Livia Firth is unflinching in her mission. “The vision has always been that we need to destroy fast fashion,” she says. “We will not stop while fast fashion exists.”
The “destroy” throws me, momentarily. I realise I am used to famous people softening their message, spinning and sugar-coating it to make it more palatable. Not so Firth, a self-confessed “professional agitator”.
She is unapologetically forthright and unafraid to point fingers. She equates our collective addiction to shopping to our reliance on sugar; and says we “have been put to sleep by the powers that be”, with fast fashion, fast food and social media acting as pacifiers that ensure we never think to challenge the status quo. She believes the dystopian Hunger Games is not too far removed from our actual reality; and unequivocally insists that fast fashion can never be sustainable, despite the greenwashing efforts of its biggest players.
“I’ve always been an activist and an agitator, even at school,” she explains. “So I think partly it is personality. If there was an injustice, I would always be the first to say, this isn’t fair.”
Firth is the co-founder and creative director of Eco-Age, a consulting and creative agency specialising in sustainable business strategies. The company works with brands to help them lower their impact on people and the planet, but is also involved in campaigning and advocacy work, and is committed to shining a light on the destructive effects of fast fashion, through projects such as the Fashionscapes documentary series.
Firth also famously brought conversations around sustainability to the upper reaches of the fashion world when she initiated the Green Carpet Challenge in 2010 and began walking the red carpet, alongside her husband actor Colin Firth, wearing only gowns that were produced sustainably.
“The Green Carpet Challenge was a vehicle. It was incredible luck that Colin was getting nominated [for awards] and we could use the red carpet as an instrument to start asking questions. ‘Do you know this is made of recycled plastic, or discarded underpants, or whatever?’ It was a way to re-engage women in the story behind what they were looking at.”
Firth was in Dubai this week to shine a spotlight on Eco-Age’s latest project, the Renaissance Awards, which recognise young leaders in the sustainability sphere. The work of the winners was showcased in a film that Firth presented at the Italian Pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai.
“The idea behind the Renaissance Awards was, how do we redefine sustainability? Because after two years of Covid, we have to really think properly about what this word means. Already, it meant everything and nothing and today, it’s even more like that.”
Knowing, ahead of Cop 26, that it was unlikely that any real solutions would emerge from the conference, Eco-Age also wanted to highlight the work being done by our youth to address the most pressing issues of our time.
“We wanted to showcase these young leaders, who aren’t even talking about it anymore, they are just acting, they are just doing it. For us it was very important to give this sense of hope and confidence, because the future, which is them, has decided to take care of it. It is interesting because if you then look at what happened at Cop, the people whose future is going to be affected … the Global South, indigenous populations, young leaders, they were not at the negotiating table. So it was important to put that attention back on them, in a proper way.”
Firth’s sustainability journey is peppered with the full spectrum of emotions – from hope and frustration to, at times, rage. “There are many moments when you think: ‘No one cares. How is that possible?’ So you get frustrated and the temptation would be to just give up. But fortunately, I never have and never will,” she says.
So perhaps the Renaissance Awards was something she also needed, personally, to remind herself that there is still hope to be had. “I think the most reassuring and beautifully reaffirming thing was to see that these young leaders exist. We read a lot of articles about youth anxiety and young depression, almost the victimisation of the youth, and instead, here we see these people had a problem, and they decided to solve it. They identified an issue and found a solution.”
Embracing the “future-fit framework”, the awards were divided into four categories, with three young leaders recognised in each category – Socially Just, Environmentally Restorative, Economically Inclusive and Technologically Balanced.
“We never, at Eco-Age, separate environmental justice from social justice. Often, social is much more important because if you take care of people, you are automatically taking care of the environment. If you think about the fast fashion business model, it is predicated and made possible only by using modern-day slavery. Because if you paid every single garment worker a living wage, if you took care of them, you couldn’t produce those volumes, in those times, that cheaply. And so, the focus on social is super important.”
Firth’s own commitment to the cause was solidified during a trip to Bangladesh in 2008. “It was the first time I entered a factory and the first time I saw with my own eyes what was happening. And, truly, when you see that, you can’t come back home and pretend you haven’t.
“I went to Bangladesh as an Oxfam ambassador, for a domestic violence campaign. In Dhaka, we asked to be smuggled into a factory because we really wanted to see what was happening. We arrived at this factory and they had barbed wire and a guard with a rifle outside. Immediately we thought, is this a factory or a prison? And this was an A-rated factory, so something they were proud to show.
“Inside, there were three floors crammed with women. All the windows had bars on them, there was no fire escape, and the women were so scared they wouldn’t even look us in the eye. Eventually, slowly slowly, they started to talk to us a bit. They said they were working 12 hours a day, that they had two toilet breaks a day, and that some of them had children at home – but if their child got sick and they couldn’t come to work, they would lose their jobs.
“And you think: ‘By wearing these clothes, am I doing this to these women?’”
The solution is at once incredibly complex and incredibly simple. One easy answer is for consumers to “slow down”, says Firth. A few years ago, Eco-Age launched the #30days challenge, inviting us all to only buy items of clothing that we knew we would wear 30 times or more.
The more complex part of the solution has led Firth to partner with The Lawyers Circle to launch The Living Wage Report, calling for the $3 trillion fashion industry to pay a living wage to garment workers around the world.
“The second time I went to Bangladesh was in 2015, after the Rana Plaza collapse. I went back to see what had changed, if anything. During that trip, I met this garment worker, Nazma Aker, a union leader, and she said: ‘Things will never change as long as brands keep hopping from one country to another in pursuit of the cheapest possible production line. And the only way to stop that is to have a transnational agreement on wages.’”
The team have spent the past six years trying to make that a reality, and this year submitted a proposal for legislation to the European Union Commission, which would force all companies trading in the EU to pay a fair living wage across their supply chain. If passed, it would be truly monumental.
For Firth, it is quite elementary. “For me, ultimately, if you ask me what is the closest word to sustainability, it is respect. And it does enrage me when I see people who do not have respect, at every level.”