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Livia Firth. Photographs from Eco-Age
Livia Firth. Photographs from Eco-Age

The true cost of cheap clothes

If your party dress costs less than your cocktail, someone else is paying the price for it. Activist Livia Firth wants you to find out who is

While the red carpet is a fashion playground for most celebrities, Livia Firth uses her Hollywood pass to the fashion world, and the media microscope trained on the red carpet, to make a statement of another kind. The better half of Oscar-winning actor Colin Firth, this impossibly chic Italian upcycled her husband’s old moth-eaten suit into a dress and wore it to the Paris premiere of his film, The King’s Speech, in 2011. At the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala in 2015, she donned an Antonio Berardi gown created from recycled PET bottles. The green glam goddess unabashedly repeats her outfits and has created a social media campaign called #30wears, urging everyone to get more mileage out of their clothes.

“As I grew up, I never really thought about fashion. But it all changed in 2009, when I travelled to Bangladesh with (the non-profit) Oxfam and, for the first time in my life, entered a garment factory in Dhaka and met the women who make our clothes. What I saw changed my perception of fashion forever," says Firth on email.

Shocked by the conditions the women were working in—armed guards at the door of the factory, no ventilation, barred windows, no fire escapes, only two toilet breaks daily, with the women producing (at the time) 100 pieces an hour—she describes the situation as modern-day slavery. “When you get back, you can’t pretend it is ‘business as usual’," she adds.

Vociferous in her manner, even comparing fast-fashion retailers to drug pushers, Firth is today the global fashion industry’s moral compass of sorts, constantly probing companies for answers and pushing consumers to ask important questions. She founded Eco-Age, a company which helps create, implement and communicate sustainability strategies that add value to brands. The Green Carpet Challenge (GCC), The GCC Brandmark, Eco-Age Futures and the GCC Global Leaders of Change Awards are some of the company initiatives that have mobilized designers such as Victoria Beckham and Erdem Moralioglu, and celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Emily Blunt, to take up the cause of responsible fashion.

When she is not coming up with green outfit ideas for herself or working with retail chain Marks & Spencer to launch a special collection of ethically sourced garments, she is helping produce a film on the impact of fashion on the planet. A moving account of the problems in the fast-fashion supply chain, the 2015 documentary, The True Cost, is a must-watch for anyone who cares about the clothes they wear and the environment. In one of the most poignant moments in the film, one of the garment workers they follow through the movie says they believe the clothes are produced with their blood.

She tells us why we need to shop less and care more. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about some of the surprising facts about the impact of the fashion industry?

It’s interesting that we think of fashion as something completely trivial. But every single day we get dressed, as a friend of mine always says, “The world is not run by naked people". So fashion is a not only a huge industry, but a full-spectrum one—encompassing all industries, from agriculture to marketing and advertising. Through the research that I have to carry out and the people I have met, I discovered some truly worrying facts. Did you know that fashion is the second most polluting industry after mining and oil and that it is worth an estimated $3 trillion (around 200 trillion) and employs almost 2.8 million women?

What is The GCC’s aim and what is the response?

The GCC today is Eco-Age’s powerful communication arm, it is our dynamic platform, used to create, implement and communicate bespoke sustainability solutions. It pairs glamour and ethics to raise the profile of sustainability, ethics and social welfare globally. We use The GCC to highlight the all-so-often-hidden environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. We work at different levels, from dressing celebrities in ethical fashion for the red carpet, to creating social media strategies and posts, to engaging with an individual’s audience, or simply supporting our #30wears campaign (which asks people to commit to wearing one outfit at least 30 times).

Yet, as women in the West, we rarely think about the women at the other end of the supply chain when we buy new clothes. Young girls today go on the high street more than once a week and buy in bulk from fast-fashion companies (this is what the vlogger sphere calls “hauling"). By using The GCC together and harnessing our collective power of influence, we can start to make a difference and really help the women who produce our clothes by letting the world know about their plight.

We have had fantastic support from celebrities, including Cate Blanchett, Streep, Cameron Diaz, Marion Cotillard, Julianne Moore, Nicole Kidman, Emily Blunt, Michael Fassbender and many more, and our #30wears campaign is beginning to gain traction.

Stella McCartney’s Green Carpet collection.
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Stella McCartney’s Green Carpet collection.

Which are the companies that are actually changing their policies to become more ethical?

Three big initiatives have happened in the past two years. First, Chopard, the luxury watch and jewellery company, decided to start not only sourcing but also supporting Fairmined gold, and is today addressing some serious problems and leading the industry with its pioneering work. Then there is the ground-breaking initiative led by the Kering group (which owns labels such as Stella McCartney, Alexander McQueen and Christopher Kane), which last year published an EP&L (environmental profit and loss) report—something unheard of in the fashion world. And the fact that they made it open source is incredible. Last but not least, Unilever last year launched the first-ever human rights report at supply chain level—again, something that no company has ever dared to do.

What is that one thing that all fashion companies could do to bring about change?

Transparency is the No.1 priority. If you are transparent, you can also be accountable. Start looking at your supply chain in an honest way, start measuring not only the environmental impact of your business but, most importantly, the social impact. Do you know all the people in your supply chain? Are you valuing them? They are the biggest asset you have.

What could consumers do?

We can all be active citizens through our wardrobe choices, by buying less and getting more “fashion mileage" out of heritage pieces that will last more than one season. Every time you buy something, always think, “Will I wear it a minimum of 30 times?" If the answer is yes, then buy it, but you would be surprised how many times you say no. Also, be proud to wear your pieces a number of times by posting your images on social media with #30wears.

What is that sustainable future of fashion that you hope will become a reality?

Buy less and pay more for each piece.

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