Lily Cole by Rana Toofanian

While some websites let us Share our possessions for a fee encourages people to do things for others for free.

Well known for her long-time support and contribution to humanitarian and environmental causes, Lily Cole has spun her interests in ecology and economics into a series of businesses that challenge not only current models of fashion production but now Western society’s notions and systems of commerce as a whole.

A model and actress who, at 16, spent a summer interning at The Body Shop to learn more about the beauty industry’s international supply chains, Lily Cole later put her discoveries to use when she set up The North Circular knitwear label in 2009. Inspired by Cradle to Cradle design and production practices, the label sources British wool from within a 120 mile radius of its base in London, and employed the hand-knitting skills of expert grandmothers. Her most recent enterprise, Impossible, is an online platform which encourages a community of users to do things for others for free. Taken as a whole, this form of exchange has been described as the “gift economy”, and embodies Lily’s belief that solutions to our environmental problems extends beyond issues of consumption and conservation, and can also be found in acts of kindness and empathy.


How did you become interested in production processes and their environmental consequences? There’s not one specific date or turning point. It’s been a cumulative process. I grew up in London. And I really had no clue about these ideas, or I didn’t really care much about them. I was quite thoughtful as a child, but it was more towards animals — I became vegetarian at a young age — or humans in disaster situations. But sustainability was not on my radar whatsoever. I went to Japan when I was 16 for a few months travelling; that’s the first time I fell in love with nature and when I really started to appreciate it specifically. And cumulatively I learnt more and more about the environment. I don’t know at what point, but it became more and more obvious to me that it’s just absolutely imperative —  the idea that anything else other than sustainability would seem rational or reasonable is inherently problematic. And it’s built into the word itself — what can you do other than just sustain something? You destroy it. Who votes for that idea? I’m not saying that I can fix it, there are all these problems with our lifestyles, but it feels philosophically imperative.

The Gift Economy

The gift economy may sound like some kind of new fad, but it is in reality, older than the exchange economy that our world currently runs on. In gift economies, the wealthiest person is defined not by how much they have, but how much they give, and gift giving is based on the context of relationships rather than making transactions for profit or gain. The exchange economy in contrast is a barter economy — it relies on exchange of either goods or labour for money. The gift economy was ideal when humans lived in small, interrelated communities where there was no need for exchange. The exchange economy was more practical as humans expanded and travelled and encountered other societies. Yet, in recognition that all of life is connected, we have recently seen forms of the gift economy re-emerge in skill-sharing, open-source coding, time banks and WikiLeaks. Lily’s website provides a forum for people to post their wishes and connect those who can help them. Equally rewarding are the posts that thank others who have helped ­— cooperation and gratitude are just two currencies in the gift economy.

So what were your motivations behind setting up Impossible? The impact that economics has globally led me to really want to work in that medium. I’m also more and more inspired by the idea that consumers have a lot of power in this game, even though we feel potentially like small players amongst politics and business — though actually the way the markets move dictates the decisions made by more powerful people. That’s why transparency, consumer action and conscious consumerism are so important. And I think the digital age makes that more possible than ever. was an idea that spun out of that — to question the ways in which economics have a huge effect on our relationship with the planet and with one another, and whether these existing economic systems are the only way of managing our relationships. The ‘gift economy’ wasn’t something I had heard of prior to having the idea to start the project with a friend. So I started researching it and the different ways societies have interacted for thousands of years. There are many different communities that have existed that way, and the sociology and psychology associated around it all seemed so positive and natural — it felt like something that I wanted to have more of. We took a gamble on the Internet’s potential to facilitate these ways of behaviour which we’ve been tending for thousands of years, but in recent times haven’t been structurally easy.

If you put a monetary figure on the things that people do for one another for free inthe UK, it’s already bigger than GDP.

You mention the significance of consumer action and the principle that as consumers, we vote with our money and our choices. With Impossible, you seem to go one step further — currency is not monetary, but measured in time and empathy. Do you believe the gift, as a form of currency, is something that will catch on in the West in our lifetimes? Obviously. Why do you think that I would be investing my time and money into it? And I played on that utopian idea of the possible in the name impossible — I am possible. I don’t think we’re that far from it. I already exist in this way with all of my friends and family, and if I’m given the opportunity and someone needs my help on the street, I’ll give it to them. When I travel to more impoverished communities in the developing world, it’s a very natural way that people engage with one another. You have to predicate a lot in the gift economy because there’s less resource. But if you put a monetary figure on the things that people do for one another for free in the U.K., it’s already bigger than GDP; so it’s a silent, but really big part of our culture. That said, I do think it’s under-tapped, especially in big cities where we’re largely alienated from one another. And hence why I think there could be technology that could make it feel more normal. The power of the Internet makes new things possible, and the way that social media has changed our interactions with one another globally in the last ten years is beyond radical. I went to a session the government were doing this morning at Downing Street for people working in the sharing economy — car sharing, house sharing — some of them monetised, some of them exchange-based. There’s a lot growing in that space and the government recognises that, and wants to make sure there are laws working efficiently for that sector.

What’s going through your mind when you’re contemplating buying something — does your desire often trump necessity or sustainability? Yes and no. If I really didn’t trust where it was from, I wouldn’t get it. However, we’re missing so much transparency, which sometimes I have to assume is problematic. I do actually order my vegetables to be delivered ­— that’s how I get most of them — but I do sometimes break my rules and buy from Marks & Spencer, despite all that packaging, because that’s the only option near me. That pisses me off too. I was on a plane the other day, and I had a plastic cup of water and I asked for some more, assuming she would put it in the same cup, but then she took out another plastic cup to pour into. ‘No!’ I thought. ‘I haven’t touched it, can you take that back please?’ I asked. And she said she couldn’t take it back now I’ve touched it. I was so angry at myself for using two plastic cups!

We’re really more powerful than anybody realises, therefore we must be more responsible than we often realise.

But how can a little action like not using an extra plastic cup have any difference to the grand scheme of things? I think that we’re all so phenomenally powerful, and that change begins with ourselves. Every single person is hugely powerful because reality is made by all of us. I became vegetarian when I was ten. I remember at the time people would say, ‘Oh, it doesn’t make a difference. If you don’t eat that burger, then I’m going to eat it or someone is going to eat it.’ And that’s a really literal example that you’re not actually changing anything. And I would say, ‘Yeah, but imagine if every single vegetarian in the world said that. Imagine the effect that would have and vice versa.’ I do think the inverse logic. We’re really more powerful than anybody realises, therefore we must be more responsible than we often realise. And I fuck up all the time, and I can’t say what other people should do or what society should do, but really if I don’t be that myself then I shouldn’t bother. There’s the butterfly effect of how your actions inspire and affect other people. Also like everything in life, it begins with intention and knowing the power we have. If we all have the intention then it’ll put pressure on manufacturers to have more transparency, and we’ll create a market for independent auditors to manage the transparency. The intention will foreground the movement.

We took a gamble on the internet’s potential to facilitate these ways of behaviour which we’ve been tending for thousands of years, but in recent
times haven’t been
structurally easy.

What are the obstacles in your life stopping you from making the sustainable choices you want to make? Temptation I guess. I just had a bite from that cookie — and I’m trying to be vegan. I broke it last night because somebody came to my house and brought cheese from Spain which was really sweet, so I didn’t want to tell him I was trying to be vegan — I had already told him I don’t eat meat, and so I ate the cheese. I thought at the moment: ‘Fuck it.’ It was more important to do it and be grateful. And because I changed that switch then I’m immediately like ‘fucking hell.’ So those things happen. Sometimes I’m too tired to care. And also the problems are so complex, it’s never clear what’s right or wrong. Everything is relative. I fly a lot, but I also do work that if I didn’t fly a lot, I wouldn’t be able to do. But hopefully it helps in other ways. Although, I also acknowledge that I could have a different lifestyle and say, ‘I’m not going to travel anymore.’ One day I will do that. Flying is the lesser of many evils. I think cumulatively, that our carbon footprint is greater when eating avocados out of season in the wrong country than it is about flights.

What daily act can you do to make things better? I’d say an act of kindness. That’s very much in the spirit of what I’m trying to do right now, but I just think that’s so powerful. It transcends you in that moment. I’m a big believer of how much more fulfilling life would be, and how much more reduced our need to consume would be, if we had richer interpersonal relationships.

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