Livia Firth, co-founder and creative director of sustainable consulting company Eco-Age and founder of the Green Carpet Challenge, is relentless, vivacious, and remarkably positive. For her, the growing obsession with cheap, fast fashion is a major driver of devastation to both people and planet. However, rather than saddling shoppers with guilt and despair, she understands that fashion is an expression of joy and creativity and relishes in clothing that tells a celebratory story.
In our conversation with Firth, we covered many things from greenwashing and the ways that fast fashion companies use marketing to co-opt and control the conversation around sustainability to the pleasure of using the red carpet as a platform to talk about clothing craftsmanship.
The Frontlash: How did you go from being a consumer to a citizen? How did you become passionate about sustainable fashion?
Livia Firth: Well, I’ve never ever been a fashion person, I never shopped a lot. My habits haven’t changed since I was a teenager. I don’t really buy much, but my wardrobes are exploding because I have so many old clothes. Things that I’ve had for a long, long time, things that used to belong to my mom, things that I used to have when I was 18 that I re-did with my seamstress, things that I bought vintage, things that came from my sister. Sometimes I buy some pieces but I’m not your typical consumer.
We couldn’t buy fashion at affordable prices. We had to save money, commit to a piece. But what really, really changed, and made me start this battle, is when I went to Bangladesh for the first time in 2008. I went to Dakka with Oxfam for the campaign on domestic abuse. I was with Lucy Siegle, a journalist from The Observer, and she was the one who started talking to me about fashion and the impact of fashion—mostly on human rights. Fashion is not only one of the industries with the highest impact on the environment, it’s also one of the highest employers of slave labor.
We asked Oxfam to smuggle us into a factory, and it was appalling. This was years before Rana Plaza. The factory was considered A-grade, quite good. We arrived, and there was an armed guard at the door. It was the only entrance and exit to the factory and you immediately think—why is there a man with a gun, at the entrance of a factory? There were many floors, and they were crammed with women. The windows had metal bars with no fire escapes. All the women were working in production lines, and they were producing 150 pieces an hour.
Some of them didn’t even want to look at us in the eyes, and then if you want to have the courage to speak, they were saying that they were working extra hours, and they had two toilet breaks a day. If their child was sick, and they couldn’t come to work one day, they would be fired. These are properly enslaved people. At the time, the minimum wage in Bangladesh was like 64 dollars a month. Then Rana Plaza happened in 2013. I went back again in 2015 to see if anything happened post Rana Plaza, and basically, nothing has changed at all. Apart from the fact that now they raised the minimum wage to 85 dollars. Now they have to produce 200 pieces an hour.
This is what changed everything for me. I got so shocked and when I came back I couldn’t pretend I hadn’t seen it. I couldn’t make peace with myself thinking the clothes that I am wearing are made by these women. So we had to start talking about it and this is how the whole thing started really, in terms of a campaign.
So I guess that’s a great segue way for my next question which is: What is Eco-Age? What does Eco-Age do?
Eco-Age is a sustainability consultancy company, but we are a 360 degree operation. We create the strategies, develop the strategies, we implement them, so we do all the work on the ground—whether it is work affecting mines, or factories or farms. Then we communicate them through PR and events.
Our business strategy for companies is based on sustainable values, but also on adding value to the company. So no one does sustainability today just to tick a box or because they want to be good. They have to make sure that they’re still profitable, that it makes sense to the business, and grow the brand accordingly. And the first person who ever started talking about sustainability as a business advantage was Francois-Henri Pinault at Kering.
He said, “I do it because it’s smart business. Because if I still want to have a business that is profitable in ten years time. I have to make sure that I secure my supply chain both in raw materials and in the people that work in the supply chain. So I have to treat the people well and I have to make sure that my impact is not destroying the world as I do it. Because that’s a cost.” And they even launched the Environmental Profit and Loss. So that tells you a lot about how the dial is changing and how companies look at sustainability today.
I’ve been going to a lot of sustainable fashion events and panels recently, and the one thing that stands out as a regular topic of discussion is the role and responsibility of influencers and celebrities within sustainable fashion. I know with your work with Green Carpet Challenge this is something you have long considered.
This is how the Green Carpet Challenge started, using the power of communication of the red carpet, which is huge. To start communicating stories about the clothes that [celebrities] were wearing and involving designers, fashion houses, and celebrities. From that respect, ten years down the line from when we first started we never changed that mission and we always used the power of celebrities to communicate the story—which is very, very important. But what has changed in the last couple of years is the power of Instagram, and social media influencers, and that is something that I always said my next mission is to convince them to come on board. If we use social media for social good we could make change so much faster— if I convince Kim Kardashian to embrace sustainable fashion I can retire.
Why do you think social media influencers are not on board? What do you think is preventing them?
It’s a wider conversation about where social media has gone today and you only have to walk down the street to look at everyone looking down at their phone. Or, you go to an event and everyone is snapping pictures and posting them. I think there is a lot of egocentricity involved, people promoting themselves more than what they believe in. And things are slightly changing now—some of the big influencers are starting to embrace [these issues]. I don’t want to see pictures of women in their bikinis on a beach or talking about stupid things. I want to see pictures of people promoting causes like model Cameron Russell.
A question that I get asked constantly and see being poorly answered as the sustainable fashion conversation grows is: “What is sustainable fashion?" So, how do you describe sustainable fashion?
Well, there is no definition of sustainable fashion, that doesn’t exist. There is no legally approved definition and it’s not in a dictionary. But, if you look at the dictionary at the word “sustainable,” it’s something that sustains over time. First and foremost, sustainable fashion is the opposite of fast, disposable fashion. When people ask me, “What I should buy?” Forget about what you should buy, if you concentrate on which are the good brands and the bad brands you set yourself up for failure.
What we should concentrate on is: Why are you buying that piece? How long are you going to keep it? Because if it’s going to be in your wardrobe for a long, long time—that is sustainable fashion. Today there’s so much confusion because obviously, we wouldn’t be here talking about sustainable fashion if fast fashion didn’t exist.
If you look at fashion 30 years ago, it was very, very different from fashion today. And yet, we had Vogue, we had magazines, we had [runway] shows, we had designers, we had famous fashion houses, existing 30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago. But today we have fast fashion. And fast fashion uses greenwashing like no one else does. So, we’re all very, very confused about what is sustainable fashion. Is it an organic cotton t-shirt from H&M? Or is it a Gucci dress?
We need to concentrate our efforts on fighting the disposability of fashion. It doesn’t matter where you buy from, and what you’re buying, but keep it for a long time, please. Fast fashion businesses which are the ones that are more vocal like H&M about their sustainability efforts. But they produce 50 collections a year, more or less. They produce based on us buying something at least once a week, keeping it in our wardrobe for five to six weeks, chucking it away, and buying more and more and more.
They thought that means that it’s more democratic because most people don’t have money. They make us think: Oh, but what if we don’t have money to buy Gucci dress, then we buy H&M? But the truth is that the owners of fast fashion brands are not multi-billionaires, these businesses are not multi-billion dollar businesses because of people who can’t afford to buy clothes.
It sounds to me that what you’re describing is sustainability is more of a value system and a mindset rather than a product.
Yes! It is!
Obviously, there is the product, and we need the product. We need to communicate about products in a different way, we need to start being mindful of the raw materials that we use, the impact some of these materials have on the environment.
What is it like to walk the red carpet? You’ve walked the red carpet at the Oscars and have been on so many prominent, Hollywood red carpets. What does it feel like, and what was it like the first time?
Well, you know for me, it’s changed a lot. Because at the very beginning when I first met Colin [Firth], the red carpet was something I couldn’t believe that I was there. You always have a mixture of incredible excitement thinking, “Oh my god, I can’t wait to tell my mom when I go home” mixed with fear because everyone is shouting, everyone takes pictures, so it’s quite overwhelming and can be really scary. Now, it’s changed a lot in the last ten years since I founded the Green Carpet Challenge. I love it because it’s a chance to say, “Look, look, look! I’m wearing this! And do you know the story what it is? I work with this designer and we did this project and this is where the materials come from….” So, I get incredibly excited because of the communication, the story that I have to tell.
One of the issues that I have with the red carpet is that, I’ve made a career of dressing people for the red carpet, but it’s always a bit unsettling to me, this moment of like sending a woman out just to be judged entirely on her appearance.
But this is why the Green Carpet Challenge makes a huge difference, because it’s not anymore about your physical appearance, it is about the story you’re telling.
What we do is when we work with the stylist and the communication of it, is that the minute the actress steps on the carpet there is a press release that tells the story of what she’s wearing, and what it’s doing. The press picks that story up and becomes the permanent message of the red carpet communication.
You have the Green Carpet Challenge, so you work with actresses and stylists and designers for red carpets like the Oscars, the Met Ball. Do you ever meet resistance? Are there any hurdles to overcome in architecting those moments?
The only hurdle comes always from the stylist. The minute you are done convincing the stylist to the importance of the message, your job is done. Because then they start doing it with their client.
That’s so interesting, one of the questions I had for you was: how do you work with stylists?
We do it in two ways. We used to approach a lot of stylists at every special event like The Met Ball or Cannes. We would ask, ”What are you working on? How can we support this? Should we do a green carpet project?” Now we do it much less because we have so many events of our own and so many activations with clients, we don’t concentrate as much on it any more. We now have a lot of stylists that call us, saying that they have this event coming up, and to do it sustainably, how can you help us? It’s almost like the situation is reversed.
So, you started the #30wears, right?
Last year Cate Blanchett re-wore her Armani Prive Golden Globes gown to the Cannes Film Festival. And Tiffany Hadish wore her white Alexander McQueen gown for four public appearances. These still are standalone moments. Do you think we will ever get to a place culturally where re-wearing gowns on the carpet is the norm?
I would love to, but I don’t know how easy it is. What I don’t know is – you probably know this better, is how many actresses keep their gowns after they use it for a red carpet. Most of them probably go back to the archives of their designers, so it’s about instead of opening your wardrobe and saying “Hang on a second I have that gown I wore 5 years ago I can rewear it.” You kind of have to say I wonder if the designer still has it. So Cate Blanchett did it. They went back to Armani and said we want to rewear that dress specifically. It was an act from Cate who really wanted to do that. But people will think it becomes boring because no one does new dresses for the red carpet?
Yeah, it’s tricky because I would like to see it become the norm to a degree ….
I mean the problem is really not the red carpet. It’s not what people wear on the red carpet. And it’s great that we’re using the red carpet to promote beautiful stories, but we shouldn’t concentrate too much on that because sustainable fashion is not about the red carpet.
So, I would really love to know, I mean you’re so positive and driven and inspire many of us. Do you have moments of climate grief?
Oh, my god. Almost every day. I try not to think about it and now I have a huge injection of energy and positivity from all the student marches and Greta Thunberg, and all the young kids protesting. Finally! Because until recently they always said, if you read the statistics about millennials, they care about ethics and sustainability, they are ready to pay a premium to buy sustainably, millennials here and millennials there—and you think where are all these millennials? If I was a millennial I would be protesting on the street every single day. You know? So now finally, forget about the millennial. It’s the kids! Whatever they are called, that are finally saying you guys have to listen. And, for every brand, business that doesn’t acknowledge this, they are fools because these are the next consumers in a few years time.
What brings you the most joy in your work?
Oh, the Eco-Age team. I have so much fun with them. It’s a very strange office. Because we are mostly women, very young, and we all work together, it’s open space, we all share projects and clients. It’s a real team effort, and really, really nice. And very exciting, and stimulating everyday. We all learn a lot everyday. That’s the fun part of our job. You never ever, ever stop learning. Yesterday, we had a presentation by our textile expert on microfibers, and a lot of us didn’t know some of the things that she was saying. And we’re all taking notes, we had a debate about some issues, we had an argument about another—these are things that keep you alive. And makes you come to work happy everyday.
You know that you’ve built a really robust team when you can have those compassionate, dissenting conversations. My last question is a question we ask everyone, because we are all working towards improving the fashion industry. I would love to know: what does a fashion utopia look to you? What is the industry you are striving to create?
I would never call it a utopia because a utopia is something that doesn’t exist ultimately, and you never achieve. So, I really believe that fashion is going to change. It’s already changing, and if you look at how much— oh my god, the progress—since we started in 2008, the progress that we did in the last year is incredible. I can’t believe how much the conversation is changing. How much more every single person is questioning sustainability and talking about it. As you say, you know, how many panels and conversations, how many companies are talking about it, how many companies are starting to do something about it. So, it is going to change you know. And it is changing. I am an optimist about it.
*this conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity
Words told to: Laura Jones