate for change in these individuals. Barber incorporates many topics surrounding this conversation, and I attribute much of my understanding of the topic to her conversational tone.

Barber covers topics such as sustainability, global wealth, cultural appropriation, fast fashion, greenwashing, social media and how to change our ways. She cites many papers, talks with multiple individuals invested in our fashion ecological impact, and discusses events, impacts and places I had yet to hear of. Thanks to this book, I understood the inner workings of how fashion appears at my doorstep — from the poor working conditions, the unequal pay, the “race to the bottom,” and the unjust deadlines and expectations the workers suffer from, to me deciding I would like to donate an item and this decision’s environmental effect. While it may get bought at a thrift store, in the event it does not, it will end up in the Kantamanto market at Ghana’s capital city of Accra. Barber’s thorough explanation of this place was a large contributor to me understanding the impacts of a quick purchase. 

The last aspect that made Barber’s book continue to stay in my head almost a year after reading it is her personal history. Her first chapter — titled “Sustainability and Me” — dives into why she is impassioned by the topic of fashion and climate change. She talks about how her interest in fashion originated, how it grew and, most importantly, how it changed. The backstory to why she has written about this topic and why we should read her words is deepened thanks to this first chapter. 

Just like Barber, my interest in fashion has changed as a result of understanding my decisions’ impacts — even if I do not see it directly affect my personal lifestyle or quality of life. I do not receive roughly 15 million garments at my doorstep like the Kantamanto market. I do not see this causing a landfill fire in my backyard or polluting my air’s quality. I do not see my family commit themselves to demanding physical labor or risking their finances in secondhand fashion gambling. Barber’s book does well in discussing such a complex and layered topic in an understandable and respectable manner. Her book is not an attack on your ways, but a spark to change them. 
You may find links to purchase this book on Barber’s website.