'Sustaining through time' - interview with Livia Firth, co-founder of eco age

As part of our Sustainable Fashion event, Louder Than The Storm caught up with Livia Firth, Creative Editor and Co-Founder of sustainability consultancy Eco Age. Livia spoke to us about gender in the fashion industry, the future of fast fashion - or lack thereof - and how we can best communicate with others to influence sustainable change in the business world.

What were your goals when you started Eco Age - and how much have they changed?

The goals at the time were very very different from what they are today. When we opened Eco Age in 2007, we opened one shop on the high street which sold every single thing for the eco home: the first ever library of eco products, from flooring and paints to wallpapers and bathroom tiles, to show that any eco-home can also look sexy and design-driven. However, in 2008 I went to Bangladesh. I got smuggled into a factory for the first time in my life and then I really understood the repercussions of fashion and particularly fast fashion from a human rights point of view, and that changed the whole course of Eco Age: we closed the shop and started consulting brands and companies and this is what Eco Age is today.

In what ways are communications important in making sustainable change?

They are very important, but at Eco Age we are very strong in communication because we also do the work within the supply chain as well as the more technical work. We create the strategies, we implement them so we do all the work, and by the time we arrive at communication we know exactly what we’re talking about, which is so important. You have to have facts and figures and scientific proof but also to communicate in a way that is not scary and is not threatening. You don’t empower citizens to make change when they feel that it is too much.

Friends of mine did a big summit called the Climate Story Lab and they put together a lot of filmmakers and screenwriters, comedians, religious groups, poets, people from all sorts of different backgrounds. And they challenged them with how to communicate about climate and solutions in a positive way. The comedians’ session was very very interesting because apparently when you laugh, you feel so good about yourself that you awaken your inner activist, so the power of comedy is very important and it is completely missing from the climate change conversation right now.

What’s the role of big businesses and influencers in this communication?

A lot of businesses are now realising that unless their business model is really sustainable then they don’t have a future, and that’s what the word sustainability means - sustaining in time, and so the practical impact is a necessary one if businesses still want to be making money in the future… What is much more difficult is what you call the social part of it because what we need is those people with influence and lots of followers to talk about things that matter. We have been campaigning for a long time for what we call ‘social media for social good’.

You said that sustainable also means Sustaining in time. it sounds like at Eco Age you believe that sustainability is something that actually helps business - not something difficult?

Yes, it does. One of the reasons we operate much more in the luxury space is because the big luxury business brands are the ones that have been managing better in search and development to change their supply chain. You need an investment at the beginning, obviously there’s a cost, but then you start saving in the long term.

There are two good examples. In Fashion, Kering Groups are the model. They started ten years ago to talk about sustainability because they understood that if they were still thinking about the quarter result rather than ten year result, this would have been detrimental. So they implemented a balance sheet of the environmental profit and loss where every brand has to account whether or not the impact on the environment - everything from the materials to the packaging to the transport - is a profit or a loss on their balance sheet, and at the beginning it was a loss but then it was a profit. So the brands had more than ten years time to start working on that methodology which was revolutionary.

In the commodities sector, we have a group like Unilever, who started many years ago to look at their social impact instead and looked at how it was making this huge profit at the expense of the people in their supply chain. What happens if the people in the supply chain, who are also your customers, don’t have money anymore to buy your product? Or if they have been treated so badly for so many years that they go on the street and then your business is at risk again?

So you start analysing. Every single business relies on two factors: on labour and on raw materials. Unless you take care of these two components you end up in a situation like we are today with fast fashion and all the workers in Bangladesh or Cambodia or Myanmar, who have been hugely neglected during the COVID crisis.

What do you personally think the future of fast fashion is in a more eco-friendly world?

I think fast fashion has no future. When you think about it ‘fast’ fashion means disposable fashion. I grew up without fast fashion because fast fashion didn’t exist, and as teenagers or even in my twenties we never changed clothes at the rate at which people change clothes today. What we used to do was enter a shop and if we found something we wanted to buy we’d say “Okay, I’ll think about it, I’ll save money and then I’ll come back.”

But today fast fashion is this obscene sugar rush operation where we are all addicted to consuming. They brainwashed us into thinking that it’s democratic because everyone can afford it, but it’s not the democracy of the women who produce it in Bangladesh.

It is obscene because you employ near-slaves and you destroy the environment at the same time. Meanwhile we’re all getting poorer and poorer and the fast fashion owners are getting richer and richer and richer and richer.

Some people might point out that we can’t go backwards easily from this point; there are too many people involved. What do you think?

It’s not about going backwards - it’s about going in the right direction and being fair. No-one is saying the garment workers need to be all sent home and not work anymore. The brands need to pay their living wages and regulate their working hours as they do in England and elsewhere in Europe: pay them a salary, employ them in a proper job, give them proper sick days. It’s about doing it properly and redistributing the balance.

Absolutely. So what would the future of fashion look like to you?

It looks like a world where we don’t all treat fashion as disposable, where we buy properly, where we reward independent and small scale producers and designers. A future where in Bangladesh if you are a young girl of 16, you won’t enter a factory to be at a sewing machine until you are 60.

I think there are so many interesting conversations that are happening in economic models like universal income and the green new deal that the EU is really pushing. There is a very fertile moment for really thinking about how businesses can exist in a sustainable way.

Of course, Eco Age is trying to encourage clients to Adopt sustainable supply lines. To your mind, what are the best ways of persuading people to make those changes?

Well, we get dressed every single day so fashion is a huge political tool that we can use as activists. Fashion is something that we can all relate to, and it’s an industry that is one of the most polluting in the world and one of the least fair employers. When I say to someone “you know that what you’re wearing has been made by another woman like you who has been enslaved and suffering, so you’re actually wearing blood?” no-one would say they don’t care because it only cost ten pounds. So, for the best impact, we can use empathy and connections with others.

Of course, we’re quite privileged if we have the choice to spend a bit more. Do you have any thoughts around how you can create a low cost brand which does also incorporate the ethos of sustainable and ethical practices?

It doesn’t exist. If the price is too low someone else is paying for it. Always. When did we arrive in an era where a T-shirt costs the same as a sandwich? We used to think of clothes the same way as fridges and washing machines, as things we use, instead of things we use up like paper napkins or toilet paper. Fashion has become something that we use up.

A lot of people your age and my children’s age haven’t lived through that change and it is so much more difficult to establish that connection. But now we have a fantastic opportunity to create a balance, to reshuffle the cards on the table in a way that we create a future that is much better.

That optimism is really nice to hear.

It’s about empowerment. It’s up to each one of us to make a difference - it’s not about being positive or not, it’s about being empowered or not. If you want to make a new world then it’s up to you to start. This is how revolutions have started in history: a lot of individual acts put together.

We just need to establish that link between the need to protest and our daily actions: high school kids go onto the streets and they protest against climate change, but then they finish their protest and they go to H&M. So they haven’t yet linked their climate change protest to their own actions.

women are often the most affected by climate change as well as gender discrimination. What do you think the role of gender will be in sustainable fashion?

Well, obviously you need both men and women but unfortunately we are still so far away from that balance so we kind of have to push a little bit extra on women. Just look at the difference with tackling COVID-19 in places that are led by women, places like New Zealand or Kerala in India!

i have a lot of hope for women in the fashion sphere, although as I said the link is missing between the consumer and the producer. I always say that fashion is a feminist issue because, if you are a real feminist, how can you knowingly buy something that contributes to the enslavement of another woman? Why would you ever do that if you were a feminist? That link is missing so that’s what we need to establish. The biggest fight of the next decade is to work on that link.

I love ‘fashion is a feminist issue’ because at LTTS we say that ‘the climate is a feminist issue’ too. All of these things intersect with each other.

Exactly, because climate disproportionately affects women too.

It sounds like getting involved with climate action isn’t just something that we should all do, but has also been a really rewarding adventure. What has been the most rewarding thing for you in all of this?

I think it’s been to have Eco Age and to work with such an incredible team. By the way, the team at Eco Age is 98% women which is amazing. So that’s one of the biggest achievements for me: to work with other incredible women and do things together. I mean, there have been so many successes and so many wonderful things but you have to continue going! You can’t stop!

Interview by LTTS Editors Emma Turner and Anastasia Joyce.


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