The fashion industry is the one of the top polluters in the world, not far behind the oil industry.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Now, imagine — what if we started to retrain our brains to wear the clothes we already own… instead of buying, buying, buying at every turn?
What about the factory workers in Bangladesh who work 12 hours a day, producing 150 garments an hour, for $150 a month?
And what about the fast fashion we buy that ends up in landfills at a rate of 15 million pieces every week?
These are just a few of the questions Livia Firth has been asking for nearly two decades.
Back when sustainability was not a buzz word.
Back when it was not cool to wear clothing made from recycled materials.
Then, something happened.
In 2010, her husband, Colin Firth, was nominated for an Oscar for his leading role in A Single Man.
And Livia Firth saw an opportunity.
LIVIA FIRTH: [British journalist] Lucy Siegle said to me, “I’m going to challenge you publicly. You have to do the [entire] awards season with only sustainable fashion.”
ALINA CHO: So, things you already had?
LIVIA FIRTH: Oh, no. I didn't have anything, I had never been. So, it was like, "How do we make the red carpet green? How do we make sure that we talk about sustainable fashion?" So, I said, "Okay, challenge accepted." I'm not going to work the red carpet [in] a sack of potatoes, but let's go.
ALINA CHO: So, how did you do it?
LIVIA FIRTH: We started the Golden Globes with a recycled wedding dress from a designer who closed [her] business. She had a few gowns in her home and it was like, "Okay, let's repurpose that wedding dress." And [add] a black sash.
[For] the Oscars, [I wore] a dress made from waste, with recycled underpants that looked like a flower. And no one knew what it was.
ALINA CHO: But listen, you're not stupid. You knew that you had this megaphone.
LIVIA FIRTH: Well, that's why I started. I thought, "Okay, the red carpets are the biggest communication platform in the world." Let’s use it for the right reason.
ALINA CHO: Right.
LIVIA FIRTH: Instead of saying, “Who are you wearing or what are you wearing?” The question is, “Which stories are you wearing?”
ALINA CHO: When you hear that fast fashion is polluting the planet, people don’t understand. You say fast fashion is bad, why is it bad?
LIVIA FIRTH: It’s bad for two reasons. One is that it’s produced with slave labor, always.
I’ve traveled to I don't know how many countries and visited many factories. The average wage that a garment worker — by the way, all women — makes is $150 a month.
And you enter a seamstress, you die a seamstress. It’s a cycle that’s monstrous.
ALINA CHO: And then the clothes are discarded so quickly.
LIVIA FIRTH: Yes, we turn them around so fast, where do they go? [The whole notion of a] circular economy [is a myth]. They want us to think that, magically, everything we buy gets put back into the system. But less than one percent goes back into the circular economy.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
LIVIA FIRTH: 50 million pieces of clothing end up [at a landfill] in Ghana every week.
That’s only one place. There are a million other places. The global south is our…
ALINA CHO: It's the world's garbage dump. Then the other thing, which I didn't realize, is that the fabrics themselves, because they're synthetic, they're oil based.
LIVIA FIRTH: Exactly. You’re wearing oil. Think about this: at a moment in history, when everyone is talking about divestment from the fossil fuel industry and going into renewable [energy], what does the oil industry do?
ALINA CHO: They hide in fabric. But what do you do? Because fast fashion doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.
LIVIA FIRTH: I think it will. There is more and more awareness, which is wonderful. And the new generation is really starting to wake up.
ALINA CHO: You’re all about raising awareness. Let’s talk about the events you started, beginning with The Green Carpet Fashion Awards. You had it in Milan at [famed opera house] La Scala for three years.
Now, you’ve made a very conscious decision to move the awards to Los Angeles. Why?
LIVIA FIRTH: Celebrities. People follow what they do, and they amplify [the message]. So, we thought we really need the power of the entertainment and music industry. And if they’re going to call this the “Oscars” of sustainable fashion, then you need to be in LA.
ALINA CHO: So, that will be in March 2023. You also have The Renaissance Awards, which will be in October of this year.
LIVIA FIRTH: Actually, this is my passion. Working in sustainability can be grim sometimes because when you read about where the world is heading, your heart sinks.
ALINA CHO: Yes.
LIVIA FIRTH: But when we started looking around us, we were like, “There are millions of young leaders, young people who are not only protesting or marching, but they’re also actually working on solutions. They have solutions."
ALINA CHO: Let’s honor them.
LIVIA FIRTH: Let's shine a light on them. They are the future.
ALINA CHO: Who has stood out?
LIVIA FIRTH: There is a farmer from the Philippines who created a technology that takes young farmers to market. And a kid from Norway, who literally while he was canoeing, noticed a lot of plastic.
And as a young scientist, he invented a technology to suck micro-plastic out of the water.
ALINA CHO: Wow.
LIVIA FIRTH: It gives us a lot of hope. We’re going to be fine.
ALINA CHO: What can the average person do to be more sustainable?
LIVIA FIRTH: What the average person can do is replace the word “sustainability” with “respect.” It's how you treat the person next door, what you buy. And if you respect, you are not going to buy something and throw it away.
ALINA CHO: Good point.
LIVIA FIRTH: Sustainability sounds boring, difficult. Respect is easy. When you go to buy something, ask yourself, "Will I wear it a minimum of 30 times?"
So many times, the answer is no. So, don’t buy it.
ALINA CHO: Why do you do what you do?
LIVIA FIRTH: I call myself a professional agitator. Once I see something, an injustice or something that catches you, you can’t unsee it.
ALINA CHO: Sometimes, it feels like we’re going off a cliff, climate wise.
LIVIA FIRTH: I know. It's scary. We are. Not only can you feel it in the weather, but with everything that is happening, in two- or three-years’ time, the number of climate refugees [we will have] — where do they go? What do we do? It's monumental.
ALINA CHO: It is.
LIVIA FIRTH: One of my biggest missions is to make people understand that we are talking about real people. When you talk about climate, it feels so abstract. But it’s about people.