Lucy Siegle photographed for Fashion Revolution Day. Picture / Trevor Leighton.

Green Crusader Lucy Siegle

Environmental journalist Lucy Siegle is an influential and inspiring ethical-living pioneer

Ethical Living columnist for The Observer for the past decade, environmental journalist Lucy Siegle is a conscious living frontrunner. From creating the Green Carpet Challenge in 2013 alongside Livia Firth — highlighting the topic and taking ethical fashion into the limelight through high-profile red carpet dressing — to founding the inaugural Observer Ethical Awards, the writer has also contributed to magazines like Marie Claire and Elle.

Siegle’s no-preach approach has also seen her write two books on the topic, including To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World? which has inspired the upcoming film The True Cost. She shares the inspiration behind writing her books, why she feels so passionately about ethical living and what it’s like for garment workers in Bangladesh two years on from the collapse of Rana Plaza.

Why do you feel strongly about ethical fashion and the issues surrounding it?

Globally, fashion is a $3 trillion industry. It snakes around the planet, affecting the lives of millions who work in the supply chain. It’s full spectrum — from the cotton boll to the shiny merchandising and marketing. It has an incomparable ability to harness our imagination, attention (and money). But it’s being done shamefully badly and a huge opportunity is being lost to provide decent work and conditions for a global workforce and to stop short-changing the consumer by providing “real” fashion made with integrity and built to last.

For designers and creatives there is now so much low-quality stuff being shovelled out that they are finding it hard to sell much at all. Ethical living in general, with an eye on environmental and social justice, seems to me the smart thing to do. Who wants to buy a cosmetic product in good faith only to find that it has irreversibly polluted the oceans with thousands of plastic microbeads that are ingested in the food chain of zooplankton? Even more galling is that it could easily have been made differently. Ethical living is just applying ecological literacy to everyday life.

You’ve just been to Bangladesh — what were you up to over there?

I was travelling with a brilliant Fair Trade fashion brand, People Tree, and visiting people in the supply chain. These included Sabina, who once worked in a sweatshop (Rana Plaza) and is now a proper tailor, living a dignified fulfilled life. It showed me what can be achieved through fashion production.

Two years on from the Rana Plaza disaster, what is the situation like over there for workers?

Overall, it’s not great. There have been too many voluntary codes of conduct and tiny, pilot schemes working on wages. Many workers are terrified after Rana Plaza but powerless to change the status quo. Political instability — the Prime Minister is refusing to call an election — is a real issue too.

What inspired you to write To Die For?

It was an enthralling, absorbing and life changing experience to write it. I met so many people from wardrobe geeks (like me!) obsessed with thr ead counts and who analyse fibres under microscopes to activists determined to turn fashion on its head and consumers swept up in a fast fashion frenzy.

You have been writing for the Observer since 2004. In that time, have you seen a shift in the way people are thinking, living and consuming?

Several shifts actually. There was definitely a high point in 2006/7 when green and environmental issues pierced mainstream culture — even TV shows would try and cover them and there were myriad businesses and products claiming to help the environment. Then came a very low point post-Copenhagen (the fairly cataclysmic climate change negotiations) and in the recent past, when the austerity narrative advanced by governments told us we couldn’t afford to be green. Lately we’ve seen a surge in commitment again from media.

Why is it so difficult to increase workers’ wages and working conditions?

There are technical reasons, including number of brands in a factory, but basically it boils down to a lack of will on behalf of brands. They obsess on issues like “we can’t raise garment workers’ wages because then they will be paid more than policemen”. Well, how is that their concern? And why is that a terrible thing?

In Western countries, though human rights issues are championed, they don’t mind exploiting the Third World by underpaying and mistreating workers with bad living conditions etc. Why is this so?

Cognitive dissonance? Wilful resistance? Ultimately you’d have to say because there’s nothing to stop companies from exploiting developing world workers. I think, however, we’re moving into an era of different legal remedies such as anti-slavery bills. We still too often buy the myth that “they’re grateful for any job”. We’ve failed to understand super-exploitation deepens structural poverty. It doesn’t relieve it.

In your book you wrote about Vivienne Westwood encouraging people to “get off the consumer treadmill”. Why do you think consumers are stuck on this? What is driving them to want new and cheap fast fashion, when 30 years ago this wasn’t the case?

It’s pretty seductive. Fast fashion is excellent at aping and reinforcing micro-trends so if you buy into that, chances are (unless you’re super-rich) that you’re going to become dependent on it. Recent studies suggest we get addicted to these patterns of consumption fairly quickly. Then they’re constantly reinforced by popular culture. Commercial TV stations are full of fashion segments promoting new, cheap fashion (they never explain how you can refashion last year’s clothes).

With astoundingly cheap production, dubious regulations and the ability to produce garments in extremely high volume, do you think there will ever be a significant change in the way our clothes are made — or in the way we as a society consume?

Other factors may intervene. I’ve mentioned some nuances in regulation, but let’s not forget environmental boundaries are beginning to affect us severely. We’re moving into mega-droughts, so raising cheap cotton becomes an issue. In Bangladesh last week we had two significant storms — this is not the stormy season — that knocked out power for a day or more. This rabid production doesn’t fit with the realities of climate change.

In recent years there has been a huge shift in eating “cleaner”, with more people prepared to pay a little more for free range eggs, for example. Why do you think it is difficult to encourage this attitude with clothing: paying more for something ethically or locally made?

People don’t ingest their clothes (usually). It’s a different mentality. Organic consumption for many is about putting something more wholesome into their bodies. They make a decision: “I’m worth it”. They don’t go through the same process with clothing.

What inspired you to create the Green Carpet Challenge with Livia Firth?

We felt there was an opportunity to try and prove that sustainable style could be sexy, design-led and pass muster on that most scrutinised environment of all: the red carpet.

Should all brands be transparent in the way all their products are manufactured?

Why not? Unless they’re producing weapons (and I’d really rather they didn’t) any pleas of secrecy are difficult to understand.

What do you wear yourself?

A mixture of sustainable brands and well-loved pieces — some are high street that I’ve usually had for a very long time. My style has changed and fortunately I’m pretty free from the tyrannies of trying to be on trend.

It can be difficult to figure out exactly where your clothes come from — down to the materials and the impact on the environment. What are your three best tips to be a better, conscious consumer?

1. Spread your fashion dollar around, invest in a Fair Trade brand or an up-and-coming designer/maker with a story now and then. There’s no law that says you have to give all your money to Target/H&M/Uniqlo.

2. Only buy something you can commit to wearing at least 30 times.

3. Learn basic clothes maintenance: sewing on buttons, hemming, airing, storing, drying your clothes. Watch how designers and fashion insiders handle and look after garments. Always with respect!

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