Lucy Siegle is a climate and environmental journalist and broadcaster. As a reporter and presenter on BBC1's The One Show, she has been reporting on the problem of single use plastic and wider eco issues since the show began in 2007. Her book, Turning the Tide on Plastic: How Humanity (and you) Can Make Our Globe Clean Again was published in 2018. She is also an authority on the environmental and social footprint of the global fashion industry. From 2004 to 2018 she wrote a weekly Ethical Living column in the Observer Magazine and founded the paper's Ethical Awards that ran for a decade. She is a trustee for the environmental NGO, Surfers Against Sewage (SAS) and chair of the Real Circularity Coalition, spearheading the change to a real circular economy. Lucy is often to be found riffling through people's bins, wardrobes and bathroom cabinets (usually with their permission) and loves to help individuals reduce their impact on this precious planet.
Natasha: Hi Lucy. Thanks for being here. I'd be delighted if you could just describe what you do and what motivated you to get started doing it.
Lucy: Yes. So I am a broadcaster and journalist and an author. I specialize in the environment, nature and climate. And I try to tell stories about nature and climate which are relevant to everyday people's lives. So I'm always trying to attach them to something either tangible or something that they're going to come into contact with every day. Recently, I have been a little bit worried about lack of coverage in mainstream media so I've also started to look more closely at the way that nature and climate is communicated and where it is communicated.
Natasha: Amazing. And I was really curious about your fashion work as well. Could we rewind a bit to that?
Lucy: Oh, thank you. Well, it is still very current to me, but I suppose it's so part of my life that I just forget to talk about it. So thank you for the prompt.
In about 2008, 2009, I began to think about what was in my wardrobe, because I'd looked at what was in my cupboards and what energy I was using. I'd done all that kind of auditing stuff that's very common with people trying to green their lives. And I started to look at my wardrobe and it wasn't very good news. Spoiler. And I started really uncovering or talking to people who had done different pieces of work. So starting with Katherine Hamlet, the British designer whose very famous for slogan t-shirts from the 1980s, who'd done about 10 years of research at that point into the cotton supply chain and had become an activist on organic cotton. So pro organic cotton. And the reason was because the use of agrichemicals and the impact of agrichemicals on soils where cotton was produced was just phenomenal. So she then also started to look at water. So I looked at that research. And then I was also looking at some emerging research on chemicals and textiles from places like Leeds University. This was back in 2007, 2008. And then I became very interested in labour rights and supply chain. And I started to look at how factories actually operated, how garment factories operated after the multi fibre agreement in 2005. That's when we saw the last phase, if you like, of offshoring, because obviously the UK was a textiles producer, a very famous textiles producer. And I began to look at things like where had our knitting machines gone. And I started to look at the the fashion diaspora and just the conditions that today's fashion was being made in and the emergence of fast fashion and the speeding up of fast fashion as a whole new way of producing and consuming fashion. And that went into a book called To Die For, which was published eventually in 2011. It took me about four years to write it. And that really is credited as a sort of primer for putting all of these different points together in one tome of eco anxiety.
So obviously, having pushed that out there, I then felt that it was also the birth of quite a lot of different movements, bringing together activists around the fashion industry. The driving motion was we can see a lot more than we used to. So at this point, we probably buy, on average, 60 percent more clothes than we did 18 years ago, so it's a bit of a weird statistic, but nevertheless, that's the statistic, and we are obviously keeping them for shorter lifespans in our wardrobe, and that was just sort of really starting to emerge.
So that was the driving force. But also boycotts had not worked and boycotts had really, really damaged some of the people that they were intended to help. So in a way, with those two things at the forefront of our mind, lots of different people set up aspects of what has emerged as a sustainable fashion movement. I started to feel quite early on that it wasn't very solutions based. There were a lot of problems and a lot of crises and not much that you could do about it. So I got together with a friend of mine, Livia Firth, and we started something called the Green Carpet Challenge, which was completely opportunistic because her husband at the time, Colin Firth, had been nominated for lots of different awards firstly for the film A Single Man, and then secondly for The King's Speech, which he won an Oscar for. So we went on this kind of mad journey to all these award shows like the 2011 Oscars. We were on a sort of jolly and we would just push sustainable fashion onto the red carpet. Wherever we were, we were like terrible, annoying people not taking any of the awards season process seriously, but using it for our own ends. And we began to realise that was actually quite an effective way of getting the spotlight on fashion because this time the motivation was different because we had a couple of things that we had to show. First, people didn't think that that sustainable fashion could be sexy and the red carpet has to be sexy. And second, they thought it was lower quality. So the red carpet is a real acid test for that, if you like, because you've got like a gazillion flashbulbs on a dress at once. And then as soon as we could, Livia would wear the dresses, which is very good of her. Often she didn't want to. And then we managed to get them onto Cameron Diaz and then Viola Davis. And then we started working with Stella McCartney, Valentino, all the big fashion houses, and developed a series of protocols which they could use to design the dress and then put it out there, essentially. So that was where the Green Carpet Challenge started.
I'm not really involved with that anymore, but Livia has taken it on to great heights and it became something called the Green Carpet Fashion Awards Italia, which is held at La Scala every year, but obviously this year that couldn't happen. So this year they were online. There's a digital version which was transmitted by Sky Arts and other TV channels all around the world. So it had an unbelievable audience. And it's one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen. It's forty five minutes of pure bliss. It encapsulates for me where modern sustainability and fashion intersect. It's incredibly diverse. It's very youthful. It's just a beautiful product. If you have time, do you have a look at it.
Natasha: That's so interesting. It seems like to pivot those big industries to, effectively what you have to do in order for them to get behind sustainable fashion is to create a sense that it's vital to think about future generations, isn't it? And that's the opposite of fast fashion, right?
Lucy: Well, I never managed to and I don't work with big brands, so H & M and so on I don't work with because I don't feel that their business model is the right business model to do this. So I suppose what we did was slightly different in that we didn't really approach it like that if I'm being completely honest. We approached it from, here's a series of problems which we really know a lot about, and designers are really good constituents. Fashion designers in particular are very good constituents to tackle some of those problems because they like constraint and they like rules. And a lot of them had grown very quickly and were turned into these sort of multimillion dollar marketing machines and producing collection after collection of collection. And we got to them at various points in their career and they would be like, thank God, you know, I want to dye something in my own studio by myself. I want to dye a piece of fabric. And it brought them back connected to the art. So if I'm being completely honest we weren't thinking about future generations, it was more of a scramble of, my God, there's a crisis who's good at fixing stuff. It was like the calling a plumber.
Natasha: So it's almost like rather than going at it through ideology, you looked at it through, like you said, creative constraint. What was interesting artistically to them and what felt creative and what felt exciting.
Lucy: Yeah. And they'll grasp the opportunity because the design community was in so much crisis that they would literally grasp the opportunity to get control. It's about control for them, because a lot of people have had massive funders and money put in and conglomerates taking them over. And they'd lost contact with their creativity. So anything that we could do to put it back in, they would take it.
I think about next generation people in fashion a lot, and I don't want them to have to go through a lot of this stuff. We've had a lot of suicides. We've had a lot of people who've lost control of their businesses. They've lost control of their own names. This has been the entering into this business in this era of what you might call late stage capitalism has been a disaster for some creative individuals. So when we rebuild the fashion industry, we need to be really cognisant of that.
Natasha: And what do you say when you see that future fashion world, when you think about those young designers, what fashion world do you hope that they'll inherit?
Lucy: One that has smaller scale production, one that they don't have to produce multiple collections every year and one where their creativity is prized and valued and not a commodity. There is no reason on Earth why people need yachting collections. There's a whole season now, a micro season, of yacht wear. Who needs different clothes to get on and off a boat? You know, I mean, it is ridiculous. Why does Victoria's Secret have 70 different lingerie collections a year? It's nylon knickers. All of this stuff puts unbelievable amounts of pressure throughout the supply chain. And when you move into high end and luxury houses, the creative directors are often under an obscene amount of pressure.
Natasha: And it sounds like you're seeing some designers who are giving you hope that there's a future for that that that world is coming
Lucy: Yeah, I think you'll always find designers who are really interesting and exciting. I mean, the ones that keep the most hope for me are the people who don't want to be designers. That's really hopeful because we have enough designers. I think the people who are coming out of fashion schools — and I didn't I didn't go to fashion school and I never taught at one so this is all observed — but I think the most exciting people who are coming out are interested in other things. They're interested in climate and nature, they're interest in biology. You've got places like Modern Meadow in New York. And that's not the only company where they're making leather in vitro. So in the future, it's really important that designers are able to work at the bench with scientists — or maybe they'll also be scientists! You know, we're talking about materials. Everyone's going on about mushrooms, aren't they? So we're talking about designers who see beauty in regenerative agriculture. And who think ahead so that they're growing a staple length of cotton or flax for three or four years. They're involved in planting a field so they know they can plant what they need and that that fibre is regenerative. These are big, holistic ideas, not just using CAD to design a dress that Kim Kardashian might wear for five minutes. This is different. This is a whole planet lens. And I think there's some really interesting not just designers, but I think there's some really interesting theory. I would single out Mathilda Tham and Kate Fletcher, who did a wonderful program called Earth Logic with some fundamental principles of how you make clothing sustainable, how you make your practice sustainably as a designer, which I just think are really, really inspiring. And I certainly wouldn't have even predicted that we'd have those kind of tools in our hands, even four or five years ago.
Natasha: It's so interesting talking to you, because before we got on this call, I thought you probably had to campaign on certain principles and like you said, around labor and ethics and those kinds of ideological principles. But it sounds like a lot of the momentum that you gained was around creating inspiration and creativity and making room for being more of a whole person really.
Lucy: I think so. I think that's a good reading of it. But I think that that was necessary because the space around specific principles and especially around environmental modelling and processing, whether it's less water or decarbonisation, has been taken on by the fashion brands. And some of them weaponise it. We're talking about different systems. So unfortunately, a lot of that work that I have done is in what we would call upscale fashion houses, luxury fashion houses, where there's still room to get in, and reputation is so important that there is more opportunity to maneuver. Whereas in fast fashion, which is a completely different production system, I have not had no influence, no impact and very, very little engagement because that's a whole different issue. And I've come to the conclusion that that system doesn't support sustainability. There's no Earth logic to that system.
Natasha: That's a big statement.
Lucy: Yes, and I make it often. It's a system of overproduction for over consumption. And when I look at some of the work, and I do look closely at the work, a lot of it is based on, say, decarbonising per ton, which is fine. But while everyone's looking at that ton, how many tonnes are going out the door? So one of the problems that we really have is volume. Volume is the massive, massive issue. And that's also why it's easier to work with design houses, luxury design houses, because most of the time they're making far, far less volume. And the same with emerging sustainable designers. They're making far less volume, but there's all sorts of other interesting things, it's not just about making new product. Now there's also rental, swapping second hand things like Depop. These businesses are kind of really, really interesting when you look at fashion and real circular economy, for example.
Natasha: I'm curious how you see future generations, because it sounds like that wasn't really that embedded in that fashion work in a way that I had anticipated. So I'm curious how you feel about that personally in your work, how you view that sense of legacy. To me, embedded in sustainability is a sense of future generations and being a steward for those future generations. So I'm curious what your personal perspective on that. For example, how does it feel watching youth movements like Greta Thunberg's?
Lucy: It feels amazing. It feels great. It really does. I wish that we could do more for them and I really wish that we hadn't got to this state, but it feels so good to have things so clearly articulated because I think that's been the massive benefit for me. I don't want to sound like a real old timer but kids today seem so clever and so well-educated in certain things. And I think there's some statistical evidence to support the fact that they're getting more intelligent. And they have a lot of access to research and networking just through being online. We weren't online and and they use it. They really do use it. And I just love it. But it can be quite shocking to me.
I have a nephew, and many years ago I decided I always wanted him to be around the newspaper that I was working for because he's not from that background. And I thought, "Oh, it would be great to get him in." I remember getting him some work experience when he was 16. He was working on a part of the paper where you would have top ten things that were said this week or whatever. And for me, coming from a newspaper and features background, these are all sacrosanct. And then he would say to me, "Why is there ten? And I'd be like, "Never mind why there is ten just find ten things!" I'd say to myself, "Why is he asking these impertinent questions?" Whereas I'd come in and go, "Oh my God, it's my dream to find ten things that footballers said this week." But he was instantly like, "Why, it doesn't make any sense? Some weeks you might just have five or some week none. Hey, why don't you do something else?" And it was like these kids were tearing down the citadel! Now I think, what a strange reaction from me. I think that it was the first time I sort of realised that millennials were going to do things differently and they had no care for what had gone before. And I began to realise that that was actually really refreshing and very, very useful because they started to rethink systems and they had no qualms about it. So I think the youth movement and school strikes, I find them to be just incredibly important.
Natasha: Hmm, I was going to close this interview by asking you, what message do you have for young people? But it sounds like they've got a message for you.
Lucy: Yeah. I mean, anyone whose giving messages to young people need to get a grip. I mean, why would they listen to me? You know, I would actively encourage them not to listen to me. I mean, it's fine if someone wants to check in and say, "Hey, would you do that?" Because obviously, I do have the benefit of experience, but no, I don't have any messages. But I'm happy to receive messages, please, and also I think everything that's happened quite recently, although it's been done in a very traumatic space and I'm really sorry, I'm genuinely sorry about that, and I genuinely, genuinely worry about the mental health of young people and their welfare and their and their prospects, but I think some of the wake up calls, even the ones that irritate me at the time are really quite liberating and helpful. So if I do have a message, it's pretty much. Thank you.
Natasha: I totally agree. Well, Lucy it's been so interesting to hear how the world of fashion works. I mean, for most of us, we're just completely on the outside. And so it's really exciting to see a little sneak peek into at least a portion of that world. Thank you for sharing the work with me.
Lucy: You're welcome. Thank you.
Written by Natasha Rivett-Carnac
Natasha Rivett-Carnac is an American writer based in Devon in the UK. She writes about the environment, arts & culture, and education. Her blog supports women at the intersection of their creative work and motherhood. Read her blog here.