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Lily Cole on ethical shopping

London model and social entrepreneur Lily Cole tells us why being an angelic shopper is such a good idea

Emir Erlap

To get our shopping year off to a saintly start, Time Out has teamed up with ethical lifestyle site Collectively.org – and when it comes to shopping ethically, no one fires both of us up like flame-haired actress and former model Lily Cole. She started sussing out supply chains as a teenage star of the fashion industry. She became the global ambassador for The Body Shop, the business from which most of us first remember hearing the words ‘responsible’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘not in that rabbit’s eye, please’. With the launch of her own shopping platform and social gifting network, Impossible, she’s emerged as that most precious of natural resources: an environmentally-friendly entrepreneur. Can you buy sustainably without compromising on style? Can you answer to personal taste and to the planet? Cole says we all can – and she’s made us some new year’s resolutions to prove it. 

When did ethical style become important to you?
‘I started modelling when I was 14, and around 16 I started understanding more about the implications of supply chains. Companies I worked with were either doing a great job or getting into trouble with their sourcing. So I started doing my own research. I steered towards companies who have more transparent supply chains, like The Body Shop.’

What’s the most vital aspect?
‘Awareness. I think that’s why what Collectively and Time Out are doing together, in featuring ethical products, is important. Then you need transparency, so consumers know enough to make the right choice. Right now the industry is doing a pretty mediocre job of transparency. But I have great hope for the next 20 years. Transparency is becoming a more non-negotiable point – people are starting to expect it, to ask for this information.’

What changes have you made personally?
‘Lots of subtle changes rather than huge radical ones. I shop less. I spend more on the things I do buy. Instead of buying lots of crappy things, I buy a few high quality things that will last. Brands who are doing a good job are top of my list when it comes to buying gifts. If I’m in a store and I have a choice I’ll always buy organic and Fair Trade. But I’m not elitist – if I don’t have that choice, I make do. I’ve tried to simplify my life, giving away a lot of clothes that I don’t wear anymore. And I love the things I do own more.’

Why is it important for Londoners to be acutely aware of the choices we’re making?
‘It’s fundamentally important because it’s easy to feel powerless, as if big business and politics are deciding the world we’re part of. But the reality is that big business is completely answerable to its customers. So as a consumer, you have a huge amount of power, every time you make a decision to buy or not to buy. Collectively is creating that dialogue between people en masse and companies. That power is enormous. The point is to never feel that your choices and actions don’t make a difference, because they really do.’

Impossible

‘To be materialistic doesn’t have to mean to want to own loads of crap’

You’ve confessed in the past to being ‘very materialistic’. Can we be materialistic and still be part of the solution?
‘The two can work well together. To be materialistic doesn’t have to mean to want to own loads of crap. It can mean to really love beautiful things. I’m a sucker for beautiful clothes and beautiful jewellery, and it becomes even more beautiful for me if it has a story behind it, or a strong connection to the people who made it. In a way, that becomes part of the fetishisation of the object. I think that’s actually the ideal scenario – that you can have beautiful things in your life, and feel guiltless about them.’

Can low-income Londoners style shop ethically, or are good shopping habits bound to be a ‘luxury’ concern?
‘Sometimes companies producing ethically are really expensive – especially when things are handmade. You can’t make them cheap and fair. But it is possible to produce things ethically through factory systems in a cheaper mass-market way. Some of the T-shirts we sell on Impossible are comparative market price. Vintage and second hand are also a really accessible way for low-income Londoners to make a difference and feel involved.’

What is Impossible?
‘Impossible is a social network that connects people to share things with each other – gestures of kindness, favours. People can say online whether their ‘wish’ has been fulfilled. I use it loads. Most recently I had an architect called Graham help me, randomly, with a design for glazing on windows. In terms of answering ‘wishes’, I leant my camera to a girl, and now I’m giving her some posters I don’t need because she’s moving house.

We’ve also launched a shopping platform, which is trying to drive more conscious consumerism. Some people are interested in animal rights and make vegan collections. Some are interested in sustainability and make products out of recycled firehoses or plastic bottles. There are things made by indigenous communities by hand, and Stella McCartney pieces that are mass-produced but in an animal friendly, sustainable way.

We have a partnership with a London start-up called Provenance right now. It helps shoppers to connect with the people and processes behind the products. Because ultimately, trade can be a really positive and empowering thing – both for the maker and the shopper.’

Can people use Impossible as an alternative to buying products?
‘Sometimes. It hasn’t been our main emphasis because the community using it is so dispersed – we’re in 120 countries right now, so it works better with skill sharing. But in somewhere like London, where there’s a strong contingent, you do see objects being shared. A guy has just used Impossible to host a pensioner’s lunch in Oval. Users have sent cutlery, decorations or offered help with the event. He just sent me a message today saying how great it was.’

Impossible

’If everybody on the planet was consuming the same amount as the British and Americans right now, we would need three planets to provide enough resources’

Do you ask about provenance when you’re in a shop?
‘Recently I was switching banks and I did actually. I went into one of the big banks, because I couldn’t find anything on their website about it, and asked how they invested their money. The woman said, “Y’know, you’re the first person who’s asked me that,” which was slightly disappointing! I don’t just go in and grill every shop owner. But if there’s someone there who’s enthusiastic to tell the story, I’m interested to know.’

Many would say the fashion industry is the definition of unsustainable consumerism, with its seasons and trends…
‘I agree there are lots of parts of the industry that seem inherently, endemically unsustainable. But fashion at its most basic level is dressing yourself – and ultimately we all need to dress ourselves. Or most of us. Certainly in London you’ve got to wear clothes! So there needs to be a clothes industry – call it fashion – and why not look beautiful and be creative and wear things that express your personality?

What we consume, how often we consume: they’re the points which need to be refined. Designed obsolescence affects everything from fashion to washing machines. And yes, I do think that’s a problem. But capitalism doesn’t always have to be that way. One of the companies we’re working with is called Fairphone . They’re making the first ethically sourced, transparent mobile phone. It’s designed so you can take the phone apart and replace pieces, to try and encourage people to own their phones for longer.’

How far has the fashion industry come, and how far does it need to go?
‘Very far… and very far! It’s on the right trajectory. The pace of that trajectory will be driven largely by consumer demand, because there’s no technological reason why we can’t make the changes now in terms of social justice and environmental conservation – from how cotton is picked to how it is transported. What we’re doing with Impossible wouldn’t have been possible 10 years ago, because responsible brands were such a minority. But there’s still not the same amount happening in fashion as there is in food, where awareness has really bubbled.’ 

Impossible

‘If I was being really utopian I’d get rid of advertising’

Your Cambridge history of art thesis was titled ‘Impossible Utopias’. What will London look like if we all swear on to change?
‘If I was being really utopian I’d get rid of advertising. London would look very different from that perspective. But in some ways it’d be very similar. I’d still want beautiful products, and design, and variety. But you would go into a store and it wouldn’t be a mystery how things are made. Instead of these appalling backstories you don’t know about or turn a blind eye to, there would be a positive story behind every product.’

Old consumer habits die hard. What single fact will kick us into action?
‘I was told the other day that, if everybody on the planet was consuming the same amount as the British and Americans right now, we would need three planets to provide enough resources. Right now the equation doesn’t make sense. This is not sustainable.’

What three New Years resolutions can all London style shoppers make?
‘Livia Firth, a big cheerleader in the ethical fashion space, has challenged people to wear everything they own at least 30 times. So when you buy something, have it in your head that you will wear it a lot. I wear the same bit of my wardrobe again and again and again until it falls apart, and then, if I have an event or a party, I go to the back of the wardrobe and pull out an old dress that will hopefully still fit. Secondly, try to buy brands that are doing good in the world. And thirdly, avoid cheap impulse buys. Only buy things you really love. And then love them!’

For more inspiration for how to shop and live well sustainably – head to Collectively.org.

Lily has recently launched shop.impossible.com, offering curated products with stories behind them.

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