Interview: Aja Barber speaks to The Sleep Shirt

Fashion Revolution was founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013. Since then, it has grown to become one of the most influential fashion activism movements, addressing issues such as sustainability, worker’s rights, and more. Fashion Revolution Week is their annual week-long campaign to raise awareness for these issues and take action.

For Fashion Revolution Week 2022, which falls from April 18-24, we decided to speak to Aja Barber. Aja Barber is a writer, consultant, and the author of the book Consumed: The Need for Collective Change, Colonialism, Climate Change and Consumerism. She is originally from Virginia and now lives in South East London with her husband and two cats.  

One of Aja’s Patreon tiers is called “Let’s Talk Business”, which entitles members such as Alexandra, The Sleep Shirt founder, to half an hour of business mentoring and advice each month. We decided to ask Aja a few of the most common topics she encounters and insights she shares with her Patreon members who run small businesses.

The Sleep Shirt: What kind of cool innovations are you seeing from small brands that are unlikely to be replicated by larger brands?

Aja Barber: The one thing you get from a small brand that you can NEVER get from a big brand is an actual personal connection. I don’t think we need innovation. We’re not gonna tech our way out of this mess. We need more people doing the RIGHT thing. Small brands recognize your support. I’ve supported brands for years who have named items of clothing after me. I get brands who will reach out to me if they have something in the pipeline that I might like. I’ve had designers gift me samples just because it means a lot that I’m a dedicated customer. Small brands have a way of making you feel a part of a community and it is rare for big brands to replicate that.

The Sleep Shirt: What are you most excited about when it comes to the future of the fashion industry more generally?

Aja Barber: I’d really like to see fast fashion become less of a go-to for everyday people and to see people lean into small, ethical, business. I truly think it’s a key to unlocking our future. I also am excited for the popularity of the resell market and hope we can finally tackle the stigma around secondhand clothes once and for all (when I was growing up, you got teased for wearing used clothing when I was growing up).

The Sleep Shirt: You talk a lot about how fast fashion companies are among the biggest problems in the industry, primarily because of the sheer amount of goods they produce and their unethical and unsustainable supply chain, both in terms of workers and materials. Is there a way for them to clean up their act and continue to trade profitably, or, in your view, do they need to shut down completely? If the former, how would you prioritise what needs to happen in order for us to see changes in the industry overall? 

Aja Barber: I definitely think some of these brands need to go and I can’t say I’m cheering for everyone, just to keep it 100/100. I truthfully believe that if we don’t change our ways many brands won’t be able to operate the way they currently do because our planet won’t have the resources. In order for certain big businesses to survive and actually move in the direction of sustainability, they’d have to look at changing their supply chain and embracing degrowth as well as fair trade deals. They’d have to eradicate modern slavery from any and all supply chains and currently, few big brands can swear to that – but everyone’s been, like, working towards it for the last 30 years (smirk). (Added a bit more punctuation here to make her meaning clearer)

The Sleep Shirt: Greenwashing is a big problem in fashion marketing. Can you offer some tips on identifying greenwashing versus genuine claims of sustainability or fair ethics?

Aja Barber: I always tell people that I understand this is confusing. The biggest question to ask your favourite brands is “can you ensure everyone in the supply chain is paid fair wages”? Don’t fall for “we are working to end modern slavery” business. They either can or they can’t. Paying everyone fairly is sustainability in action. The book The Business of Less: The Role of Companies and Businesses on a Planet in Peril by Roland Geyer makes this point eloquently.

The Sleep Shirt: You talk a lot about how it’s not actually those on lower incomes that are driving fast fashion, but middle-income people who are used to purchasing huge quantities of fashion. Yet many people can’t afford small, ethical brands because the true, fair cost of making clothing is expensive. What’s your best suggestion for how we can solve this?

Aja Barber: We have to fight for fair wages for everyone. But it starts with the most vulnerable. No one should feel forced to buy the sweatshop garment but in order to do that we have to start raising wages for everyone. For too long all of the profits from fashion have flowed into the hands of few.  

The Sleep Shirt: One of the biggest comments we get from customers here at The Sleep Shirt is our prices. We know a lot of other small brands get similar comments about their pricing. We explain that our pieces are expensive because we pay our factories and employees fairly and that all of our materials are of very high quality, but how do you respond to people who already buy less and better and yet still cannot afford sustainably produced goods? 

Aja Barber: If someone’s buying less and have a low income with little resources and privileges, they’re already doing their part. Not everyone is in the same intersection here.

The Sleep Shirt: There’s a certain cachet to producing clothing in what we call Global North countries (such as North America and the EU), but many Global South countries (such as Africa, parts of Asia, South and Central America) depend on the garment industry. How do we change the perception of manufacturing in these countries and support the economies of these countries (and worker’s rights) while also continuing to support the idea of buying and producing locally?

Aja Barber: I am a believer that there is plenty of work to go around but I think part of the reason we don’t value the hard work of others in the Global North is because we do very little of that manufacturing ourselves now. I think it’s necessary to have some of those industries in place in every country so people value it and stop ripping off others.

The Sleep Shirt: You work with a lot of small fashion brands, so you are aware of the challenges they face in the industry. If you could wave a magic wand and make a few changes to the industry to make it easier for small, ethical brands to thrive, what would they be?

Aja Barber: I’d give small brands massive marketing budgets because the greenwashing is clearly happening and working; people just don’t know and understand it. I’d also make the government tax fast fashion to clean up this giant mess they’re making.

Want to find out more about what we’re doing here at The Sleep Shirt? Check out some of the commitments and ongoing initiatives we’re making to help create a better fashion industry.

Aja wears the Flared Sleep Shirt Blue Oxford Stripe.