Lily Cole
Fashion

Lily Cole: “Waste in fashion presents not just a problem, but an opportunity”

Welcome to The Sustainable Shopper. Each week, Stylist will talk to the people focused on creating a more conscious shopping space for all. This week, model, author and environmental campaigner Lily Cole talks to fashion editor Harriet Davey about transforming electrical-waste into jewellery and advice from sustainable designer Stella McCartney.

A place to spotlight the people who are promoting positive changes when it comes to sustainability, this time, the Sustainable Shopper talks to Lily Cole. The British model has starred in campaigns for fashion labels including Chanel and Hèrmes, walked the catwalk for Louis Vuitton and Versace (to name a few) as well as being an author, environmental campaigner and mum. 

More recently, Lily is the face of a new campaign with sustainable jewellery brand Lylie’s and Recycle Your Electricals. Together, they have created the ‘Five Gold Rings’ collection made entirely from precious metals recycled from electrical ‘waste’, showing the amazing jewellery that can be made if we recycle. 

Lily Cole even has her own book and podcast Who Cares Wins to talk about the issue of sustainability, particularly within the fashion industry. Having focused on ethical issues for over 15 years, Lily supports brands who are making a difference and reusing waste – wearing a silver Vivienne Westwood dress to the 2017 Oscars created from plastic bottles is one of Lily’s most memorable fashion moments. 

Below, Lily talks exclusively to Stylist about why recycling electricals and transforming the metals into jewels is a massive help to the planet, shares insight from Stella McCartney herself and explains how everyone should strive to be more sustainable, and happy. 

Lily Cole model
Lily Cole

Lily: I had several memorable experiences of sustainability early on in my modelling career – my attention was first drawn to problems with fashion supply chains including diamond mining and cotton farming. 

After becoming more aware of the potential negative impacts in supply chains, I started to seek out positive counter examples I could champion; I believe it is only by exploring solutions that we will get to a better future. That journey took me to different countries exploring possibilities such as fair trade natural cosmetics, organic farming, carbon neutral factories, indigenous hand craft, wild rubber, to most recently bio-plastics and 3D printing (low waste) through my company Wires Glasses.

I’m also interested in the narratives pushing against disposable fast fashion – whether that’s supporting second hand clothes, emphasising timeless style over trends, or reducing and repurposing waste into new products. Fashion has a huge impact on the world both in terms of its actual literal and the cultural impact of what we consider “fashionable.”

So sustainable fashion invites two questions: can we produce the things we wear without hurting the earth in the process? Culturally, is sustainability becoming fashionable?

I’m actually more interested in sustainable style, pushing against the relentlessly wasteful trend mentality of fashion as we know it. As Yves Saint Laurent once quipped, “fashion fades, style is eternal.”

Lily Cole modelling the ‘Five Gold Rings’ collection created by Material Focus
Lily Cole modelling the ‘Five Gold Rings’ collection created by Material Focus

When researching for my book Who Cares Wins, I was horrified by the amount of electronic waste that is produced every year, and how little of it is recycled. Yet electronic waste is unique as it’s highly valuable – e-waste often contains precious metals and finite materials which can be transformed and reused.

So when Material Focus reached out to me with their campaign to give away rings made from recycled e-waste, I thought it was a beautiful initiative to demonstrate the value in objects we might consider “waste”.

If we recycle electronics more, we will help slow one of the planet’s fastest growing waste streams, prevent millions of tonnes of valuable resources being lost, and reduce the overall pressure on the extraction of raw materials from the earth. I learned that nearly 100 tonnes of precious metals including gold, silver and palladium – equivalent to £857m – could be recycled from unwanted electricals each year in the UK – that’s enough to make over 858,000 gold rings.

The truth about waste, is there is no “away.” When we throw away anything – food, electronics or fashion – it doesn’t just magically disappear. The waste often ends up polluting land, soil, waters, and sometimes local communities (up to a million people a year are understood to die from illnesses caused by waste sites).

When it comes to fashion, our insatiable appetite for more coupled with cheaper prices, has driven a steep increase in the amount of fashion going to landfill. It is estimated that three quarters of the 80–100 billion garments made every year will end up in landfill.

Waste in fashion presents not just a problem but an opportunity. As Stella McCartney told me in an interview for my book; ‘If business can figure out how to use the $500 billion worth of waste that the fashion industry leaves behind every year, then not only are they saving the planet, they also have a very healthy business model.’

Lily Cole modelling the ‘Five Gold Rings’ collection created by Material Focus
Lily Cole modelling the ‘Five Gold Rings’ collection

I’m happy to say I believe the changes that need to happen are already underway; in the 15+ years I have been working on sustainable fashion, I’ve seen huge growth in awareness of the issues, and also possibilities (new brands, technologies and marketplaces) for sustainable fashion. Of course I hope that continues, and I expect it will, as the science of climate change and biodiversity loss is not going away.

I also think it would be great to see companies innovating on their business models so they do not depend on people buying new things constantly in order to operate. That would enable us to shift away from fast fashion, towards slow style, valuing quality over quantity.

For me, I enjoy shopping vintage and finding second hand special treasures but when I do need to buy something new, I try to support sustainable brands. Luckily, there are more available now along with online marketplaces to find them. 

I model much less these days than I used to and I try to be ever more selective about who I work with; either creatives I really admire, or products that are trying to solve a problem (ideally both, like with Material Focus). To create little changes, buy less, buy better, educe waste and support ethical companies where possible. It’s important to share information with friends and family and remain open minded to new perspectives. Let others – including politicians – know we care.

Remember to focus on the non material things that give life its joy for example friendships, hobbies, creativity, family, meditation, spirituality, exercise, nature. Strive to be happy. 

Lily’s Sustainable Shopper edit

Images: Getty, photographer Patricia Imbarus and courtesy of brands

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