From red carpets to Renaissance revivals, Livia Firth is rewriting the script on sustainable fashion. The powerhouse behind Eco-Age, she's transforming the way we see ethical style—one monumental initiative at a time. Dive into our conversation on NFTs, the future of fashion, and why you might just be wearing tomorrow's solutions.
Livia Firth is the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Eco-Age, an integrated consultancy company specialized in sustainable solutions and strategies for companies across all different sectors. She is a lifelong activist and an esteemed changemaker in the spheres of environmental and social justice, having worked closely with garment workers since 2008, championing their demands for living wages, safe working conditions, and human rights. She is known especially for her pivotal role as executive producer of the 2015 documentary The True Cost, which shed light on the major issues within the fashion industry from environmental damage to modern-day slavery, showing viewers who actually paid the cost of cheap clothing, and raising awareness on the importance of ethical fashion.
This documentary essentially changed my life, prompting my interest in sustainability, which later became my passion and calling, and the reason behind the Master's degree I am pursuing right now. Livia brought the environmental and social issues in the fashion industry into the mainstream with Eco-Age, and she is now bringing a whole new meaning to awards shows through The Renaissance Awards. Based in Florence, the birthplace of the first Renaissance, it is the first global award dedicated to the work of international young leaders on sustainability.
We sat down with Livia to discuss the Renaissance Awards, the environmental viability of NFTs, and how to be a responsible consumer in a market where you feel like you can never win.
Tell me about The Renaissance Awards movie.
Ahead of COP26, we wanted to find a way to celebrate progress and showcase the fact that there are so many young leaders today. They're not just talking, they're acting. And they actually know exactly what is wrong and find solutions for it. This is fundamental in a moment where we're all petrified because we think we don’t have power and everything is in the hands of our governments. We are showcasing these leaders that are young, and who don't have many means to create change, apart from their own obsession to solve an issue. And they've done it. When you watch the movie, it's 45 minutes of pure joy and inspiration.
What’s the meaning behind the name?
We called it The Renaissance Awards because today, there is a new Renaissance. When you look back at the actual historical Renaissance, in the 1500s, we were coming out of a pandemic called the Black Death. Today, we're (hopefully) coming out of COVID. Lorenzo De Medici was 24 years old when he started the Renaissance in Florence, and Michelangelo was 26 when he started making David. So we want to spotlight the leaders of today that we will look back at in 50 years' time and say, “you know what happened in Florence in 2021?”
Fast-fashion brands are not multi-billion dollar companies because of people who can’t afford to buy nice clothes.
Each awardee receives an NFT, and NFTs are quite controversial in the environmental sphere. I wanted to ask why you chose to award NFTs and what your stance is on their environmental viability?
We had two reasons for wanting to award NFTs. The first was, how do we evolve from the traditional award ceremony with our awards? You go onstage, you receive the statue, you go home and you keep that statue on a mantlepiece. We moved out of the conventional awards ceremony last year when we re-invented the concept of awards with the Green Carpet Fashion Awards, and this year we wanted to do the same with the Renaissance Awards. But we also asked, how do we replace the statuette?
Eco-Age has always been, I think, really good at taking issues of the moment, and spotlighting that issue and saying, 'Okay, you want to do this? You have to do it this way.' Whether it is in 2008 or 2012 or 2021. So today everyone is talking about NFTs. The fashion industry is moving towards NFTs and digitalization and as you said, the environmental impact is huge. So we wanted to say, 'Okay, you know what? We’ll give NFTs, but we have to do it with the best company in the world that is the most environmentally and socially just.'
We work with Cardano, which is really doing a lot of work on the environmental side but also, two weeks before we premiered the film, they released a smart contract. It was the first time NFTs were being regulated with a smart contract. So each young leader now is the owner of an NFT that they can sell. But when they sell it, they have to give a percentage back to the organization that they created and funded, and the money through NFT history will always go back to that organization. So it was also creating a blueprint for how to make sure that these NGOs are sustainable over time and won’t constantly be relying on donations, for example. NFTs do have a big negative impact, but the more we talk about it, the more progress will occur. In terms of the actual design, the Renaissance Awards NFT itself has been done in collaboration with our strategic partner, Method, using Renaissance paintings from the Palazzo Vecchio museum for the first time in history.
What exactly inspired you to start working to make fashion more sustainable?
In 2008, I went to Bangladesh and it was the first time that I entered a factory. That experience changed my life forever. When I came back, I was determined to find solutions for garment workers and I started campaigning around that. Coincidentally, two years later, Colin [Firth, her husband at the time] got nominated for the Globes, and then the Oscars with A Single Man. I was incredibly lucky to be able to use the red carpet as an instrument of campaigning. I was always involved in human rights campaigning and I remember always struggling. To be heard, to be seen. And then I stepped on the red carpet and everyone paid attention. So I said, 'Okay if you want fashion, I'll give you fashion. But we’re talking about the same thing. This is still about human rights.' That’s how this all started.
The word that is the most similar to sustainability is respect.
As a consumer, there are so many contradictions out there. Should we buy clothes made from recycled materials? Yes, but the chemicals that go into the processing make them damaging. Buying second-hand is not ethical if you can afford not to. You can shop from sustainable brands, but they could be greenwashing. You can never really win as a consumer. So I wanted to hear from you what your take is on how to be a responsible consumer when you feel like you’re always wrong for buying anything at all.
Super interesting question, and it's absolutely true. None of us walk around with an encyclopedia on what to wear and what not to wear, so I think there are two answers to this question. One is to slow down and buy less. I think in a very simplistic way, we wouldn't be in this mess if fast fashion didn't exist. It's as simple as that. We are in this mess because of that, because we have been addicted to buying and we buy like there is no tomorrow.
When people tell me that they can’t afford to buy sustainably, I tell them to keep the receipt of every single thing that they bought throughout the year. You will realize that you spend so much money on cheap clothes at the end of the year. And remember fast-fashion brands are not multi-billion dollar companies because of people who can’t afford to buy nice clothes. They are multi-billion dollar companies because we all buy far too much. So the first thing is just to buy less. This is why two years ago we launched the hashtag #30Wears, it’s the simplest solution of all. When you walk into a shop, ask yourself, will I wear it a minimum of 30 times? We have to slow down and that is the easiest solution of all. We'll save the planet. We'll save people and we'll save your wallet.
The second thing is sustainability. You talk about buying secondhand, buying recycled materials, and whatnot. Sustainability is a multifaceted conversation, but remember it always, always has two elements. It’s the planet, the environmental side, but it’s the social side as well. You know immediately that if something is incredibly cheap, someone else is paying that cost, and it’s always the garment worker. Always. Again, in a very simplistic way, if something is made of polyester, it doesn't go away, it doesn't decompose. So at the end of its life, you have to burn it. There are certain things that are quite simple. If you have a bit of curiosity to read and study, inform yourself. Today more than ever, there is so much information out there that there is almost no excuse not to get informed.
The word that is the most similar to sustainability is respect. Once you apply respect, you can't consume fast and furiously at the expense of exploiting people. Simple as that. Because you also have respect for the clothes that you buy. Fashion used to be beautiful, it should be beautiful. It’s about memories. I only have memories in the clothes that I'm wearing today, and this is why I love wearing them, because they remind me of things. I’ve had them for years.
I feel like my generation, Gen Z, is so contradictory to itself. We talk about sustainability and how much we care about the environment, but fast-fashion retailers, like Shein for example, are still growing every day, and we're their primary consumers. What is your take on this contradiction? Why is this the case?
I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I honestly feel sorry for Gen Z because they are the lost generation, a hundred percent. There is the most incredible article about what Facebook has done to Gen Z and it's so scary, you have no idea. We're talking about girls because boys don’t shop or use social media as much, they spend more time gaming.
Instagram is where you’re asked to be judged constantly and you put yourself out there. It's not surprising to know that when you are on social media, the majority of Gen Z girls are scared to be seen photographed wearing the same thing twice because the pressure is on them to be thin, to have something new, to be sexual, to be perfect. How on earth can this generation survive this? It’s no surprise that there is the highest rate of depression, suicide, and self-harm among gen Z. I mean, it's so scary and sad, and Facebook did that. I think shopping is almost predicated. You are supposed to do it because there is always someone telling you that this is what you have to do to look that way. What is the solution?
I think one of the reasons why I was happy to do The Renaissance Awards was if more young people watched these young leaders and had them as a reference, rather than Kim Kardashian or whoever else is equivalent, maybe the world would be better. Actually, not maybe, for sure. It’s a way to inspire our peers into what can be done outside of social media.
We need them to go to the shop assistant and ask: 'Who made this? I want to have more information about the garment worker.'
You work closely with garment workers. What are their greatest concerns right now and how have they been affected by the pandemic?
They’ve been affected hugely by the pandemic because brands have not been paying for their orders. What happened last year was brutal, shocking, and disgusting all at the same time.
Brands didn’t even pay for the orders that they placed before lockdown, so garment workers have been left starving and fighting for even the bare minimum human rights. There has fortunately been a lot of pressure from the global community and NGOs like the Clean Clothes Campaign and Pay Your Workers Campaign, and Remaking America also launched a big campaign about holding brands accountable for paying garment workers for the orders that they placed.
They are terrified, and at the same time, they're really pissed off. It's interesting because we're about to see how they’ll behave now. They were held down with the excuse that “this is development,” and they were too afraid to speak up because they needed a job. But now they're saying, we're getting organized and this doesn't work for us anymore. We know our rights and you need to do better.
I was talking to a garment worker in Dhaka three days ago and she was saying 'Livia, the worst thing that can happen is that people stop buying. We need them to buy, but we need them to go to the shop assistant and ask: 'Who made this? I want to have more information about the garment worker. I want to know more about the woman who sewed it,' because the more people ask, the more brands will realize that people are starting to notice. Right now they think no one cares or no one sees. So we need to let the brands know that we are seeing it and we want to know what goes on behind the scenes.
I think one of the biggest issues is definitely greenwashing because even I, someone who is pursuing a Master’s in Sustainable Development, have been fooled by the advertising.
Brands only talk about sustainability when it’s environmental. All the pledges and commitments are environmental, never social. Primark, a month ago I think, announced that by 2030, they're going to be raising their garment workers’ wages. The majority of consumers might have been fooled, but other brands and people in the industry slammed them simply by asking: 'How are you going to do that? What's the plan?' They didn't have one.
In these factories, you enter and you die as a garment worker.
The mess is caused by how much we consume.
What would you tell someone who would argue that at least these brands are giving garment workers jobs?
I almost fell off my chair years ago when I heard Mr. Persson, the owner of H&M, saying that what he was doing was called “development.” What you call a “job” is being enslaved in a cycle of poverty, which they will never come out of. Remember in every single country, in every single job, there is a job ladder. You enter as something, say a seamstress and then you become head of production, you climb a ladder. In these factories, you enter and you die as a garment worker. So it's not a job. I don’t define that as a job. If you want to do development and give them a real job, how about a living wage? And maybe own the factory that does your work instead of placing an order in another country and evading responsibility for how that order is executed.
The other common argument is that the way to be sustainable is to shop from luxury brands only, but some luxury brands are equally responsible and equally unethical in their supply chains. So, what about luxury brands?
First, let's talk about our relationship with clothes when we buy them. If we buy something cheap, we automatically don't commit to the purchase, we do it out of impulse. Maybe it’s Saturday night, we need to go to a party, we buy a new dress. We don't care because we paid so little for it, so we discard it. We give it to a charity shop or we just make it someone else's problem and buy another one. This is what fast fashion is. We consume fast and we discard. Nothing stays in our wardrobes. A few years ago, the statistic was that nothing stays in the average woman’s wardrobe for more than five weeks. Buying cheap clothes is like swiping on a dating app, you don’t think twice about it.
When we buy something more expensive, we commit to it in a different way because it’s a different kind of purchase from the beginning. When we buy something with an excruciating price tag, we're going to keep it, we're going to take care of it. When we eventually don't use it anymore, we're passing it on to our daughters or friends, we’re not just throwing it away or even giving it to a charity shop. Have you ever seen a Gucci dress in a charity shop? I haven’t. The first step is that our relationship with that item is different. That doesn't answer how the company behaves; how we consume is equally important, because remember the mess is caused by how much we consume.
Then we can look at how the luxury brands behave. Chances are that they have much more money to invest in the research and development of new, more sustainable materials. Some luxury brands today, particularly if you look at the Kering Group, have a very strong and sincere commitment to sustainability on the environmental side, and most of them are also committed to social standards.
If you go to uber luxury brands, chances are they produce much closer to home, their production chains are much shorter, and they might do their embroidery in India, but they do it in a place where they know what goes on because they had to train the embroiderer to their brand’s quality standards. So I don't buy the excuse that “they’re all the same anyway, so who cares?” That just gives us permission to shop.