Melissa Harris-Perry: Welcome back to The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. Clothing haul videos dominate social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube.
TikToker: "Y'all, the Shein package that I was waiting for arrived. So, let's open it, and it's really heavy. Yeah, it looks like my order, so let's try to slip on."
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the videos, young people buy multiple items of clothing and model them for views, but the clothing they're buying are usually fast fashion. That's cheap styles from budget-conscious retailers that have exploded in the past few decades. Americans bought an average of 69 items of clothing and 7 and a half pairs of shoes in the year 2020, and we weren't even going anywhere but our couches.
The global fashion industry now produces more than 100 billion garments a year, double the output from 2000, and we only wear them about half as long as we used to, but these clothes come with real human costs. They may be doing much more harm than good.
Here with me now is Aja Barber, author of the book CONSUMED: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism, and contributing editor at Elle UK.
Aja, thanks so much for joining us.
Aja Barber: Thank you so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: We're at a time when households are really feeling the pinch for every dollar. We know that, for example, in this midterm election, the question of inflation is absolutely central. It's tough to get yourself and the young people in your household and everybody dressed and out the door in the morning for a reasonable cost. Is that just part of the reality then of what may end up being unethical practices and how fashion is made in order to get it inexpensive enough for ordinary households?
Aja Barber: Yes, there's obviously a cost factor but the reality and the pink elephant in the room that we don't want to acknowledge is that we all buy five times more clothing than we bought in 1990. The majority of households have full wardrobes, and because we are moving at this pace where people are treating trendiness as if it's a human right, I think we're squeezing the ethics out of the conversation because there has been such weight put on this idea, that micro trends and trendiness and buying a new coat every season.
We've moved with the rate of fast fashion, and that's something that I think really needs to be a cultural shift. I always tell people, if you really want to join the slow fashion movement, the first thing to do is slow down, and make sure you're really wearing your clothing, and learning tools like repairing your clothes because that's something that we've definitely gotten away from in our society.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why do we buy so much more now than we did in 1990?
Aja Barber: The fashion industry has slowly sped up the seasons to a point where I don't think it was really noticeable but when I think about how I shopped when I was a child, and this is one of the pleasures of being a grandmother in social media. [laughs] I remember a time when many of these fast fashion stores didn't exist. I remember a time period where at the beginning of the school year I would get two pairs of jeans if my jeans didn't fit, and now you have teenagers that can buy an entire new wardrobe from Shein for less than $400.
Unfortunately, we as a society, and I think it's been very spurred on by marketing but particularly social media. We've changed, and I think there's a really good time for a cultural conversation because the truth is none of these crimes are victimless. We know that garment workers aren't being paid because the system has gotten cheaper and faster but additionally, the other end of the spectrum is we are burning through clothing so much that we're now dumping it on people in the Global South, and it's causing ecological crisis in the Global South, particularly in places like Ghana, Chile, Rwanda, Kenya, and that's a really ugly part of the equation that we need to look a little bit closer at.
Melissa Harris-Perry: What are some of the initial tools for being a more ethical consumer of clothing?
Aja Barber: Once again, for me, it was crucial that I slowed down. I try and give people a lot of grace with my platform because I was once a fast fashion shopper. I was once someone who felt that peer pressure to follow trends, and one of the ways in which I basically stopped engaging in the system was I started to see a lot of my fast fashion purchases is a waste of money. I started to get into reselling my clothing, and what I began to see was that the clothing that I was buying sometimes that I didn't even need, often didn't have a resale value.
I began to look at the brands that I was really interested in and think, "Can I be patient enough to wait for a pair of jeans by this brand to pop up on eBay in my size?" Once I began to understand that I could shop that way and that it was actually more fun.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Well, look, I'll say, if you are a grandmother on social media, I am definitely somebody's ancestor over there, [laughs] and so for certain one of the benefits of being ancestral in social media is that even as I hear you talk about these pressures around fashion and the fashion cycle, I'm thinking, "Man, I have no idea what we're talking about here," in the sense of having definitely gotten to an age of not feeling the need for additional clothing. For those who do feel some of this pressure, but also have these strong ethical commitments, where can they figure out whether or not what they're buying fits with their ethics?
Aja Barber: The thing I tell people the most and every one of these companies has a social responsibility page, all you have to look for is that social responsibility page and look for the place where they say, "All of our garment workers make fair and living wages," but unfortunately, for the majority of companies, you're not going to find that. I find with smaller businesses, a lot of small fashion brands can really actually say that with their chests quite easily, and if it's not presented in a way that's easy for you to find that information, then err on the side of caution because they're hiding something.
If you really interested in this conversation, join an online community. They're everywhere on social media, and one thing we know that the youth does is social media. Start following people that care about this stuff and talk about this stuff because they're going to teach you how to very quickly and very efficiently rate brands.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Aja Barber is the author of CONSUMED: The Need for Collective Change: Colonialism, Climate Change, and Consumerism. She is also contributing editor at Elle UK. Aja, thanks so much for joining us.
Aja Barber: Thank you for having me. It's been a pleasure.
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