Personal stylist and activist Aja Barber shares the importance of sustainability in the world of fashion with writer Lauren McCrostie.
I was first introduced to Aja Barber’s work in 2019 and it turns out I was late to the party. For years Barber has been a celebrated writer, consultant and personal stylist. But now, to thousands – 190,000+, to be specific – of social media followers, she is also a beacon of light for people wanting to understand more about sustainability, specifically in the world of fashion.
She’s written about intersectional environmentalism and challenged countless fast fashion brands, eliciting great respect in the industry for her no-nonsense view on the world. “Everyone should be talking about sustainability because our mutually assured futures depend on it,” she wrote for Eco-Age this March. As a multidisciplinary creative, I find all her work upfront, honest and unapologetic — just what 2020 needs.
Barber also tackles debates and conversations around intersections of feminism, race and colonialism with vigour and passion. After the devastating murder of George Floyd earlier this summer, she recorded a candid and incredibly moving IGTV video titled: ‘Why Performative Allyship is Triggering’, which went viral.
I am one of many admirers of Barber; her unyielding approach over such dire yet overlooked topics spurs me on to do more in the realms of sustainability and expanding my world view. Being a charity shop fiend, her words around sustainable fashion sparked a particular interest for me and prompted me to reach out and interview her.
“I am inspired to do the work that I do because I truly feel like a lot of the issues we’re battling with the climate emergency are big and scary,” she tells me. Barber believes that small changes to how we shop and consume tangible things will see positive effects in years to come. “When people feel like they can make changes, they feel powerful. When we feel powerful we do things we never thought we could do. I just want to inspire every person to find their power because when that happens we end up moving mountains,” she concludes.
She was born and raised in Virginia, US but relocated to the UK – a country where we are only recycling 3% more waste than we did in 2010, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – to be with her partner in 2017. These figures are disappointing considering the seemingly expansive awakening we’ve been confronted with over recent years with amazing campaigns and activists such as Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough’s Blue Planet documentary and the capital’s ban on plastic straws.
So where did Barber’s sustainability journey begin? Speaking to her over email she takes me back to her childhood when she picked up a book called 101 Things Kids Can Do To Save The Planet. “I had no idea the planet was in trouble before that book!” Clearly, the book had a lasting effect, one which she recalled: “informed the way I looked at everything in our society”. But her feeling for right and wrong runs deeper than that and she adds that it wasn’t just books that impacted her, it was also her family. “Social justice is in my blood. My grandfather was a Civil Rights organiser,” she says.
And that brings the conversation neatly to one of the most controversial topics I wanted to talk to Barber about; ‘sustainable fashion’. Those two words are now a phrase that has integrated its way into many of our conversations and has even been awarded multiple capsule collections across the British high street. In some ways, it has become very ‘trendy’. But as I understand it, the whole point of sustainable slow fashion is that it is not just a trend, it is not just something to own for a season — it is something for a lifetime.
This understanding is something Barber wholeheartedly agrees with as she tells me: “Sustainable fashion is fashion that does as little harm as possible to the planet and the people both at the beginning and end of its cycle.”
So, how can we change our shopping habits in a world post-Covid-19? Barber advises taking this liminal stage as a “breather from fast fashion”.
She argues that fast fashion is a cycle which moves so rapidly that we don’t consider what we’re buying, how much we’re buying or even why we’re buying it. The personal stylist admits that she opens her closet and is surprised at how many tops, tanks and tees she rediscovers: “The lockdown was great for re-shifting priorities. I didn’t miss shopping for clothes but I sure did miss flour.” This time has pushed us to rethink and reconsider this aspect of our lives as well as recognise issues in the wider world.
I asked Barber for her best sustainability tips for anyone wanting to improve their efforts and embark on a more eco-friendly lifestyle. She said number one: remember that everyone moves at their own pace due to privilege and power. Work within your intersection and encourage others to do the same while recognising that some people have limitations. And number two: get your information from a few different sources. “No one has all the answers, not even me,” she adds.
Correction: Aja Barber moved to the UK in 2017. An earlier version of this post said she moved in the early 2000s.
Image: Stephen Cunningsworth