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The Easiest Way To Help The Environment Is To Give Up Meat, Says Lily Cole

The onus is on the individual..

20/03/2016 00:13 | Updated 21 March 2016

A few years ago, you could barely walk down the street without passing the striking face of Lily Cole plastered across billboards and shop windows. Now, the 28-year-old is better known for her campaigning and activism on everything from environmental issues to business.

And, of course, fashion.

"Fashion is as guilty as any other industry for not being green enough," she tells me over tea in a South Kensington hotel. "There are very few industries that are sustainable.

Ben A. Pruchnie via Getty Images
Cole discusses the development of her social giving network at the Apple Store, Regent Street in 2013.

"I don't think we've got to the tipping point in fashion that we've reached in food. In England I think there is a lot more understanding around what organic means, or what fair trade means. I think that will happen with fashion but we haven’t got there yet.

"That being said," she muses, "I do think in the last 10 or so years that I've been looking at supply chains there has been huge change. There are now a lot more companies - big and small - operating more responsibly."

But, according to Cole, it's not always easy for consumers to make the right choice. "A lot of the decisions we are faced with day-in-day-out are not so clean cut as whether we choose organic food or not. I think it becomes quite hard as a consumer to make the right choice even if you want to.

"That’s something that need to change and because of technology it’s something that will change. We have the tools for transparency. There is only so long that businesses can continue to not be open."

Cole launched her own social business Impossible in 2013, which focuses on a "gift culture". Users register to the network and become part of a global community which "helps each other out", and trades on a "thanks currency".

The model-turned-actor-turned-businesswoman has certainly benefitted from her celebrity status. But she says celebrities shouldn't feel they have to raise awareness on pressing issues.

"It's probably the same question as to whether we think we need TV or social media to raise awareness. High profile people are a vehicle to bring awareness to issues, but they're one of many tools.

"It works now because that's what people listen to. I don't think it should be that way but it's just the way it is."

Cole is keen for consumers to play their part in living responsibility, rather than simply relying on businesses to lead the way.

"Realistically, it's going to be a mixture of both."

Big companies are often a mirror of their consumers because they have to be answerable to their consumers’ desires. Otherwise they’re not going to sell products.

"Big companies are often a mirror of their consumers because they have to be answerable to their consumers’ desires otherwise they’re not going to sell products.

"So I think the onus is on individuals to hold companies more to account, both in terms of being vocal and also in terms of buying patterns, and financially supporting companies that you think are doing business well.

"And not buying from companies who you think aren’t doing good work," she adds, after some thought. "Because ultimately in business that is the most important data that they watch - their sales and profits. So if you can speak to them on that level then you’re definitely going to get through."

The former model is adamant the everyday person can contribute to helping the environment.

I ask her what the one thing I could do to lead a more sustainable life would be, and answers "stop eating meat", without skipping a beat.

"Arguably even dairy," she adds. "

"I was reading a report on it two weeks ago and the impact that the dairy and meat industry has, from an environmental perspective, is bigger than all transport, aviation, shipping, everything combined. I think the environmental impacts of travel is well understood, but no-one talks about or questions the meat industry.

"So I think that’s a simple one you can do to have a big impact. Even if you don’t go 100% vegan, if you just reduce the amount you eat or be more selective about the meat you buy and how often you buy it, that’s one of the easiest wins."

She continues: "If most people knew what was going on, if factory farming was made visible, a lot of people, even if they didn’t stop eating meat, would stop eating factory farmed meat. I can understand people not wanting to be vegan but being sensitive to how often you consume meat could go a long way towards addressing some of these issues, definitely."

Cole also highlights the need to understand the "political agency" of shopping.

"Every time you pay for something you are voting for that company to be in business," she explains. "Just become a bit more mindful about what you are buying, is also a really big step."

The Cambridge University graduate is far from letting businesses off the hook, however. When I ask her whether big corporations take enough social responsibility, she answers "no" without a moment's hesitation, and then laughs at the decisiveness of her response.

"There's always room for more," she adds. "And I think it’s interesting to examine what that means and how they take responsibility.

"There are multiple ways to do that, everything from production processes, to labour laws, to more outward facing things like donations to charity."

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Lily Cole takes part in a panel discussion on the global impact of social enterprise at the Natural History Museum, London, as part of The Venture – Chivas Regal’s search to find and support the most promising aspiring social entrepreneurs across the world.

 Cole cites emerging companies such as Babies With Love and Bottle Top as setting a good example, along with "old school" establishments who have been leading the way for years.

"Patagonia, Body Shop - they've got amazing trade practices.

"There are certainly many companies making an effort, like with Chivas - their work is an interesting approach to take, and a positive one. 

"Lots of companies have CSR agendas but their actual impact is questionable," she continues. "It's an interesting approach to funnel investment into entrepreneurial projects who are trying to address social and environmental issues. You're not giving them a donation, you're giving them a platform to grow. The impact will be much bigger than just donating money to charity.

"Charity has its place, don't get me wrong, but it's not sustainable. The money will last a year and then that will be the end of the project. You want something to last 100 years. To have a growing impact."

Lily Cole was speaking at Chivas Regal’s The Venture discussion on social enterprise.

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