In conversation with fashion editor turned activist, Bel Jacobs.
Bel Jacobs is a former fashion editor turned writer, speaker and activist with a focus on animal rights, the climate emergency and alternative systems in fashion. She was the Style Editor at the Metro for 14 years, but in 2013, when the Rana Plaza factory collapse happened in Bangladesh, she began to question her role in fashion and the industry that had allowed the collapse to occur in the first place. Bel has been a part of the fashion media for over 20 years, and in that time has seen it evolve from a print-only industry to one that is now almost entirely focused on digital and social media.
These days, the fashion media relies largely on advertising from brands in order to operate, to the point where one can’t exist without the other. That means to a large extent, the fashion media exists to sell us stuff, which in a climate emergency, is obviously something that we should be moving away from.
It’s become the norm now to see fashion brands make pledges and policies around the sustainability of their products, but what responsibility does fashion media have to create sustainable content?
MD: Hi Bel, let’s get right into it. What influence does the fashion media have over the way that we shop and we engage with fashion?
BJ: For context, what we’re really talking about is the fashion industry and its disproportionate contribution to the climate and ecological emergency that we find ourselves in. Fashion is very joyous and creative, but its production has had an incredible impact on the climate, and on our futures. We make too much, use it too little and throw it away far too soon.
If you had a fashion industry without the fashion media, which encompasses advertising and editorial. You just wouldn't have this degree of consumption. Fashion media is fundamental in creating all sorts of conditions within the consumer to purchase more stuff, including desire and perceived lack. It's fundamental in driving the whole narrative of the consumer culture that we find ourselves in, which is diametrically opposed to where we need to be in order to address the climate emergency.
MD: Since I've started working in the sustainability space, I've found that my job and my values have clashed at times. For instance, if I've written a sustainability-focused piece for a publication, but then I look at their website and right next to my story there's a story about 30 different pairs of jeans that you should buy this season. It’s really mixed messaging.
We see a lot of brands coming out with pledges about how they're going to change the way that they make clothing, but I haven’t seen any publications make any commitments like that. Have you?
BJ: We're all in this bizarre between-worlds because we've got this growing awareness that our profession is a substantial contributor to the emergency. I haven't seen a lot of publications taking that massive step, because advertising is a source of funding. How can you bite the hand that feeds you?
When I was a fashion editor on Metro, there was a requirement to cover brands and products that were affordable, so I put a lot of fast fashion on my page. And at the same time, I was always trying to include independent and fair trade brands too but I felt deeply, deeply uncomfortable that most products featured on my page were fast fashion and I imagine that this is exactly what a lot of fashion journalists are feeling right now.
We’re at a crossroads because we have the vision of the world that we need to get to, and we're desperate to live in alignment with our values. But that’s very difficult to do so. As campaigners, we get frustrated, but we also have to have a degree of understanding about the practical realities of people, particularly now that we're in a pandemic. The financial system is shifting, so making money and surviving in this landscape is difficult. How do we live in alignment with our values? Plus, how do we let go of things that have given us joy, pleasure, and a feeling of security in the past to embrace a much more uncertain future?
MD: You started at the Metro in 1999, and that was in a pre-fast fashion time. Now, in contrast, there’s a 24/7 news cycle, the fashion industry and the media landscape have shifted dramatically. What have been the biggest changes that you've noticed about how the fashion media interacts with the industry?
BJ: I was very lucky in some respects. I joined Metro in 1999 and it was quite chilled, but it just ramped up over the next eight years. The speed at which things were coming to me, the number of emails, it was just getting insane. That’s because the number of products that were being produced was skyrocketing too.
I was also there as social media started to become a force to be reckoned with and when the designer and the celebrity collaboration started to become more widespread. With social media, you saw the rise of more ordinary people, personalities who had appeared on Big Brother and Love Island. You saw the rise of the social media influencer. And watching that sort of growth is distressing because it has dovetailed with the increased production of low-quality products - and way too many of them.
Lately, I think that's been a sea change. People have started to ask really big questions about the fashion industry. I've been encouraged by seeing editors and journalists drilling down into the processes and asking difficult questions of designers and collections, but we're at the very beginning of that movement. I think fashion journalists need to ask themselves: how would you ask the right questions to make sure that the products that you're featuring on pages are genuinely as responsible as they claim to be?
MD: You mentioned the speed of production, which is really interesting from a media point of view. Often editorial teams are stretched and they don't tend to have a lot of staff creating content. So when you have content quotas to hit and a press release comes in saying that H&M has launched this great new green collection, the journalist may not have time to do a full investigation into it.
A lot of the information about sustainability is also really complex, and that’s something I noticed recently when a report came out that said that essentially ‘renting is bad’. The way that the media reported on it had no nuance or depth. It completely confuses the average shopper because they read a headline and think: okay, renting is bad. But it’s far more complicated than that.
I do think that there is a new kind of generation coming through now who are looking at the industry and wanting to do things differently. They’re not coming into it wanting to talk about aesthetics or trends or skirt lengths. To be frank, I think that trends are probably the most boring thing about fashion. It’s heartening to see young journalists tackling sustainability from the outset of their careers.
MD: There is a new Green Claims Code coming out very soon in the UK, which is essentially cracking down on greenwashing. How do you think that is going to impact how the fashion media talks about brands?
BJ: I don't know, because I'm not sure they know either but I look forward to finding out. Interestingly, the Code was released at the same time as the British Fashion Council’s Circular Ecosystems Report, which outlines three target outcomes - and, significantly, all of them have to do with reducing the use of new resources. In fact, the first target outcome is a reduced volume of physical clothing. We know that the fashion industry has to be reduced in size. If you read Kate Fletcher's Earth Logic, the fashion industry has to reduce its use of new resources by between 75 to 90%. The question is, what does that look like for this industry?
The fashion industry produces over 100 billion pieces of clothing a year and around 90% of it is going into landfills or being incinerated. This is not a practical response to the climate emergency. So the new Green Claims Code is a start. The Code says that communication with the consumer needs to be truthful and accurate, clear, unambiguous, and not omitting or hiding important information.
If you say you’re working as sustainably as you can, but still expanding the number of products that you’re making, you are not being sustainable. We have seen brands creating amazingly detailed zero-carbon or biodiversity plans, but failing to meet targets because they're still making too much stuff. And if something that we’re going to have to start addressing is production levels, if production levels are to be included in the definition of sustainability, we’re going to need to talk about how fashion advertising drives consumption levels.
This is such an interesting question: how will fashion media work to reduce demand when its very raison d'etre is to increase demand? That’s a challenge. But I have so much faith in the creativity and innovation in this industry, I'm really looking forward to seeing what the responses are going to be.
MD: Something I often think about is how media publications could change their content to be more sustainable. That's a real challenge when so much of the content that's produced by the fashion media is around, as you say, consuming. If we say: maybe we should have more stories about secondhand fashion or vintage fashion, we also have to recognise that these things are inaccessible to a lot of people.
I think there are a lot of obstacles in understanding how we talk about fashion, while also creating interesting content that people want to read. You can do all of the sustainable content in the world, but if no one's gonna click on it, what’s the point?
MD: In the future, what do you want the fashion media to look like? Is anyone making steps in the right direction that could be a blueprint for the rest of the industry?
BJ: I'm actually not going to talk about a publication, I'm going to talk about the fashion label Birdsong. Of course, we still need to hugely reduce what we buy but I think labels like Birdsong, which have a 360 approach to their product, are the models of the future. These are the ways that we want our clothes to be made in the future. I like the way they operate, and I think some fashion media makers may need to think about how they can use their skills to serve the new future that we're going into.
Some of these changes will be forced upon us before we're ready ideologically and culturally to adopt them. But this is where we start talking about resilience and adaptation. Fashion needs to be on a smaller scale, and I would like to see the end of fast fashion. There is no future for fashion that includes the likes of Boohoo and Pretty Little Thing or H&M. We need small localized, responsible, passionate, creative businesses providing our clothing from recycled resources, according to what we need, when we need it.
MD: It will be really interesting to see more people talking about this with a forward-thinking approach to how the fashion media talks about sustainability. It's so interesting to hear your thoughts on this, Bel, thank you for your time.