For the series Good Folk on this blog I have sent interview questions to some really wonderful people who are either making things, running shops, or generally promoting sustainability. I think you will enjoy reading their answers as much as I have, and I hope they inspire us all with the knowledge that there are people doing good in the world!
This interview is with Bel Jacobs. Former fashion editor Bel Jacobs is a speaker, writer and campaigner on climate justice, animal rights and new systems in fashion. She is founder of Fashion in Schools, a nationwide project designed to alert young people to the impact of the fashion industry on people, on the planet and on animals; she is also a co-founder of Fashion Act Now, a pioneering new initiative to accelerate change in the fashion industry in line with the climate emergency. She has been interviewed by a wide variety of media and press about her work and has spoken on numerous panels. She runs two websites: https://beljacobs.com and https://hownowmagazine.com
How has working sustainably impacted your non-business life?
In some ways, it’s made life a bit trickier! Once you find out about the environmental and ethical impact of everyday objects, they can be really difficult to enjoy …. A cotton t-shirt requiring 2,700 litres of water to make, water that local populations really need, for example. On the other hand, it’s been fun finding alternatives. When I decided to stop buying new clothes for myself, digging around at the back of my wardrobe and in the bottom of my drawers unearthed a few treasures, which I’ve been learning to wear in different way. And I have a whole new appreciation of secondhand shops. Plus, my spending on clothes has plummeted. Do I miss my life as a fashion editor for Metro, sitting on the front row, interviewing celebrities, enduring multiple facials, going on spa weekends? Er, yeah. But it was also quite an empty world. Brands weren’t inviting me places because I was an amazing person; they were inviting me places because I had 3 million captive readers on the British transport system. I’m also vegan. And do I miss all the cheese, ham and cakes I used to eat? No. Because once I found out the toll on planet and animals it took to make them, it became impossible to participate in that system any longer. Literally, yuck.
Can you recommend any other makers or businesses that work in an ethical or sustainable way?
I won't name check any single brand but I'd say, where possible, especially now, try to search things out from small, independent labels doing the right thing, maybe working with overseas communities, investing in the planet. Many of them are in really desperate circumstances right now and these are the brands that run off a lot of passion, a lot of integrity - and a lot of a creativity. Some of this is really beautiful stuff with real stories and real connections to the earth.
Have you got a particular cause or issue that you would like to raise awareness of?
I work mostly to raise awareness of bad practice in the fashion industry but my not-so-secret passion is the way animals are treated. I really do believe there is a link between the oppression of non-human animals and the oppression of other peoples. Once you put sentient creatures on any type of scale, you give yourself permission to use, abuse and consume those you regard as somehow 'lower down' or 'different' than yourself. Particularly those who cannot speak out, who cannot fight back, who have no idea how to protect themselves. And there, immediately, we get to the root of almost all the problems we face today. It’s worth reminding ourselves that 76 billion land animals are killed for food every year; not one of them goes to slaughter easily. Meanwhile, animal agriculture is one of the leading emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet.
What is the most challenging thing about the work that you do?
Trying to open people’s eyes to the truth about what they consume, in ways that have resonance and take hold. Sometimes, I feel as though I’m operating in two worlds: the old one - where it’s ok to shop constantly, regardless of its impact - and a new one, where we all work together, in harmony with nature, with respect for animals and wildlife, to repair and restore this planet and give the kids a viable future. Seeing people unable or unwilling to ask themselves difficult questions about how they live can really hurt. And I’m referring to good friends and family members when I say that ….
Take me on an imaginary tour of your workspace.
It’s a mess! In front of me is a vintage toolbox, which was mean to be for storage. I have scented candles, a posy of dead flowers in a mason jar, some painted clay dishes I made with my daughter, an up cycled denim bangle by an amazing designer called Michelle Lowe Holder and a shelf full of books. At the moment, I can see The Future We Choose by Christiana Figueres and Footwork by Tansy Hoskins as well as Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran For and Feral by George Monbiot (No, I haven’t read them all). Looking around, I really need to clean this place up.
Do you have any advice for people trying to shop or live more ethically?
Be prepared to sit with some uncomfortable truths - because that’s where the learning takes place; that’s when you’re moving out of the familiar and starting to evolve - and then take action. And be creative with that action; use the skills you already have, whether that’s art or accountancy, to help change the world. I give talks in schools on animal rights as well as on the fashion system - and I always say: if you’re shit hot at making TikTok videos, see if you can make a TikTok video about something you care about. Actually, that’s quite challenging but you know what I mean.
What would be the top thing that you would change about the way we treat the planet if you could?
Compassion - for other people, for other species, for the children growing up onto a challenged planet - should inform every decision.
Is there anything else you would like to share?
In my work, I look a lot a cognitive dissonance: the space between knowing something isn’t brilliant but continuing to do it anyway. It’s not our fault: the economic system has normalised over consumption while hiding the very damaging processes by which things are made. For so many of us, buying stuff is the main way we interact with the world. So we do have a responsibility to address that. Buying stuff is a political act. I always say in talks now, if you don’t want people to suffer, don’t buy from brands that make people suffer. If you don’t want animals to suffer, if you think of yourself as someone who loves animals, don’t buy from brands that make animals suffer. It takes a bit of work but it’s worth it. I’d rather be here than where I was ten years ago.