The green light: Livia Firth and her Green Carpet Challenge
Livia Firth is using her fame as one half of a glamorous Hollywood power couple to make fashion ethical, writes Tamsin Blanchard
The headquarters of Eco-Age, Livia Firth's consultancy business, are set back slightly from King Street in Chiswick, West London, behind a whitewashed facade. Inside, there is a large, open-plan space, with a giant bird's nest complete with painted eggs near the doorway. It is a prop left over from an event Firth organised last year to launch her first Green Carpet Challenge (GCC) capsule collection - which involved five high-profile British designers and had the support of American Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and Natalie Massenet, of online luxury fashion store Net-a-Porter.
"Managing ethics and aesthetics" is Eco-Age's motto. Firth set up the company with her brother, Nicola Giuggioli, in 2008. Her husband, actor Colin Firth, is a partner. They started out with a shop on Chiswick High Road, selling eco-friendly paints, sustainable homewares, bamboo towels and wind-up torches - useful things that have minimal impact on the environment. If you were lucky, you might even have been served by Colin. They also ran a consultancy helping businesses become more sustainable. Projects included a solar-powered recording studio for singer KT Tunstall.
In May last year they quit the retail business and moved to larger premises to focus on consultancy. Giuggioli, who completed a master's in sustainable business at Italy's Roma Tre University before moving to London in 2004, is the chief executive.
The company's office looks like that of a busy start-up. Livia Firth's desk has bookshelves behind it, and a pinboard to one side is covered in a mix of items that reveal much about her. There is a special report on London fashion shows by Suzy Menkes, from the International Herald Tribune; a picture of the Firths together, torn from a magazine; a glamorous shot of a model in a beautiful green ballgown, along with some other fashion images; and a newspaper spread showing the aftermath of last year's Rana Plaza factory disaster, in Bangladesh.
Firth, 44, has become an expert in dressing herself stylishly, as well as ethically. Slim and very neatly put together - dark eyes, chiselled cheeks, hair pulled into a sleek side ponytail - she is about as far as you can get from the stereotypical hair-shirted, hempseed-eating eco-activist.
Her most important attribute is her ability to play the game with luxury fashion's power circle. As a regular on the red carpet, attending premieres, charity dinners, the Golden Globes and the Oscars with her husband, Firth came up with the idea of using her profile to champion sustainable fashion. For the Venice Film Festival premiere of A Single Man, in 2009, she wore a dress by her friend Orsola de Castro, of the upcycling label From Somewhere. Firth also sought the help of a friend and mentor, ethical-living writer Lucy Siegle, and, in December 2009, they came up with the idea of the GCC.
For the first GCC, at the Golden Globes in 2010, Firth had red-carpet reporters slightly mystified when she turned up in a repurposed Christiana Couture wedding dress. For the Paris premiere of The King's Speech, in January 2011, she wore an outfit made from one of Colin's old suits. And when her husband won an Oscar the following month, she wore a dress inspired by one her grandmother had owned. It was made by Gary Harvey - a relative unknown in international fashion - by patching together 11 vintage frocks.
The GCC has, Firth says, given her a real sense of purpose at the various awards ceremonies she attends with Colin (who generally wears vintage Tom Ford tuxedos).
"People started talking about [the GCC] and being curious," she says.
By 2012, other celebrities were joining the campaign. Meryl Streep wore a full-length gold gown by Lanvin made from eco-certified fabrics to that year's Academy Awards (Firth wore a Valentino dress made using recycled plastic bottles). Michael Fassbender, Javier Bardem and Viola Davis also joined the cause, as did Cameron Diaz, who wore an organic silk dress by Stella McCartney to the Met Ball in New York.
"When you explain what you are trying to do and how easy it is," Firth says, "it's like a no-brainer to do it."
The GCC became a powerful brand and, last September, Firth launched the capsule collection. She asked five leading names in fashion - Victoria Beckham, Christopher Bailey of Burberry, Christopher Kane, Erdem Moralioglu and Roland Mouret - to create items that were both worthy of the red carpet and produced with care for the environment and respect for the people who made them. Even the most radical of eco-fashion activists should be proud to wear them. With a little help from actress Emma Watson, who modelled the designs for Net-a-Porter, the collection sold out.
"We don't support slave labour in [Britain], so we shouldn't support those conditions in other countries. I can't get my head around why ethical clothing is a speciality and not a base standard," Watson said in an interview with the website.
The designers involved were also keen to embrace a more sustainable supply chain. It was a big moment for Firth's business: sustainably sourced, ethically produced fashion had been given its moment to shine. And that, ultimately, is Firth's mission in life: to change the way our fashion is produced and consumed.
What sets Firth apart from other activists is that American Vogue (and British Vogue, for which she wrote the Green Carpet Challenge blog) can talk to her without feeling their fashion credentials are compromised, as can companies such as Gucci and Burberry. Firth is all about ethics, but not at the expense of aesthetics. She understands the power of glamour and the business that is luxury.
LIVIA FIRTH WAS BORN in September 1969 in Rome. She was one of four children. Her younger brothers, Nicola and Alessandro (an actor who still lives in the Italian capital), are twins. Her sister, Caterina, is a year older than her and works in finance in Milan. Their father ran a business and their mother stayed at home to look after the children.
"It was a very different society when we grew up," she says. "It was different times. Life wasn't so complicated. My mum and dad had no money. We went on holiday [in Italy] in the summer. It was a very normal city upbringing."
She studied humanities at university and stayed on to do a doctorate in cinema. She got a job working with a television producer and they went to Colombia to work on a series called Nostromo. It was on set there she met Colin. She was 25, he was 35.
"First, he had to do that courtship thing with my family," Firth says. He moved to Rome to be with her. "He was there for two years. We lived separately - I was a good Italian girl," she says, laughing.
Then they moved to London. That was 17 years ago. The couple's two sons, Luca and Matteo, were born in 2001 and 2003. The family has a holiday home in Umbria, near Firth's parents', where they grow their own fruit and vegetables and produce olive oil. It is, she admits, easier to live a greener life in the country than in the city.
Firth has long been a supporter of Oxfam, but in 2012 she was made a global ambassador for the charity. She is also part of The Circle, a partnership of influential women who use their networks, skills and resources to help Oxfam empower vulnerable women and tackle poverty.
"When people ask me, 'When did you become green?' I say, 'Green as opposed to what? To red? Yellow?' It is about active citizenship, and taking responsibility. I think we all have a choice to live life passively or to be active."
Colin was, she says, "politically alert", so she became part of those conversations. And then she started to travel with Oxfam.
"I went to Bangladesh seven or eight years ago," she says. "When you see these things you can't shake it out, you can't pretend they don't exist any more."
On Thursday, Firth will speak at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, the industry's biggest conference on sustainability. She will be joined at the summit by Marie-Claire Daveu, head of sustainability at luxury-goods group Kering (which owns Stella McCartney and Gucci, and for which Eco-Age consults), as well as Helena Helmersson, head of sustainability at H&M.
The day will mark the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster, in which more than 1,100 textile workers were killed when the eight-storey factory they were working in collapsed. Among the companies producing clothes at the factory were Irish clothing retailer Primark (which recently paid out US$10 million in compensation to the families, bringing its total contribution to US$12 million, as it paid US$2 million in short-term support after the disaster), Spanish firm Mango and American giant Wal-Mart.
"I think Rana Plaza changed the history of fashion for ever," Firth says. "We can't allow ourselves to forget about that. We can't."
Firth and Siegle saw garment factories in Bangladesh first-hand on a trip for Oxfam in 2008.
"It is shocking," Firth says. "There is an armed guard at the door so people can't get in and out. Women have two toilet breaks a day. They are producing 100 pieces an hour!
"There is no ventilation. Every window has bars, so if there is a fire people can't get out. If you ask, 'What can we do?' they say, 'Please don't say anything, we can't afford to lose our jobs.' It's modern-day slavery."
Her friend and fellow ethical-fashion campaigner Carry Somers, who runs a fair-trade hat brand called Pachacuti, has organised a global campaign called Fashion Revolution Day to mark the anniversary and ensure that consumers make the connection between the clothes we buy and the people who make them - often in appalling and dangerous conditions.
On Thursday, thousands of people around the world will be wearing clothing inside out to expose the labels, showing where their garments were made, and using social media to ask: "Who made your clothes?"
"We are wearing our T-shirts inside out for Fashion Revolution Day," Firth says. "Carry Somers has been amazing to [organise this]. It's huge in every country."
Last month, Firth travelled to the BaselWorld watch fair in Switzerland with family owned jewellery company Chopard to launch the first ever watch for men made using gold that is fairmined (which means the mines are overseen by the NGO Alliance for Responsible Mining). The project began when Firth asked the company's co-president Caroline Scheufele a simple question: where did its gold come from?
"If you ask any jeweller in the world, everyone will tell you, 'From the bank.' You buy it in ingots, but no one knows where the gold [originates] - not even the bank.
"So when I asked that question to the president of Chopard, she said, 'I don't know … we have to make it better.' Immediately she decided to change it."
In March last year, Eco-Age launched the GCC Brand Mark, a guarantee of sustainable excellence, which has been applied to the GCC collection of fine jewellery by Chopard and is stamped into the leather of a range of bags Eco-Age launched in collaboration with Gucci last July. The Gucci for GCC collection boasts a transparent supply chain and is made from anti-deforestation leather from cattle reared in the Amazon. Brazil is now the biggest commercial farmer of cattle in the world, contributing to 75 per cent of tropical deforestation, so Eco-Age worked alongside the Rainforest Alliance and the National Wildlife Federation with ranches that do not clear forests for their cattle and tanneries that do not use chemicals.
Firth is quite uncompromising in her vision and sceptical of efforts by fast-fashion companies to "green" their collections.
"Fast fashion is a phenomenon; you can't make it better. You can use as much organic cotton as you want, but you are still producing one million shorts for [too little] money. It can't be ethical. You are still producing rubbish at the end. Where do all these clothes end up? They have to slow down. They have to change their core business model."
People who don't have much choice but to buy cheap clothing are not the problem, she says. What she objects to is people who can afford to buy better-made, better-quality clothes that will stand the test of time wasting their purchasing power on disposable fashion.
"If you do the price-per-wear [calculation], fast fashion doesn't add up any more. It costs much more [per wear] than something that is good quality and costs a bit more."
Firth tries to operate a 30-wear rule, which was suggested by Siegle in her 2011 book, To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?
"Eco-Age is all about practical solutions … If you can commit to wearing something 30 times, it's already fantastic, no matter where you bought it," Firth says. "Buy with purpose. I have things I wear over and over again. I think I'm one of the few people I know who still mends socks when they have a hole. It is easier to buy new socks than to mend them, because it's cheap."
Firth shows me a wonderfully bright dress in a 1960s abstract floral print.
"That was my mum's going-away dress for the day of her wedding; she also wore it when she was pregnant with my sister and me. I wore it when I was pregnant and my sister wore it when she was pregnant. I just brought it back from Milan because my sister borrowed it for a wedding, and I'm wearing it tonight for an event."
It was made in the 60s by a seamstress for her mother.
"Isn't it beautiful when you have things like that in your wardrobe that have that sort of story?" Firth asks, her mouth breaking into its infectious smile.
"Someone recently said to me, 'You are such an optimist,' and I said, 'I'm not an optimist.' Things have to change … If no one adapts and no one does it, in 30 years' time we'll be done."
WHILE FIRTH IS NOT alone in her campaign, she has become a particularly powerful voice. In November 2012, she became "a leader for change", a title awarded by the United Nations and Foundation for Social Change conference. As creative director of Eco-Age she instigates projects, working with her team of 25 to improve supply chains and help businesses benefit from increased sustainability.
"Over the past 15 years we've been brainwashed," she says. "How do you join the dots, reconnect the consumer with the clothes they buy, make an emotional bond that goes back to the producers, the women and men who make our clothes?"
While she does not claim to have the solution to the problem, she is trying to do her bit.
"When I grew up, fast fashion didn't exist," she says. "H&M, Zara, Topshop, they didn't exist. So I couldn't buy clothes at that [low] price. I was a student, I didn't have money, and yet I managed to go to my parties, to the discos."
She managed to look smart for her first job with a TV producer, and she even managed to catch the eye of Mr Darcy (the role played by Colin in the 1995 BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice) in the process, without so much as a Zara party dress or a quick-fix Friday-night frock.
"What we don't realise is [the fast-fashion chains] actually created poverty."
Firth believes that the fashion industry has gone into overdrive and is producing too much, too quickly. And in the process it has spawned a generation of consumers who buy clothes at an irresponsible rate - clothes that are often worn only once. Some would call it democracy of design. She disagrees.
Fast fashion has simply resulted in textile workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia and other parts of the world being forced to work overtime for too little money.
"We've got too much, then we find ourselves in this chaos," she says. "Let's slow down."
The Daily Telegraph UK
To find out how to take part in Fashion Revolution Day, visit fashionrevolution.org.