Livia Firth talks to Lisa Armstrong about ethical consumerism and the new Eco-Age.
'Urgh, isn't Olivia Firth annoying!" exclaimed our intern the other day when I asked her to research some pictures. Urgh, aren't the young cynical? Misty-eyed idealism appears to have become as passé as post-structural Marxist criticism and American tan tights.
Having met Firth, I can testify that the 41-year-old one-time film producer is not annoying, but charming and rather persuasive. Still, the idea of her probably is annoying: movie-star wife sent to lecture the rest of us on the evils of our consumerist ways. Last summer, for instance, there was discernible glee in the press when the eco-wares shop in Chiswick which she opened in 2008 with her younger brother, Nicola (that's not a misprint, it's a boy's name in Italy), and husband, Colin, mysteriously closed down - and the green roof above it apparently shrivelled and died, leaving behind, according to the inevitable neighbourly reports, a malodorous legacy.
If you were Livia Firth, with your degree in humanities, literature and cinema, your model looks, your three sons and your lovely life, you might think, blow this for a game of ethical, peace-keeping-only soldiers, I'm off to drink champagne in the Maldives until a climate-change wave finally sweeps them away. That she hasn't suggests she's either a megalomaniac or genuinely committed to the cause. There doesn't seem much sign of the former. So sincerity it is.
"The business hasn't closed," says Firth, with the fatalistic air of one resigned to the world's schadenfreude, "but we're working more and more on social corporate responsibility with big companies such as Wembley Stadium, so the shop has become the offices for that."
She's also been busy collaborating with yoox.com, the hugely successful Italian-based etailer that started out selling discounted designer stock, but has since expanded into vintage and, as of now, boasts an ethical sub-site called Eco-Age, edited by Firth. The project was something of a rush job, she admits. "Most of the designers we stock are tiny and by the time we found them, they were closing their orders. But we've got some great stuff and next season it's really strong."
Really? Because with the best will in the world, I've found most ethical brands to be limited in the extreme. Most of us want to be better consumers, but most of us can't live by unbleached T-shirts alone.
Firth is convinced she's found some world-class pieces, starting with Henrietta Ludgate's gorgeous colourful dresses, all produced in the UK; Kami, a French label that uses organic cottons and vegetable dies (and which made the sharp, black tailored blazer she's wearing); and Beyond Skin, a vegan collection that designs some genuinely fashionable shoes.
I've looked at Eco-Age, and while there are teething problems - it feels very odd having the word genocide on the home page next to a click-through icon to clutch bags, even if it is a positive story about a woman's collective in Rwanda - she's right about there being genuinely tempting-and-not-just-because-they're-worthy pieces.
They're not cheap, but maybe that's not a bad thing. "Once you've seen how a factory producing throwaway fashion operates, you can never really go back to the high street," says Firth, who claims to still wear clothes she bought 20 years ago. Isn't that called hoarding?
"Maybe, but that's how we grew up in Italy - you inherited bits of furniture from your grandparents, you didn't throw stuff away and you didn't buy your vegetables in plastic packaging."
Firth's brand of ethical consumerism - she's deliberately broadened it out from eco-awareness to take in social issues and animal welfare, believing the three go hand in hand - really comes down to being more aware when you buy. And to something called "slow fashion".
She has a battle ahead. When the concept of ethical consumerism first seeped into the public consciousness a decade or so it was generally presented as a worthy aspiration. Now it's often portrayed as a middle-class indulgence, or just incredibly boring. But Firth knows this. "Oh my God, when I first embarked on the Green Carpet Challenge [the mission that saw her by her husband's side at every awards ceremony last year dressed only in recycled or ethical clothing], I could see people switching off," she recalls. "One white dress in particular got loads of compliments, but when I told people it was a recycled wedding dress, they physically recoiled." Wasn't she tempted to give up and go to Versace? "Nope, partly because I'm a born campaigner, I suppose. But also banging the ethical drum gave me a purpose on the red carpet. I wasn't just this woman clinging onto Colin's arm".
It's that kind of honest that led Viola Davis and Julianne Moore to take up the challenge with her.
Obviously it helps when the likes of Roger Vivier's Bruno Frisoni, Valentino, Armani, Lanvin's Alber Elbaz and Tom Ford are happy to get involved. Actually, Lanvin was already producing ethical pieces without knowing it - the gold fabric for Streep's dress, which Elbaz had used previously, was from an eco-certified mill. Even Firth's husband, who seems fond of portraying himself as an eco-vandal in interviews, is on board, she says, digging their vegetable patch in Italy (cue zillions of faster-beating female hearts at the vision) and re-wearing his old Tom Ford tuxedos.
To draw analogies with Marie Antoinette is slightly to miss the point. Livia Firth is committed and she is actively involved. And she's a pragmatist. Four years ago, she was urging women not to buy Vogue. Now she writes a recycling blog for the magazine. Some of the tiny labels she's spotted could benefit greatly from the support and exposure of Yoox. Besides, ethical consumerism doesn't need another unbleached-T-shirt wearing champion, it needs glamorous flagwavers who speak to the semi-converted.