Behind the Scenes at the 'Green Oscars' with Lucy Siegle

In this exclusive interview with Lucy Siegle, Urban Times hears about the Observer Ethical Awards, ethical fashion and her plans for driving forward a more sustainable future.

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Lucy Siegle. Photo Credit: Will Whipple ©

Lucy Siegle. Photo Credit: Will Whipple ©

Catching up with Observer columnist Lucy Siegle was a breath of fresh air; her ability to recognise the tough challenges of reaching a sustainable future whilst maintaining an optimistic outlook was admirable.

The Observer Ethical Awards, dubbed the ‘Green Oscars’, was founded by Lucy in 2005 to reward the UK’s individuals and organisations that are championing environmental and social justice. The 2013 Awards are now open and Urban Times has already entered into their Big Ideas category! But Lucy is a lady wearing many hats. Besides manning the Ethical Awards, she is also spearheading the sustainable fashion movement in the UK. Other than writing her world renowned book in 2011, To Die for: is fashion wearing out the world?, in 2009, Lucy also founded the Green Carpet Challenge (GCC) with Livia Firth; encouraging celebrities on the red carpet to dress more sustainably. Chatting to Lucy, Urban Times hears more about all of the above, while getting a sneak peak into what the winner of this year’s Awards might look like and also catching a glimpse of what exciting plans Lucy has in store to shake up the fast fashion industry.

From the 8 years since the Observer Ethical Award’s launch, in what way do you think the ethical landscape of the UK has changed?

It’s barely recognizable. When we first started there was still some nervousness about discussing green and ethical issues. For the first year, the Observer Ethical Awards reflected those incorporating ethics into their lifestyles; we had greening your home categories and that sort of thing. When we started to develop categories for businesses to enter, we were looking for winning schemes that had brilliant recycling projects, offered lift share and cycling to work.

There’s been a lack of political leadership and that vacuum has been filled, to a great extent, by forward-looking businesses, community groups and movements …

Since then, the schemes have become more sophisticated and nuanced; the revolution now happens in quite odd places. There’s been a lack of political leadership and that vacuum has been filled, to a great extent, by forward-looking businesses, community groups and movements like the Transition Town Network – from places that I wouldn’t have expected 8 years ago.

So, what special ingredient do you think the judges will be looking for this year?

It’s different for every category. I have a hunch that we are going to be looking for projects that are properly transformative.

Lucy Siegle and Katy Tunstall with Arts and Culture winners 2012, When China met Africa

Lucy Siegle and Katy Tunstall with Arts and Culture winners 2012; When China met Africa

In this year’s Awards, you will be rewarding the teacher or supervising adult of the Ecover Young Green Champions category for the first time. Is it high time sustainability became a school-taught subject?

Firstly, the reason why we have chosen to reward teachers and supervisors this year is because we really wanted them to have something for themselves. Over the 8 years the Awards have been running, they have put in an enormous amount of energy into the Young Green Champions and, without them, a lot of these schemes wouldn’t get off the ground.

I can’t understand why someone with all that attention on them would walk onto a red carpet without knowing where their dress comes from …

Regarding whether sustainability be a school-taught subject – no, I don’t think so. When it’s siloed into its own subject area it creates a whole set of other problems. I would prefer if it were more naturally threaded into other subjects, and it quite often is. I think you need to be really careful; kids shouldn’t be carrying the world on their shoulders. They already have an understanding of sustainability which is often extremely enlightened when compared to adults. We’re trying to build ecological intelligence, right? We’re not trying to have kids repeat in a parrot like fashion the prism of sustainability.

One of the reasons I, myself, became involved in sustainability was because I was taught Environmental Science, as a separate subject, in secondary school. It’s the only exam I got 99% in! I really connected with it. So, rather than having sustainability being taught as a subject which would, by definition, be very broad, I think it would be better to have access to Environmental Science, which isn’t normally an option until university.

Giving your expertise within the ethical fashion arena, what are you hoping will come from the likes of the Well-Dressed category?

Livia Firth

Livia Firth

We’ve revolutionized the fashion category this year and instead of rewarding existing brands and fashion designers, we want to celebrate street-style and people who have made ethical fashion apply to their wardrobe and look. So, we’re looking for real people who match their ethics to their aesthetic; greatly rewarding Britain’s sartorial street style. We want to see how creative people have been with ethical fashion.

Also, because this category is in association with Eco Age and Frugal, I want to stress that we’re welcoming men into this category!

Having set up the Green Carpet Challenge (GCC) with Livia in 2009, do you think that it is those that are in the limelight, most of all, that should be embodying sustainability?

It really helps us! We have had an enormous amount of success doing this, whether it be working with Merryl Streep, who wore a Lanvin dress, or Cameron Diaz who did the Met Ball for us in Stella McCartney. Personally, I can’t understand why someone with all that attention on them would walk onto a red carpet without knowing where their dress comes from or wanting to symbolize anything more than being on trend.

Any self-respecting young or old Hollywood actress should support what we’re doing. Also, we work with the designers which they all want to wear anyway. We’ve had really privileged access into the studios and ateliers; from Valentino and Armani to British fashion designers such as Jonathan Saunders. We do work with them all so there’s no excuse.

Since publishing To Die For in 2011, are you pleased with the progress we’ve made in cleaning up the fashion industry since then?

I’m really pleased with the debate. I get very intelligent questions sent/tweeted to me on a weekly basis! I think individuals and some of the big fashion companies are very committed to change but it’s the reality of making that change work. You hear a lot of people talking about the decline of British manufacturing but they don’t want to put any money back into it.

If you’re calling the shots in fashion that’s a big responsibility …

I do have an issue with companies who are making vast amounts of money – almost all the fast fashion companies are owned by billionaire families and they’re not putting anything back into the industry. If you’re calling the shots in fashion that’s a big responsibility – it’s very precious so I’d like to see them doing a lot more.

Are there any big brands that you think are stepping up to the challenge?

There’s some good things that are happening in the sustainability departments of the big players and they’ve invested in CSR people who have some good ideas. I know that there’s some frustration, however, as their ideas often don’t get taken up because it’s still all about fast fashion: selling the cheapest product in the largest volume. That is not sustainable.

The luxury companies are doing some very interesting work. It may mean that not everyone can own their products but, personally, just because I can’t own something doesn’t mean that I don’t want it to be produced in a different way. For example, with the GCC we do a lot of work within the supply chain – we look at materials; where they’re sourced and how we can work with design houses to make them less impactful.

In a few weeks time you’ll see a very big project that we’re working on which is revolutionary. We’re looking deep at the supply chain, at the very unglamorous end of it, and making changes with production which could change the whole fashion landscape.

Does change need to come from legislation or should these things be advisory?

Legislation should concern itself with the big stuff and the big ecosystems like the Amazon and the Arctic, for example. We should make sure that these areas remain as untouched as possible. Legislation is constantly watered down as we’ve seen with the Forestry Code in South America.

In a few weeks time you’ll see a very big project that we’re working on which is revolutionary. We’re looking deep at the supply chain, at the very unglamorous end of it, and making changes with production which could change the whole fashion landscape.

Fashion, for example, is part of an ecosystem and it’s thoroughly dependent on the environment whether it be the Amazon, cotton fields and even the Gobi Desert. It’s all so connected. The legislation should protect those big areas. The smaller things: tax breaks for designers, VAT breaks for designers who use fair trade materials – yes, it would be a great market driver. But is it going to happen? I don’t know how much appetite there is.

Besides, we all know legislation is a very long wait. What I’m trying to do now is to develop a more active understanding of the way that politics works, particularly in the UK, to identify where the real power is as I don’t think we’re getting much traction from mainstream government. I’m very interested in committees; we saw these looking into the recent tax affairs and media and I’d like to see more committees looking into environmental issues/renewable energy.

Do you think that 2013 will be a pivotal year in spearheading a shift towards great sustainability?

I think we’ve had a rocky ride because mainstream politics have been messaging that sustainability isn’t important and that we should rather be getting our heads down and focusing on ‘austerity’, or whatever that means. We’ve even had the denial of climate change and mainstream support for that. We saw it happening in America, as well, but then Hurricane Sandy happened. Then we started talking about climate change again in a much more sensible way. I don’t want to see a natural disaster happening in order to achieve this!

2013 is about driving forward.

The Observer Ethical Awards live for people entering them. We do have a problem in the UK that people are really modest – so instead of expecting people to enter themselves make sure to nominate those that you think deserve recognition. For the full list of categories and to enter yourself or someone else, click here.