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Lily Cole: Carbon tax on clothes needed to cut ‘relentless’ waste in fashion industry

Exclusive: “If something is cheap, someone’s paying for it,” actor and model says

Saphora Smith
Climate Correspondent at Cop27 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt
Saturday 12 November 2022 19:59 GMT
Lily Cole expertly calls out media and GMB during climate change interview

The fashion industry continues to produce incredible waste as companies persuade consumers it is still aspirational to keep up with the “relentless” pace of new trends, the actor and model Lily Cole has said.

While there is a growing market for recycled, second-hand and repaired clothing, she said fast fashion continued to dominate the industry, leading to mountains of discarded clothes piling up on the beaches of Ghana or in Chile’s Atacama desert.

“At what point did it become normal, and it become normalised, for us to throw clothes away?” she asked in an interview with The Independent on the sidelines of Cop27.

“There’s nothing inherently wrong with clothes and people’s desire to decorate and embellish the way they look, we’ve been doing it as communities for thousands of years,” she added. “But what’s problematic in more recent times is that that creativity has shifted into a disposal paradigm where we want to change looks so regularly, and alongside that is the disposability of clothes.”

If businesses instead could derive value from resale and repair – “quality over quantity” – the less they will push people to buy new things, she said.

There was a broader economic problem too though, she added, which was that the current pricing of all goods does not reflect their true cost to society and the environment.

“If something is cheap, someone’s paying for it,” she said. “If you try to make a product in a super responsible way, socially, environmentally, it costs more to produce, but it doesn’t cost more to society.”

If this harm – whether environmental degradation, carbon emissions or pollution – was costed into the price of a product it might become easier for sustainable alternatives to compete, she added.

One way to do this would be to bring in carbon and pollution taxes in a way that protects those on lower incomes, she said, pointing to one such example in Canada.

“We have to keep reforming capitalism in different ways,” she said.

“I always think frequent-flyer taxes are a great idea; it’s a no-brainer … it’s a tiny proportion of people who are flying.”

Ms Cole said her career as a model served as a deep dive into business and exposed her not only to the waste but the lack of transparency in supply chains, and the potential social and environmental impacts. At first, she said there was a separation between her philanthropy and the businesses she worked with.

The model and actor says the fashion industry should be pushing quality over quantity to curb waste (Saphora Smith)

“That just really made no sense to me that those two spaces would be so siloed, and separated out when business is so powerful and is sort of running our world,” she said.

It quickly became apparent to her, she said, that instead of putting energy into philanthropy she would rather focus her time on trying to reform businesses and supporting businesses that “are trying to do a better job of capitalism” in a bid to achieve more systemic change.

“I sort of stopped modelling because of that,” she said, adding that now she does “minimal” amounts of modelling for the brands she endorses.

She is also now an adviser to the UN Economic Commission for Europe’s sustainability pledge, which works among other things to improve transparency and traceability for sustainable value chains in the garment and footwear industry.

“Pretty much all deforestation has been driven by economic choices that go into our supply chains,” she said. “And so we’re almost paying for the forest to be cut down, even though probably most people, if they were asked, would say they didn’t want that.”

“That’s because of a lack of transparency and a lack of proper regulation and proper pricing of costs: that whole cocktail.”

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