In February 2018, you became the world’s first Sustainability Editor, for Vogue Australia. How did that come about?
I pitched it to them. At that time, no-one seemed particularly excited about sustainability as a regular feature for the magazine; it was still considered something for a themed issue, so I had to hustle for it. Change takes outliers who are willing to push ahead when everyone else isn’t there yet. But the purpose of a magazine like Vogue is to tap into the zeitgeist and reflect it back at the reader. It presents where society and fashion are moving, so it makes sense to cover sustainability. I have been very privileged to work for Vogue and have such forward-thinking bosses, but I do want people to know that I was the architect of this role, because it hasn’t always been easy to get people on board.
“Change takes outliers who are willing to push ahead when everyone else isn’t there yet.”
The media is generally rallying around sustainability issues and covering the climate crisis in a deep way now, which is fantastic. Previously, it felt like the reserve of a handful of news journalists. I always looked up to Lucy Siegle and Tamsin Blanchard. Their pioneering books (To Die For and Green is the New Black respectively) came out over ten years ago, before this was a mainstream conversation. Both of them wrote primarily for newspapers, so this wasn’t really something the monthly, glossy fashion magazines were tackling.
What does the role entail?
I made it up as I went along. There was no job description, so I wrote my own. For the magazine, I contribute features in print and online. I also host conversations and panel discussions, and represent Vogue at events with a sustainability focus. I’m an editor-at-large, so I do lots of other jobs alongside it.
“The conversation around climate in Australia is intensely politicised and disappointingly so, which is stopping us from taking the action we need to take as a society.”
You live in Australia, where the effects of the climate crisis are much more visceral than in the UK. Do you think that had an impact on your appointment as the first Sustainability Editor?
I wish! Australia is asleep at the wheel. The catastrophic fires we experienced recently – which began in July and escalated over the Christmas period – are unlike anything we’ve seen before. The conversation around climate in Australia is intensely politicised and disappointingly so, which is stopping us from taking the action we need to take as a society. In Europe, the general consensus is that the climate crisis is a science-based fact, caused by human activity. In Australia, it’s still a raging debate. We’re talking about sustainable materials, circularity and upcycling, but we’re still not talking about the climate question.
“The next generation has got different expectations of what their business might look like, as well as different drivers and concerns.”
How do you think the climate conversation is developing internationally?
In 2020 and beyond, all industries are going to have to look more deeply at the climate impacts of what they produce and fashion is no exception. Some designers are already doing exceptional work in that space, while others are only at the beginning of that process. I think the UK is ahead conversationally. You only have to look at the Fixing Fashion Report that the Environmental Audit Committee put out last year and the level of cross-industry conversation to see how advanced London is. But I see emerging designers upcycling in Milan, Sydney and Melbourne. They’re everywhere, because the next generation has got different expectations of what their business might look like, as well as different drivers and concerns.
“In order to bring the majority of people along, we need to offer solutions and encouragement. We have to create a positive, inclusive movement that people want to take part in.”
You try to maintain a positive spin in your public posts and your podcast – why is that?
It’s important to be positive. In order to bring the majority of people along, we need to offer solutions and encouragement. We have to create a positive, inclusive movement that people want to take part in. I researched social movements a lot for my 2018 book, Rise and Resist: How to change the world, so I know this to be true. Only a small percentage of people will respond to messages of doom and gloom and the remainder will bury their heads in the sand. We can see that in our own spheres. If you ask your friends to come to Fashion Revolution’s Disco Make event and have loads of fun upcycling, they’ll say yes. Ask them to sit in a room and cry over climate grief while we rant about governments that can’t change in the short-term and they’ll say no.
If you are serious about being a change-maker in your chosen sphere, you have to be strategic. I’m being strategic when I try to maintain a positive outlook and messaging. Sometimes it’s hard, because I often feel intensely frustrated by political inaction and the depressing statistics around the climate situation, but people want positivity. You want to talk about ocean acidification or the sixth mass extinction? Those are hard topics. Ice melt and which countries may be underwater soon – these are not happy, cheerful ideas. Denying it is useless. If we want to engage those who are not already engaged, we need to make it inviting. I’ve got Post-it Notes on the wall in my office, with words that I try to keep focusing on and ‘inviting’ is one of them.
“If you are serious about being a change-maker in your chosen sphere, you have to be strategic. I’m being strategic when I try to maintain a positive outlook and messaging.”
What are the other words on your wall?
One note says ‘take massive action’ and another says ‘courage’. I make so many mind-maps. If you can’t see it in front of you, how do you know where you’re headed? The 2020s are demanding more from those of us who work in the climate movement. I consider myself a climate activist, because activists act on behalf of a cause they are passionate about and make a stand, as opposed to sitting by passively. I like the idea of taking ownership of activism. ‘Take massive action’ was about trying to force myself to be bolder and not be constrained by whatever things constrain people: fear that no-one is listening or that it might be inappropriate or you might not get funding…
“I consider myself a climate activist, because activists act on behalf of a cause they are passionate about and make a stand, as opposed to sitting by passively.”
How do you put those words into practice through journalism?
If we’re talking about communicating sustainability in a clear way, one of the most important things is depth. When you look at something like the relationship between soil and fashion, those areas are very complicated. You can’t expect the average consumer, who hasn’t done a deep-dive into it, to know. If you ask people, have you considered the carbon footprint of your emails? They wouldn’t even realise that was something to worry about.
A lot of the coverage around sustainable fashion focuses on the aesthetics or on small consumer choices we can make, but those things are quite shallow. Advice about switches you can make to be more eco-friendly are entry-level. They may bring in more people, but journalists need to deliver content that accurately and thoroughly unpacks the deeper, intersecting issues that underpin this whole thing. Fashion journalism has traditionally centered design, so that is a big ask.
“Journalists need to deliver content that accurately and thoroughly unpacks the deeper, intersecting issues that underpin this whole thing. Fashion journalism has traditionally centered design, so that is a big ask.”
What does that mean for fashion journalists who may not have training in sustainability?
There are numerous examples of fashion journalists who have written wonderful, transportative pieces about collections, designers and clothes. That’s still highly relevant and I’m not going to dumb that down, but it is a very different set of skills. We are now asking journalists – sometimes the very same ones – to immerse themselves in 25 COP meetings and read around why the political stasis means we’re not acting to desperately reduce emissions to stick to the Paris Agreement. How are you supposed to make the transition from being someone who knows everything there is to know about the Dior archive to that? Journalism is about learning and research, but that is quite a big leap. It’s so great that the next crop of journalists who are interested can actually be trained in this area of expertise. Trying to bolt sustainability onto the existing way of doing things has been hard, and that’s why we haven’t seen vast progress in conventional fashion media’s coverage of sustainability.
How has your own approach to journalism changed?
Fashion has always been about beauty. We’re a bunch of people who cry at McQueen! We can still do that, but the opportunity for more is really exciting. I’m delighted to be learning and not stuck writing about silver shoes. I studied Politics at university, so I was taught to think critically. When I started writing about fashion, it wasn’t considered a serious subject. There were some fashion journalists I looked up to, but it was primarily shopping pages. I’m very lucky that we weren’t in the eye of the climate crisis when I was starting out.
“Trying to bolt sustainability onto the existing way of doing things has been hard, and that’s why we haven’t seen vast progress in conventional fashion media’s coverage of sustainability.“
By the time you had the realisation that fashion needed to address its climate impact, you had already built a platform. What advice would you give to a fashion journalist just starting out, who has already had that realisation, but doesn’t have the platform yet? Especially when so many entry-level jobs in fashion journalism require them to write shopping pages and not be too critical of the industry.
There are two sides to this piece of advice. The first is that everyone has to start with boring stuff, in any industry. You start at the bottom, you get experience, you prove your worth and then you get promoted. Doing things that don’t thrill you to your core is part of climbing the career ladder. I’ve spent 20 years getting to this point in my career. I’ve written books I haven’t sold, I’ve had many failures and I’ve done loads of unexciting writing jobs. That’s okay, because that’s how it works. You can’t be the President tomorrow.
If someone invites me to a talk, I always go, because they will always say something I haven’t heard yet or teach me something new. You have to be open-minded. I interviewed Nigella Lawson once, and she told me that a good writer could write about a wheelbarrow and make it interesting. Even if you have to write about something that you deem to be below you, the process of doing that will teach you something.
“Doing things that don’t thrill you to your core is part of climbing the career ladder. I’ve spent 20 years getting to this point in my career. I’ve written books I haven’t sold, I’ve had many failures and I’ve done loads of unexciting writing jobs.”
What’s the second part of your advice?
Seek out independent magazines that reflect your interests and write for them. I used to be a commissioning editor at Vogue Australia – I was the Features Director – so I would get many approaches from writers who wanted to write for us. People often sent a hopeful hello, having never written for another publication. Some didn’t even send a pitch. I would reply, asking: What areas are you interested in? Which comparable titles have you written for?
Start where you can. Write for your student paper, an independent paper, start your own magazine, write a blog. Just contribute words into the world, so you can build up a body of work that proves your worth, shows your interests and marks you out as an excellent contender for the job. Look at the industry like a mind-map. If the middle of your mind-map says you want to write for Vogue, you need to plan a route, because you won’t just go straight there. The diversity of a portfolio is important too. I’d like to see that other editors have seen the worth in you. It’s about proving that you have been go-getting enough to deliver a body of work and make it sparkle. People are not proactive enough.
“Write for your student paper, an independent paper, start your own magazine, write a blog. Just contribute words into the world, so you can build up a body of work that proves your worth, shows your interests and marks you out as an excellent contender for the job.”
What else would be on your list of secrets to success?
Be strategic and professional. Determine to act like the professional version of yourself would, even if you aren’t that person yet. Think about what would make you the easiest, most efficient, most productive and effective choice. This is a very judgemental industry. People judge you and it’s brutal. I wish it wasn’t like that, but that is a hangover from fashion’s past that does not seem to be dissipating any time soon. Don’t be intimidated by that, work with it and present yourself accordingly. Quite a lot of fashion journalists of great repute wear a black jumper and trousers every day, but you can see when someone is living and breathing fashion.
“Determine to act like the professional version of yourself would, even if you aren’t that person yet.”
The fourth thing I would add is to be authentic. You can fake it til you make it, but only if this is what you really care about. That’s one of the hardest things you can learn as an evolving human. It’s taken me 20 years. People will see through the veneer of silly rubbish that doesn’t matter to you.