An exclusive extract from Lily Cole’s new book, Who Cares Wins
In the chapter ‘Fur and diamonds’, the supermodel and activist traces the experiences that compelled her to think more deeply about the impact of both her own clothing choices, and the fashion industry at large
By Lily Cole Above image courtesy of Lily Cole Wednesday 19 August, 2020 Short read
‘Fur and diamonds’
There is a funny photo of me, aged around ten, in a handmade outfit, wearing a misspelt ‘NO FER’ sign. Then there are a few photos of me aged fifteen, before I felt bold enough to say no, walking down catwalks with the soft vestiges of a dead animal circling my neck. Eventually saying no to fur cost me work, but it was a fairly straightforward choice to make: a little box on contracts, usually appearing next to ‘No Nudity’.
At seventeen, I found myself caught up in a more complex dilemma, drawn into a controversy regarding a jewelry company I was working with which had been accused of exploitation and persecution of the San – or Bushmen – in Botswana by diamond mining in their historical homeland.
To try to learn more about the situation, I met with Dr James Suzman, an anthropologist who had been living with the San on and off for over twenty years. In the midst of our intense, long conversation, James asked whether I wanted to come out to Botswana and see things for myself. My eyes lit up, and a few weeks later I was on a plane with my older sister, Elvie, headed south.
We spent ten days traveling around Botswana, discussing the impacts of diamond mining with San members, NGOs and politicians, and my mind flipped from one perspective to the next like a fish out of water. The San had been living as gatherer-hunters on the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the second-largest such reserve in the world, for an estimated 200,000 years. In 1997 the government of Botswana relocated three quarters of them into resettlement camps outside the reserve. Though these evictions were declared illegal in 2006, hunting had also been prohibited nationally, making the San’s traditional gatherer-hunter lifestyle impossible to practice. Successive Botswanan governments have denied it but many advocacy groups believe the reason for the San’s resettlement was to enable diamond mining.
Since independence in 1966, Botswana has been a politically stable multi-party democracy, and has seen decades of economic growth driven mainly by its diamond industry. It went from being one of the poorest countries in the world in the late 1960s, with a GDP per capita of $70, to having the highest GDP per capita in Africa – $18,825 – by 2015. The situation offered a textbook utilitarian dilemma and forced me to consider lots of questions I couldn’t answer. What are the consequences of economic development? Do the potential positives, such as investment in education and healthcare, outweigh the priceless costs of environmental and cultural degradation? Who gets to decide?
On that trip to Botswana, I had discovered extraordinary pieces of jewelry handmade out of ostrich eggshells. The fragility of these objects reflected the fragility of the communities behind them: it would take the San women several months to make each item, then they would typically sell for very low prices, haggled down by the odd passing traveller. It struck me that the San’s jewelry could be exported to the West and bring a good income back into the community, so James Suzman and I enlisted a friend to help set up a trading route in London. A few months later I returned to Africa to model the collection, which began to sell for much higher prices, with all the profit going back to the San. It was, accidentally, my first direct experience of Fairtrade.
This experience in Botswana marked me: compelling me to think more deeply about the impact not just of my own purchasing choices but also of my work. As the poster girl for different products, I felt an enormous responsibility to understand and respect what I was selling. I wasn’t just buying a company’s products, I was asking other people to buy them too.
This is an extract from Lily Cole’s book Who Cares Wins, with Rizzoli New York