Lily Cole on the power of radical kindness

A woman filming with an vintage video camera.

The actress, model, activist and member tells us why it was important for her book, Who Cares Wins: Reasons For Optimism In Our Changing World, to take the conversation of climate change from doomism to optimism

By Hanna Hanra   Images courtesy of Lily Cole    Wednesday 19 August, 2020   Long read

Lily Cole didn’t move to her house in Sussex as a response to COVID-19 – she moved there two years ago, full time, by choice, and with no regrets. ‘I un-miss being in London,’ says the 32-year-old model, activist, actress, documentary maker, businesswoman, designer, mother, and now author of Who Cares Wins: Reasons For Optimism In Our Changing World. The book is broken down into a series of chapters, which examine the current systems that govern and are affecting climate change. But the drive behind it is that we should be optimistic – there is time and ability to connect experts and policy makers, and to use collective action to rewrite the future. The first half of the book looks at how we can change our existing systems to make them better – by speaking to people who are agents of change, and those affected by it. The second half turns that idea on its head and questions whether we need to revise the systems entirely. Broken down, the ideas are digestible and, importantly, optimistic. 

Tell me about your writing process. 

‘I actually began the book in 2016. I was already thinking about writing a non-fiction one about various movements in the non-business space and how I was optimistic about the way things were going; I’ve seen a lot of positive change working in the past 10, 15 years. And then Penguin reached out to me to ask if I’d write about this gift economy business called Impossible that I started. So that was the initial genesis, but I decided to keep the idea of gift economy, and its importance as an anchor, as a chapter. Then, I broadly framed the different reasons I have for being optimistic.’

There’s been a lot of change in the way people talk about the environmental crisis since 2016. How did that affect what you wrote?

‘It seemed obvious to me for a long time that we needed to address the environmental crisis if we want to think about social issues. There was a lot that I was trying to keep up with – the different political and environmental movements that emerged in that time. Areas I was writing about continually changed; there were tweaks of new innovations and breakthroughs right until the deadline. I could probably write the book forever; it’s a continually changing landscape.’ 

Do you think that we are moving towards a better place, or are more aware of negative actions and therefore act on them?

‘I think it’s a mixed bag. There’s definitely not enough political or collective action to meet the challenge [of the environmental disaster]. A big gap exists between what scientists say and what’s actually happening to fix it. But, that being said, many things are going in a better direction – in particular, the movements surrounding sustainability and big business. There’s now a lot of discussion about shifting capitalism away from only being responsible to shareholder profit, and that is interesting. Those are trends that are less newsworthy, but if you’re in that space, it feels like the trajectory is very positive. There are lots of things that have the capacity to get better and things that are improving. If we focus on those and push towards those changes, we are more likely to empower them.’
Three women standing next to a mound of cotton in a field.
A woman reaching towards the branch of a dry tree.

There’s a lot of lip service from brands. Is it up to the individual to buy less and care more? Or is it up to the brand to change?

‘I think fashion is very interesting. The space of conversation surrounding sustainable fashion – as oxymoronic as that may be – has moved from being a niche space to being talked about and acted upon by all the major brands. There’s a physical impact to consider, but things are going in the right direction. 

‘Then there’s the cultural and psychological effect that fashion can have. It’s one of many industries causing problems; I think food, farming and energy are bigger issues. But fashion has the capacity to influence the zeitgeist and impact what is fashionable on a larger scale. If wearing second-hand garments becomes fashionable, then that will have a wider implication that goes beyond clothes. When something costs £3, it doesn’t actually cost that. There’s an environmental footprint that we will have to pay for, and you’re also exacerbating inequality by purchasing something that’s made in a sweatshop. But it’s not malice that makes people participate in fast fashion, it’s not knowing. When they are educated you see a shift away from buying those brands.’

Do you think lockdown will have a permanent effect? I feel more people have realised that ‘it doesn’t need to be a meeting’.

‘Definitely. I had an office in London that I shut down – me and my team have been working really well online… I think.’

How do you manage your time? You have so many plates spinning…

‘I wrote about the virtues of working less, but find myself working so much. And actually after the book, I am going to aim to do less. I have two companies – one is Impossible, which is a gift economy platform. I couldn’t find a way of making it financially sustainable that wouldn’t undermine it, so it’s turned into a technology incubator. I’ve also founded an eyewear company called Wires with a friend. We source all the materials and plastic from a castor bean plant and use 3D printing. It’s a strange journey, but we’ve put a lot of my ideas about how to do business better into practice. I always have a list of creative projects I want to do.’

Do you find it hard not to be hypocritical?

‘I had to make peace with it. I gave myself a hard time; it’s difficult to engage in the dialogue if you feel that you are part of the problem. I’ve reduced the amount of travel I do massively. I travel by train as much as I can, I’ve got an electric car and I’m about to drive through Europe. Viscerally, I don’t feel good about flying. I don’t enjoy it.’

Which part of the book felt most satisfying to write?

‘I think the chapter on the way gender equality and the environment intersects. It’s so fascinating and complex, and I felt like it could warrant a whole book of its own. I also enjoyed the last quarter, which is the most philosophical.’

What do you want people to take away from the book?

‘I want them to stop thinking that governments are going to fix it. If people realise their own agency – the way you vote, how you spend your money, the conversations you have – the faster we will see change.’

Lily Cole’s book Who Cares Wins, with Rizzoli New York is available now
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