Thursday 16th November marked the 7th Annual Lovie Awards, honouring the best of the European Internet and recognising the talent making waves and effecting positive change across industries including gaming, film and fashion.
This year, Livia Firth was the winner of the Emerging Entrepreneur Award for her fight for sustainable fashion as the founder and creative director of Eco-Age, a brand/marketing consultancy that helps businesses to grow by creating, implementing and communicating sustainability solutions. More specifically, she was honoured for her Green Carpet Challenge initiative and using the internet to both educate the public about ethical and sustainable fashion consumption and to put pressure on brands to do more to meet sustainable business practices. On hearing of Livia’s accolade ahead of the Lovie Awards ceremony, I arranged to interview her to find out how Eco-Age is forging ahead with sustainability initiatives and to understand more about Livia’s goals and beliefs about the current state of sustainability in the fashion industry. Another precursor to this interview was hearing Livia passionately speak in May this year at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, where she boldly declared that the fashion industry was in trouble given the findings of The Circle report Fashion Focus: The Fundamental Right To A Living Wage.
‘Sustainability’, ‘circularity’ and ‘ethical practice’ are words used regularly in the fashion industry, but often lack specific meaning and clarity for both industry members and consumers. As we launch into our discussion, Livia Firth makes quick work of breaking down some of these meanings and provides a refreshingly clear and insightful commentary on what is happening in the industry right now and how it is effecting the planet and people. “Sustainability is a complex issue that needs to be communicated simply”.
Livia founded Eco-Age in 2009 as a brand consultancy providing sustainability strategies and communication tools to fashion brands. Their modus operandi is to demystify the supply chain so that brands can be sure they are working with suppliers and manufacturers that guarantee responsible sourcing and production of materials and ethical labour practices. She and her team work with several brands to help them become sustainable and conscious as part of their core operations and values – not as a token ‘project’ seeking to gain sustainability credentials, without true and ongoing commitment to a truly sustainable business model.
Livia points to a tactic of some large, fast-fashion brands, of producing a product or small number of products ‘sustainably’, that are then heavily promoted in an attempt to create a cleaner, greener brand image, which she dismisses as “bullshit green-washing”, to divert attention from the dirty fashion practices continuing throughout the supply chain in those brands. She points to fast-fashion as the culprit for the dire and urgent environmental crises coming about now, and cites the endemic use of slave labour and unsafe working practices in the Far East as the root of the problem with the fast-fashion business model, which she says “must change”. Eco-Age refuses to conduct business with fast-fashion businesses due to the ethical crimes being committed and their failure to provide a living wage. To that end, Eco-Age works with luxury brands, which she explains as having the R&D budget and story-telling capability through their brands, to produce and sell fashion in an aspirational and responsible way.
My conversation with Livia throws up some nostalgic stories about her travels in search of responsibly-sourced materials, including a recent trip to my native Australia, where she visited a farm a stone’s throw (in Australian terms) from where my father farms his sheep. She spoke of the farmers describing themselves as ‘custodians of the land’ and the sheep their treasures from which their livelihood stems. It is familiar to me – I grew up in a family of wheat and sheep farmers in Australia – and it brings back beautiful memories of when the nobility and longevity of wool was far more powerful than the cheap, fast pull of Primark.
“I’m 48. I’m old enough to have lived without fast-fashion. We knew how to appreciate quality”. Frank and to the point, Livia poetically describes fast-fashion as the trigger for our ‘divorce’ from fashion made from quality materials, that we historically loved, cherished and passed on. She explained that her team chat about the state of fast-fashion in their office, commenting on how we have overindulged on fast-fashion, consuming too much, too quickly. ‘So we’ve binged on fast-fashion and now it’s time for a diet in the form of sustainable, ethically made fashion?’ I ask. “YES!” is Livia’s emphatic response.
As we discuss the role of Eco-Age and others trying to transform the industry, it becomes apparent that fashion businesses wanting to transform their practices to meet increasing consumer demands for transparency and low environmental impact will need to function in a socially and politically compliant framework, no longer focussed primarily (or perhaps solely) on profits. This is where the tension, and the biggest challenge, lies, according to Livia. Due to planetary changes, including extreme flooding, drought and pollution to waterways, manufacturers are being forced to accept that depleted resources will effect production quantities and therefore effect price (and their ability to sustain the fast-fashion model) in a way that is physically and economically unsustainable – never mind the highly questionable ethics. When profit margins are hit, action is likely.
We turn to new technologies to solve some of the biggest challenges we face, both within fashion and other industries. Livia comments that Fashion Tech Lab, a fund launched by Mira Duma earlier this year, is bringing new technologies to the fore that provide solutions that harness the power of science and that do not come at a huge environmental cost. Discussing new scientific developments with Livia, she declares “science is our friend”. “It can help us transition to the future without compromising on ethics”. Her excitement at developments in materials so far, include lab-grown leather, mushroom and pineapple leathers and Orange Fiber, and she sees the relationship with fashion and technology as growing harmoniously – as long as technological advancements are not at a human cost. The evolution of robotics, for example, worries Livia, along with the potential impact on future workforces. When transitioning from ‘human-led’ to ‘tech-led’, taking the time for reflection and regulation to determine where the future career paths lie for those human workers is essential, she says.
Livia Firth and Mira Duma have been friends for some time. Describing her as a warrior, Livia tells me about a call she received from Mira after she had watched the ‘The True Cost’, pledging her commitment to doing something to help and describing how seeing the film had changed her. Mira re-surfaced some time later having founded FashionTech Lab and subsequently enlisted Livia to the board, helping to guide and drive their initiatives forward.
Livia’s online power is in her ability to harness and direct the voice of ethical practice towards the global stage. Citing social media as a powerful and exciting tool, she comments that being awarded a Lovie is recognition of her engagement with the public, and indeed other public figures, to inform, educate and enlighten consumers – a powerful piece of the puzzle that requires solving to transform the polluting fashion industry. “Imagine if every big blogger started to talk about social justice and environmental issues (on social media)! It would change everything!”
The passion and commitment Livia has to effect positive change in the world’s second most polluting industry is crystal clear. As an extension of the brands, manufacturers and makers (the fashion industry ‘stakeholders’) that Eco-Age works with, her team created the Green Carpet Fashion Awards alongside the Camera Nazionale Della Moda (CNMI), to bring all members of the industry (including textile mills, seamstresses and tech pioneers) together and publicise their involvement in creating fashion. Undeniably, telling the story of how products are made and by whom is a powerful tool for engaging the public in choosing products that do not compromise the environment and the lives of others. Livia harnessed her power with actresses, brands and other high profile stakeholders to help her drive the message of conscious consumption.
We discussed recycling of textiles and garments and Livia is initially dismissive, in the sense that the deep rooted problems in the fast-fashion model can never be solved by simply recycling the millions of tonnes of products produced every year, which deplete the planet’s resources only to be discarded (or recycled) after a handful or wears. The lack of provision of a living wage within the fast-fashion business model will not be addressed by creating a circular economy, she states. She also points to the growing issue of micro-plastics in our waterways from synthetic fabrics, which release these tiny plastic particles into the water with each wash and for which new technologies are being developed in order to ingest or filter them out. Some headway has been made here, but Livia sees this as yet another example of how the fast-fashion demands for synthetics (because natural fibres are too expensive) has led to environmental problems – causing dire costs to both planet and people.
Wrapping up my interview with the knowledge that we will be meeting at the Lovie Awards, Livia leaves me with the parting news of an upcoming store launch by Eco-Age client Bottletop, creating accessories made from recycled leathers in their flagship store, which is being entirely 3D printed from recycled plastic waste. Stay tuned for the upcoming story.