Business

Bringing Business To Life: Livia Firth

Celebrating the launch of the new Eco-Age digital platform, Livia Firth tells the story of how the business has changed, changed and changed again
By Livia Firth
16.10.18

What inspired you to set up Eco-Age?

My brother – it was Nicola’s idea to open Eco-Age when he finished his degree in Economics and Sustainability. He’d seen a gap in the market for ecological solutions for the home. One day he came to Colin and myself and said, “If you want to buy solar panels where do you go?” to which Colin and I looked at each other and said, “I have no idea!” And Nicola said “Exactly! We have to open a store offering the most stylish eco products as well as consultancy on how to create the perfect eco-home.”  It was 2007 and that was the beginning of Eco-Age. I was busy producing documentaries at the time but before I knew it I got completely involved and we had this little shop on Chiswick High Road to run and a lot to learn.

A year or so later, as a global ambassador for Oxfam, I went to look at a project on domestic violence in Bangladesh and while I was in Dhaka with Lucy Siegle we asked to be smuggled into a factory. It was my first experience of a factory and I was completely shocked. So when I came back I told Nicola we had to forget about the shop and homewear etc - this is gigantic. We have huge human rights and environmental issues within fashion – what can we do about it? And that was the new phase of Eco-Age. 

So the inspiration came from Nicola originally and then from meeting a lot of amazing women on the fashion scene - Lucy Siegle, Orsola de Castro, Jocelyn Whipple - and learning from them. Then in 2009 Colin was nominated for an Oscar and Lucy and I had the Green Carpet Challenge idea – and Dolly Jones (then editor of Vogue.co.uk, now Eco-Age chief content officer) gave us the platform on Vogue.co.uk and our next adventure started. That’s when the consultancy and the communications all came together.

Livia in Bangladesh in 2015

What was the reaction like?

Everyone was great about the shop. I remember one journalist writing about “the new toy for Colin Firth’s wife” - or something like that - but generally it was great. 

The Green Carpet Challenge had a fantastic reaction and we got incredible feedback which fuelled its development into a fully-fledged marketing and communication tool as part of the business.

What have been the biggest prohibitors to developing the business and to driving change?

I never like to think of prohibitors - for me every challenge, every difficulty is an opportunity. I think if you look at life like that you constantly learn. The strength of Eco-Age is that is has constantly evolved; we’re truly modern in our capacity to adapt to the times and to what people want. That’s what’s exciting for me about our new digital phase – we’re recognising that we were left behind on that phase and we can’t avoid it. People were constantly asking us for suggestions and recommendations and where to go so we had to be the platform - the place to go.

What have been the benefits or challenges to your life in the public eye for driving change?

I don’t think there’s been any negative. I could not have achieved what we have with Eco-Age without being Colin Firth’s wife, and I’ve always been proud of that. I remember having a conversation about feminism with Annie Lennox years ago at a meeting for The Circle and she actually apologised for having described me as “Colin Firth’s wife”. But I have never had a problem with being described that way. The fact that I’m somebody’s wife does not mean that I’m less woman or a lesser person, and with Colin we have been so lucky to explore opportunities and open doors that other people couldn’t. Why not open them? Then, once you are inside the room, if you are crap, you go! So it’s up to you. But it’s great to have had that opportunity; to still have that opportunity. 

 

What has been your most memorable trip?

I love, love, love, love going on discovery trips because it’s fundamental for me to learn about the things that we work on - otherwise I couldn’t talk about them or really understand the challenges. That first trip to Bangladesh was the first time I was faced with the reality of women like me being treated like slaves - like their life was worth nothing – that was such a catalyst for me. 

 

Tell us a bit more about the new Eco-Age Brandmark Strategy?

The brandmark strategy came from two desires: one, is to decipher the huge number of different validations and certifications. They’re all valid but it’s confusing if you want to buy something and you can’t work out which certification means what. So we wanted to create a brandmark for sustainable excellence to encompass all sorts of different validations – which the consumer can trust because if it is validated by Eco-Age it means that it’s good and they can buy it guilt-free. Or at least have all possible information about it. 

The second motivation came from the fact that every single day people were asking us: ‘What should I buy?’ And it was clear that there just isn’t one place to discover everything about living an Eco-Age lifestyle. And now there is. 

 

Can you talk me through your progress, not perfection, philosophy?

The perfection element, or lack of it, is very important for us. Because life brings new challenges every day. When people ask me “how do you do it all?” I have no idea! Every night I go to bed and think “Oh shit, today I did it again, thank God.” I hate prescriptions, or the notion that there is a “perfect” way to do things. The perfect mother; the perfect eco-shopper; the perfect beauty – it doesn’t exist. From a personal point of view, this is a problem with our society – that you can feel paralysed by the fear of having to do it only a certain way, or just not bother trying. 

From a business point of view, this is also a reason why a lot of businesses haven’t started their process of sustainability - because they’re all scared they don’t know how. You simply can’t preach that “to be sustainable you have to do this, this and this”, because guess what? Every business is different, every reality is different - so you have to analyse each business, each brand, each situation, and find for the particular sustainable journey. It’s so important – without being adaptable, we can’t progress.

What have been the key milestones for progress for Eco-Age?

There have been many. Opening the shop was a huge milestone; the first time that we had a celebrity on the red carpet – I think it was Viola Davies at the BAFTAs in 2010. Then Meryl Streep winning the Oscar in the gold Lanvin dress was a huge milestone.  

Every red carpet feels like a milestone actually. And then there are many milestones in terms of what we could achieve with our clients. One that speaks for everything is Chopard achieving the 100% ethical gold supply chain this year - within just 5 years of working together, that is a huge achievement. 

What is your ultimate ambition for the company?

To have a healthy business driven by a healthy team, which means people that are happy and create an environment that reflects the Eco-Age principles. And to, you know, ultimately change the world.

 

What were you doing before Eco-Age?

I was producing documentaries.  I’d just finished a documentary on African American politics in America driven by a death row case. It was called ‘In Prison My Whole Life’ and was part of Sundance. I’d just finished it when Nicola came up with the idea of Eco-Age and abruptly ended my career as a documentary producer! Until Andrew Morgan appeared in my life asking me to get involved in The True Cost.

I always said when I was doing documentaries that there is nothing as powerful as visual advocacy and The True Cost proves it. We can read endless articles about the impact of fast fashion but you watch The True Cost and you have it all there. Film-making is the way forward in terms of communicating a message. But there is only one Livia so we’ll see!

Our Fashion-scapes series, beginning with Forever Tasmania about the wool supply chain, is our way of telling the story of the supply chain in the most compelling way – and that’s another reason to have launched the new digital platform; to create more visual content. I’m so excited about Dolly joining because she gave me the opportunity to do the Green Carpet Challenge originally and the new site will be the definitive destination for the Eco-Age lifestyle. Everything today happens digitally and visually so we couldn’t not be part of that conversation any more. Now we just want to lead it.

Bringing Business To Life: Livia Firth