In Conversation with Livia Firth on the Future of Sustainability
As Livia Firth's business comes of age, the founder speaks about the urgency of sustainability and why the future's still hopeful...
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Livia Firth has been the poster girl for sustainable living since founding her business Eco-Age in 2009. She tells Lucy Cleland why it should all just be common sense.
Tell us about your journey to sustainability.
Growing up in Italy in the ’70s and ’80s prepared me for what today we call ‘sustainability’ but at the time was just common sense. Back then, consumerism hadn’t really started; we were eating local and seasonal food and wearing quality clothes that we saved money to buy and kept forever (I still have many of them!). In the last ten years of our consultancy Eco-Age I have learned so much about the environmental impact of everything we do daily and the social repercussions when we forget that we depend on other people constantly.
Were any habits hard to break?
I didn’t really have to change my habits as I am not a compulsive shopper, for example, or someone who naturally throws away a lot. Obviously, there are lots of things that I have learned over the years and have adapted as a result: I have stopped eating red meat and I try to avoid plastic like the plague.
What lessons should we be passing down to the next generation about living ethically?
It’s all about respect, isn’t it? I don’t think we need to pass down any lessons – just look at the climate change student movement led by Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg.
There’s so much misinformation out there, so many bandwagons to jump on. How do we navigate it all?
This is totally true – and it will get more and more confusing as more and more brands
decide to ‘greenwash’, i.e. to jump on the sustainability trend. But we also have a big resource today in various platforms such as eco-age.com, where we cover daily products and solutions for the conscious citizen. Ultimately though, the best navigation tool is to use your judgment when buying something: to ask whether a product harmed anything or anyone in its making and, fundamentally, ‘do I really need it?’.
Who do you think is currently setting a good example of how to live in an environmentally-sound way?
There are so many, it would be hard to list them all. From a business perspective, there are more and more leaders who have been advocating for sustainable practices in their businesses and offering solutions, such as François Henri-Pinault (Kering), Stella McCartney, Paul Polman (former CEO of Unilever), Oskar Metsavaht (from brand Osklen), Giulio Bonazzi (producer of Econyl). The list goes on…
The fashion industry is one of the worst culprits when it comes to an unsustainable industry. How do you shop and dress?
I don’t shop much at all. Also I am incapable of shopping online, so that saves me lots of temptations and I don’t have time to go to physical shops. I probably buy three or four pieces a year. My wardrobe is full of old clothes, which I have treasured over the years and I keep re-wearing. Some are clothes from my youth, some are my mum’s or sister’s and some are vintage finds. I have altered and amended and created new clothes out of old ones thanks to a wonderful seamstress in Italy. And when I am on a red carpet I am incredibly lucky to work with designers who are committed to doing it differently and it’s fun to be involved in the Green Carpet Challenge.
What is your message to the fashion industry?
If you want your business to remain profitable in ten or 15 years just look at your impact and supply chain: how many raw materials are you using and for how long will they last? How are you treating your suppliers and are you paying a living wage so you will retain them in the years to come? Sustainability makes so much financial sense.
Do you think there’s political will to change the way we live?
I am not sure if today there is political will on anything. Just look around you! Ultimately though, whether you are a politician, a business person, a shopkeeper or a farmer… we are all citizens. And the biggest obstacle in active citizenship is to think that, because the scenario is overwhelmingly bad, there is nothing we can do individually. Which is totally wrong.
If you were the government’s Sustainability Tsar, what new laws would you impose?
I was so happy with the recent parliamentary inquiry on fashion and it gave me hope. If I was in government I would work to deepen the Modern Day Slavery Act and make it legally binding, imposing penalties (currently there are none) on companies that are found to use slave labour. I would ensure that all products carry a detailed list of provenance (like food labelling most of the time) and are rated according to environmental impact (like appliances, for example). I would also put huge sanctions on pollution (again, there are currently none) and work actively for cleaner cities. And I would certainly obstruct a third runway at Heathrow.
If there was one person you could swing a meeting with for five minutes, who would it be and what would be your elevator pitch?
I am so bad at elevator pitches! I tried so many times and failed each time. I am very lucky that I have met incredible people in my life and found myself in the most astonishing situations. So if I had five minutes, I would probably ring my friend and take her out for coffee.
What is the one single thing each person can do to make a difference?
There is a beautiful quote by Martin Luther King that says: ‘We die the day that we become silent about the things that matter to us’. So never be silent and you will make a huge difference. And remember also that each time you buy, you vote with your wallet. So vote wisely.
Are you hopeful for the future or does the state of our world keep you awake at night?
I was with Dr Jane Goodall two days ago and we agreed that there is so much hope right now. Just look at the students – in her programme Roots & Shoots, for example, or at Greta Thunberg’s student movement. Not only is there hope, but we need to be hopeful in order to keep fighting.
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