LIVIA FIRTH - IN CONVERSATION
STIL: Livia, you co-founded Eco-Age with your brother Nicola Giuggioli in 2008 - a consultancy specialising in sustainable business practices - long before sustainability was a mainstream topic. Can you tell us a little about Eco Age and the work that you do?
LF: Eco-Age is an end-to-end agency for sustainable business strategies. We help brands to lower their impact on people and planet, communicating their journey in a transparent, tangible way. We work from the ground up, building responsible business practices for our clients and accelerating external engagement around these initiatives. From strategic consultancy all the way through to media relations, corporate reputation and digital storytelling, our team combines technical knowledge with creativity and innovation.
The past 10 years have seen us collaborate with NGOs, governments and changemakers across industries to become the leader of change in corporate responsibility. Today, through our ongoing advocacy work and high-profile events such as The Green Carpet Fashion Awards and The Renaissance Awards, Eco-Age is widely recognised as the authority on sustainability in the industry and beyond.
STIL: In 2010 you were publicly challenged by journalist and writer Lucy Siegle to wear only “eco” fashion during the awards season when your then husband Colin Firth received the Golden Globes nomination for Tom Ford’s movie 'A Single Man’. This, I understand, was the catalyst for The Green Carpet Challenge - an initiative to combine glamour with ethics and redefine the Red Carpet. Do the GCC and Eco Age work in tandem? Who have you enticed on board and are the fashion houses and those who walk the Red Carpet listening?
LF: The Green Carpet Challenge has been our communication arm for all things fashion for many years. Since 2010, we have used the power of the red carpet to show that sustainability has nothing to do with style (until then the perception was that sustainable fashion equalled hempish sad fashion! ) We have involved some of the biggest names in Hollywood including Meryl Streep, Julianne Moore, Lupita Nyong’o, Cate Blanchett, Viola Davis, Emma Watson, Olivia Coleman, Zendaya and many more. The GCC has been credited as having changed the conversation around sustainable fashion forever.
This year we announced that The Green Carpet Fashion Awards are going back to Los Angeles for a big event next year – which is a nice new evolution of the GCC.
STIL: Do companies improve their efficiency innovation after working with Eco Age?
LF: Well…. that’s the hope! We create the sustainability business strategies and we implement them, taking the company by the hand every step of the way. If there is no improvement or real commitment though, we let them go. I think we are the only agency in the world which actually fires its clients if they do not truly commit to doing the real work! There is no greenwashing in our company.
STIL: Livia, in the eighteenth century, scientist Alexander Von Burthold warned of deforestation, pollution, environmental degradation - why do you think it has taken three centuries for the World to wake up to these facts?
LV: I don’t have the answer to this but I can tell you that still today very few people link all of them together and even less link them to fashion playing any part. Fashion is a huge industry, all encompassing from agriculture to communications. When you talk fashion you talk deforestation (leather as a co-product of the meat industry), you talk oil and gas (synthetic fibres which are oil based fibres), plastic pollution (microplastics are a huge issue in fashion with all the polyester being used) and so on. And yet the majority of people still view fashion as something trivial and not that important…..
STIL: The fashion industry has been in the spotlight for its unethical, wasteful and unsustainable practices for some years now, but it is also an industry full of creative people - not forgetting that it employs over 3 billion people worldwide. Is it possible to strive for solutions to its negative impact whilst being mindful of the employment levels, freedom of association and the living wage?
LF: As an industry that touches the lives of so many, fashion has shown its potential as a platform to promote and progress equality and social justice in a world where it is systematically lacking. It is fundamental to never separate the environmental impact and justice from the social impact and justice in fashion as it’s an industry made my millions of people. It is a human industry. And sadly today we wouldn’t be here talking about sustainable fashion if it wasn’t for fast fashion, a business model predicated on producing huge amount of clothes to be discarded very quickly and produced incredibly cheaply by modern day slaves. Millions of people trapped in a cycle of enslavement without any hope to have a better future. So what is the solution to this? Brands have to pay a living wage across every tier of their supply chain. It should be mandatory. Hence with The Circle NGO we worked on the first proposal for a legislation on living wages which we submitted to the EU Parliament. It could be the game changer we have been waiting for. It would force fast fashion to completely change their business model, not allowing them to produce tons of clothes cheaply anymore and solving the environmental and social crisis in one go. One simple legislation can do all of this!
STIL: What is the biggest misconception about sustainable fashion, Livia?
LF: That it is just about the environment. Everyone talks about sustainable fashion only referring to materials for example. But as I explained above, it is as much (if not primarily) about social. From cotton growers to garment workers – if fashion was legislated and regulated and each person had the right to a living wage, then it would be automatically sustainable.
STIL: You said in a recent interview that those in the industry must take advantage of new opportunities and must meet fashion’s rising sustainability agenda or it’s goodbye to them! - It is possible to make luxurious, beautiful clothing in a sustainable way - indeed, is making any clothing sustainable now? What advice would you give to retailers, wholesalers and designers moving forwards?
LF: We need to degrowth, we need to start producing and consuming slowly. There are other ways to monetize for brands, maybe this is what the so called “metaverse” could offer, or gaming…. No one is having this discussion now. And it is the only issue we should be studying. How do we move through just transition into a different way of producing and consuming without anyone missing out.
STIL: What inspires and motivates you?
LF: People who do not take things for granted, who believe in changing the world and in magic. Magical thinking is a huge part of what keeps us activists alive I think. At least it does for me… It is so easy to look around you and think “I give up”, there is so much pain, so many issues, so much corruption in the world. And if you do not believe in magic a bit, you can’t sustain the challenge ahead of us. We need a total reframing of our believes and systems.
STIL: Connecting Fashion to Charity. We are about to launch our second raise for UNHCR. When a humanitarian crisis breaks out anywhere in the World, UNHCR is one of the first organisations on the ground, supporting refugees and displaced families by providing emergency shelter, critical protection and lifesaving aid. The need to support them now is more important than ever. Livia, can you share with us your thoughts on how we can use the power of fashion to somehow help with the mass displacement of people and the ever growing need to support them?
LF: Now take the power of fashion if used properly: the first time I went to Bangladesh in 2008 I visited lots of villages on the coast which every year get flooded because of climate change, making it almost impossible to live there. Bangladesh is one of the biggest garment producing countries in India and so many brands produce there. Many women leave the villages and go and work in Dhaka for poverty wages, and then get trapped in a cycle of poverty from which they can’t escape. They need to work more and more hours to make the money for their basic needs, and most can’t even send their kids to school. Or if they do and something happens at the school and they can’t go to work (something that happens to every mother in the world), they loose their job as there are no unions, no protection. And in the last two years of the pandemic, brands have even refused to pay for the orders they already placed, leaving thousands of people in conditions which are beyond humane. So where do they go? They migrate again. And it never stops.
Now turn it around: imagine a world where brands produce in Bangladesh and pay a living wage. Every worker is part of an union and has medical protection. And holidays. And sick leave. They work normal hours, they have a nice life and there is even an economic ladder. It would be a very different scenario wouldn’t it? Brands have to take responsibility for the people in their supply chains, no matter where they are.
Through projects like this one, we can highlight the opportunities that fashion has to create a world where UNHCR doesn’t exist anymore as everyone is happy, being taken care of and never displaced ever again.
Last Word: Livia much attributes her success to her marriage to Colin - however the huge passion she has for her work and her many achievements thus far with Eco-Age and the GCC leave me with the knowledge that these are modest words.