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Fast fashion, Plastic and Outdoor Raves; Lucy Siegle's Fight for Sustainability

If you’ve looked outside recently, then you’ll be aware that we need to be kinder to our planet. Global warming, pollution and industrialisation are having huge impacts on our environment. The reasons behind the damage we’re causing are not straightforward - our path to sustainability are often blocked by economic systems and social structures many believe we can’t live without.

Luckily, we have people like Lucy to show us the way.

Her latest book, ‘Turning the Tide on Plastic’, examines our relationship with plastic and guides us through how we can mitigate and improve our useage. Lucy uses her influence as a journalist to write pieces for publications such as The Guardian, Huffington Post and the BBC that aim to make a difference. She also produced the groundbreaking Netflix Documentary “The True Cost” which takes aim at the disastrous effects of the fast fashion industry and its garment workers back in 2015.

Like many of us, Lucy uses social media to extrapolate her opinions. However, true activism lies within action alongside our ability to self-broadcast - and I think that is the fundamental principle of Lucy’s message. To implement rather than just discuss.

Shortly before she gave a lecture at Whalar’s London office, Studio had the chance to grill (or rather be grilled by) the activist who has dedicated her professional life to creating change.

There’s been a huge body of work to sink my teeth into, it’s been intense. To start off, I was wondering what first drew you into environmentalism?

It all started with my Grandad. He was an amateur ecologist who always told me about the great outdoors. From him, I always felt very connected to the certain blocks of learning which naturally led to a passion for environmentalism.

For me, it was just one of those inevitable things where a seed was planted. Quickly I realised, God, this planet is so beautiful. Whilst culturally, I used to go to lots of raves outside and, especially in the UK, you experience all this beautiful countryside and you naturally want to protect it.

And how do these passions relate to your career as a journalist?

You build your passions and you build your career. I was one of those people who managed to do both at the same time, so I’m quite lucky. At the time, it didn’t seem strange to me. As a writer, I find writing a lot of effort (it’s actually a pain in the arse). So I thought, if I’m putting all of this effort in, it would break my heart to do so in a subject I wasn’t bothered about.

Beyond your own passions, where did you find inspiration?

In the early naughties, especially from magazine culture, journalism was very vibrant. I could see opportunities to link environmentalism mainstream conversation, but take them into a different zone. For instance, if you take fashion. Everyone did fashion journalism in a particular way. Then magazines like The Face and ID came along and they took the cultural memes out of fashion. They drew from movements such as queer fashion; they created subsets. Like Buffalo or Street Culture. So I thought you could look at some of these sectors and take the sustainability or environmental story out of them - why not do it with fashion?

I quite quickly focussed on sustainable fashion. I wasn't doing anything that hadn’t been done before, I was just applying my interest in the environment to lots of mainstream subsets of culture.

I know how you preach that every consumer has the power to be an activist…

Well, we’re activists first and consumers second, but the problem is we get it around the wrong way.

You use your influence as a journalist to promote your views… Regarding influencers, you wrote a piece in the Guardian about how “Influencers Can Combat Fast Fashion’s Toxic Trends”. However, I read a more recent article from you in the Huffington Post titled How Instagram Influencers Fuel Our Destructive Addiction To Fast Fashion”. So there are two conflicting perspectives here. Could you flesh that out?

One was naive, one was written later on.

I think we’re going through a tricky period. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of Tom Berners-Lee creating for the world wide web. He discussed earlier this morning how we are at a crossroads. A lot of the great intentions and great forces that can be harnessed from the web have been subverted.

You have to think that things need to bed in, they need to change. We can’t lose sight of the opportunity, and I think social sustainability is the next big thing. But we’re just working out how to put the pieces of the jigsaw together. It’s been nearly sixty years since “Silent Spring” by Rachel Carson which started the modern environmental movement - a massive warning for using chemicals without any restrictions.

It’s taken us roughly 60 years to realise shit, we really need to address this. 30 years to fully realise the extent of the internet. These things take time. In 5-10 years, we’ll be in a totally different space.

With the Huffington Post piece, I changed the brief because they just wanted me to write about how bad influencers were. I thought; No, I want to see who’s trying to change and what the barriers are. What I wanted it to show is are there barriers to influencers becoming more sustainable? And there are.

It’s not rocket science. If we want more sustainable influencers, we need to remove the barriers to sustainability that exist for everyone. But we need to know what these barriers are, and we need to discuss it. They are as trapped as the rest of us into a system which, at the moment, prioritises consumption and consumerism over activism.  This will even out, and I believe that in the very near future, it will flip completely and social media will be a massive massive positive engine.

I think social has the capacity for that and I think we are seeing more social currency within brands that have a sustainable narrative. This actually leads me on to…

...but do you know what? Sometimes we should be doing things without brands.

(Laughs nervously….) Go on?

With regards to social media, we’re swapping notions of community and interaction with an online version. We are giving away something that’s crucial to combating mental health, wealth curation, generally pushing out the forces of darkness, and we’re switching it for something incomplete.

If we’re going to create an online system to replace the old one, the system has to have breathing space in it - and those spaces need to be brand free. We have to run our digital world as if it is a society, because that is what we’re replacing.

You’re talking about an ideological shift?

The shift is happening. At the moment, social media does have good facets - it is interesting and dynamic. However, to me, it’s superficial (for activism). There’s still not a lot of depth to it. It’s not rounded out like a society with thousands of years of people's input. It’s only been going for thirty years. It can’t just exist to promote brands. Otherwise, it’s doomed.

Returning to brands, and this relates to “The True Cost”, these large brands almost seem to wash their hands of responsibility with the garment workers. You say it’s easier for young, fresh, dynamic brands to be socially responsible. So in that vein, what can the large brands that were mentioned in the documentary do to change their ways?

Nothing, they are inherently unsustainable. We can’t have a sustainable fashion industry which is dictated to by monolithic, fast fashion brands.

I think the line they’re going for at the moment is the idea that you can recycle, and they can develop recycling technology. Due to the pace of clothing, we need to up the pace of recycling to match the pace of discard. The idea we can balance it all out is completely impossible.

Unfortunately, clothes are quite a low weight product. Like, if it was gold bullion, we could go round and gather it up - it’s heavy, we know where it is and it’s valuable. But this is polyester clothing. What are you going to do? Go around everyone’s bedroom and fish it out? It’s just not going to happen.

So, I don’t believe it can happen. Some people do. Actually, there is interesting stuff happening in that space. There’s a group of textile scientists and researchers who are coming together to stop brands from claiming they can fix it. They’ve done the back work if you look at the ecological systems, which we understand, you quickly realise it doesn’t work. Their theories are absolute bullshit.

I noticed an embedded video of a diver in Bali surrounded by plastic in one of your articles. We’ve spoken about the flaws in the global fashion infrastructure, what about plastic and government? For nations like Bali, whose infrastructure is not as stable as others, how can they deal with single use plastic?

Develop a program that implements an infrastructure so they have safe drinking water. And we could do that if there wasn’t lobbying by drinking water companies who want to pollute and put bottles on the market. There are ways around all of these subjects through international treaties and development, I think part of our budget is now going to go to plastic waste in former colonies.. You also look into things like whether you prioritise innovation to countries that have a massive plastic problem.

Don’t forget that in the UK we’re saved from a lot of it. We tend to think we’re better than a lot of these countries by consuming less plastic, we’re not. We’re not consuming less plastic - we’re consuming more plastic per head, significantly more. You and I will be consuming 20x more plastic than an Indonesian person because we have all the other shit we use. Then we are also exporting our waste, and it’s very unclear where its going. We only have the capacity to recycle 380,000 tones in the UK - which is generously a third of the plastic that we are importing. So where’s the rest of it going? We don’t really know at the moment because China shut its doors.

What we ultimately need is something like the Montreal Protocol - like we had for the ozone layer - we need the same for plastic because it priorities innovation to the countries who have the biggest cleanup to do.  Wherever you introduce plastic into a culture that is new, they don’t know what to do with it. We need to have a big overarching strategy for plastic thats global. We’ve got to stop thinking about it in national terms.

It’s good in a way, seeing so much footage of places we may never visit. While certain communities, like surfers, do a really great job of communicating that.

You talk about a lot of heavy subjects, what would you like to be doing more of?

It’s not really something I want to be doing more of, but we need to be talking about climate change in more depth. I did a lot on plastics this year, which I see is a gateway issue to climate change. I want to be pushing as much as I can - I don’t think the BBC has covered climate change enough, even though I contribute to them. Certainly for the program I work on (The One Show), they’re really great on plastics. But I really think we owe it to our audience to talk about climate change, but there’s a nervousness around producers and commissioners are this subject because it has been politicised. My current role, as I see it, is to have these conversations with these people. Try and make them less nervous, try and come up with stories that are compelling, and put a bit more of my energy into that.

I can be very persuasive. I have a lot of energy and knowledge. For me, it’s about creating content that’s shifting the dial, rather than constantly going over old ground.

For plastic, people find it easy to grasp because it is all around them. They set up campaigns on social media, and then what? I don’t want to discuss litter all day with people on social media - it’s boring and it is not solving a problem. I want to make people feel that the climate debate is about them, for them and that they need to get involved.