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“I’m so cross”: Joanna Lumley talks sustainability, single-use plastic and her eco-friendly fashion tips

The iconic TV personality is appealing to the public to change their shopping habits and ditch single-use plastic. We sat down with her to chat everything from sustainable fashion to her greatest eco-friendly tips.

Joanna Lumley is giving up the TV gig in favour of something a bit more unconventional.

At least, that’s what she’s decided she’s going to do after our conversation – not because she’s stressed from flying all over the world to film her numerous travel documentaries, or even because she’s tired of being in the limelight. She wants to dedicate herself to tracking the people she sees dropping litter – and give them a good telling off.

“You know those people who think, ‘it’s just one little bit of rubbish, how is that going to ruin the planet?’ and then throw it out of the car window?” she explains. “I’d be following them. In fact, it might be my job. I might give up acting today and just start following people around – I’m so cross.”

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Joanna Lumley is exactly how you would expect her to be. Charismatic, charming and down-to-earth, she makes you feel completely at ease. She clearly cares deeply about everything she puts her mind to – whether that’s her groundbreaking charity work or her appearance as the iconic Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous – and it shows. And now, in true Lumley style, she’s taken yet another cause under her wing: the fight against single-use plastic. 

It’s a vitally important subject: despite reports that show the plastic waste in the world’s oceans will triple within the next 10 years if we don’t clean up our act, new research by BRITA and YouGov suggests that three quarters of British people are still buying plastic bottles, with a quarter not planning on changing their single-use plastic habits in the future. 

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Lumley wants to change that. We sat down with her to speak about her new mission to get more of us drinking tap water, and get her insight on everything from what constitutes a sustainable lifestyle, to our future relationship with plastic.

Stylist: What does sustainability mean to you?

Joanna Lumley: Sustainability – this is a kind of new-fangled word which is just called being sensible with what your part in the planet absorbs. Be sensible. I’ve never dropped litter, I look after my clothes, and when a button falls off or they get torn, I mend them. I use second hand things. I have second hand clothes, furniture. Make do and mend – that’s an old war-time thing. I was born after the war, but that idea stuck with me. I save paper which comes on presents, I take care of things. I don’t throw food away and I drink tap water.

S: How does sustainability inform what you buy?

JL: I try to start by not buying things that are wrapped in plastic if that’s possible. I recycle as much as I can, so I put garden waste, coffee grounds and anything like that in the garden bin. The only stuff I really throw away is cellophane wrapping.

Joanna Lumley against single-use plastic
To Lumley, living sustainably means "being sensible with what your part in the planet absorbs".

S: And what about your fashion choices?

JL: I tend to wear or reuse or take care of my clothes enough so that they last as long as possible. I’ve always loved the French thing of buying slightly classical things, so that they’re quality and will last. So be wise about what you buy and make sure it’s very adaptable. Put a bit of forethought into what you’re going to need it for – don’t just think “I adore that, it’s so great, I could just wear it once”. I’ve got a sun visor, I think I’ve had it for 35 years. I keep it clean and it looks great. I’ve just worn it on a film trip and somebody said “hey, that sun visor looks great!” and I was smirking, because I’ve had it for all that time.

S: Have you got any sustainable fashion tips?

JL: Choose things that you know are adaptable. My advice is to stick with the basics, with splashes of colour. Go for black and white items, and then have a shocking pink cardigan or a gorgeous green headscarf. But don’t get stuff where you have to say, “oh, I love that lime green catsuit I bought, but now I don’t want to wear it anymore” – you shouldn’t have bought it in the first place darling!

S: Was there a specific moment which made you more conscious about the sustainability of your lifestyle, or have you always lived that way?

JL: I think I was brought up pretty strictly, and also, I came from the age when we used to do things at school like Keep Britain Tidy, so the idea of throwing stuff away was always a mystery to us. I love the idea of taking out cloth shopping bags, I did that long before plastic bags had a price on them. 

S: Why do you think it’s taken us so long to realise our reliance on single-use plastic is such a big issue?

JL: Because we thought the world would be forever. We thought everything was fine. Suddenly we’ve started to look at things, and you can’t dodge away from what we know now – that everything comes at a price.

S: What do you think is the biggest barrier to reducing our reliance on single-use plastic in the UK?

JL: Indifference - it’s the greatest enemy to everything. Utter indifference. 

Joanna Lumley
Joanna Lumley and Stylist's Junior Digital Writer Lauren Geall

S: What needs to happen next?

JL: We’ve got to [cut down on single-use plastic] in the UK. We can only take care of our own things. You can plan to do it tomorrow but you can only do it today. You can only do what’s now. So let’s try and get this right in our country. Do your bit. The government’s got to be involved, as well as the manufacturers who use so much plastic, the retailers who sell plastic, and the consumers – we’re all part of the same chain, we’ve all got to look around and think, this could be done better. Plastic’s a good substance, it’s a useful substance, let’s make sure we don’t misuse it. 

Joanna Lumley
Joanna Lumley: "Suddenly we’ve started to look at things, and you can’t dodge away from what we know now – that everything comes at a price."

S: So are you hopeful a change in attitude is happening and will continue to emerge?

JL: Yes, opinions can change, and minds can be changed. We’ve seen this throughout history.

S: What advice have you got for people who want to cut down on their plastic waste but have no idea where to start?

JL: First of all, recycle as much plastic as you can. Take a bit of responsibility and do it yourself. Don’t expect somebody else to do it. 

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Images: BRITA/Writer’s Own

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