I first met Bel while shooting street style for Vogue at the first Fashion Revolution Day in 2014 around the time she was about to turn her back on her career as style editor at the Metro. Years of seeing the inequity in the fashion supply chains made her question everything. As a writer, speaker and activist Bel now uses her knowledge to advocate for animal rights, the climate emergency and change in the toxic fashion system to create a culture change that drives alternative systems.
D: I have a great interest in, where we've come from
and the influences that lead us to the path that we're on today, so with that
in mind I’d like to start our conversation with where you grew up.
B: I grew up in Hong Kong, Sometimes I don’t take into account the impact that that might have had on me. It really did inform a lot of the ways I think about things now.
D: How long did you live in Hong Kong?
B: About 17 years. I grew up there in the 60s and early 70s. It was an intriguing place. I’m half Chinese. My father was a member of the British government, a very very kind man, but I noticed that, in a room or meeting place with British people, the Chinese were incredibly deferential. It made me think what was happening in that space, although as a child I didn't investigate it further. Another key aspect of my upbringings was that Hong Kong is a place of great natural beauty, but I grew up at a time when that was being destroyed, being concreted over and built on. Finally, there was also a very proprietorial attitude towards animals. Animals were there for food only, and I saw all sorts of violence against animals on the streets which didn't sit well with me. I had an animal loving mother and a caring father who didn't speak out against it. We had a lot of pets because I would gather animals from the streets.
So, in Hong Kong, I learnt about compassion and cruelty, about inequity and perceived hierarchy, because, at the time, the Chinese were subservient, or at least perpetuating a myth of subservience. So there are lots of ideas there that I probably didn't even really realise or haven't really articulated.
D: Did you have early influences as far as fashion was concerned?
B: Not really, no. My mother loved clothes but our relationship was problematic so I didn’t really associate dressing up with having fun. Having said that, I have a certain number of her pieces now (she died last year) that I keep, mainly for sentimental value. And she did give me my favourite Chanel handbag!
D: Did you study in the UK and what was next?
B: Yes I did, my university degree was History of Art. It was always about visuals for me and about how things work together aesthetically. That carried on to my interest in fashion.
After uni, I went into publishing. I've always been a writer but ended up in the sales department thinking – I want to be an author, so I'll get in any way I can. Then I did a postgraduate degree in journalism and wrote for places like The Big Issue, and feminist magazines - and editing a directory of green goods and services called the Green Guide. Then - demonstrating how naive I was - I ended up on The Daily Mail, on the problem page. It all seemed quite harmless at the time, but it was great tutorial on how brutal the world of the tabloids can be: everyone was absolutely terrified of the editor, for example. The writers would shrink into their seats when he walked past. If I had any concerns about environmental and ethical issues, I thought they would be sorted out by those in power.
When I became style editor at Metro in 1999, I didn't realise how consumerism had become normalised for me. No one was asking, where is the cotton coming from? Who made this item of clothing? We just didn’t think in those terms at the beginning. Fashion is good at making itself seem glamorous and fun so I was completely pulled into that world. I loved it.
But the longer I stayed in the industry, the more uncomfortable I became and the more I realised that I was writing the same articles over and over again. How many times, within a decade, can you say that ‘black is back’ or ‘florals are back’, or ‘safari is back’, or ‘nautical is back’. So I started asking why and thinking, people aren’t asking for this, it is coming from groups and companies that want to make us buy more stuff. That’s when I started thinking, OK ‘black is back’ - and I really don't care anymore. It’s not coming from anywhere important.
Rana Plaza was the big wake up call. I stayed on for about 12 months after the accident Plaza, still thinking that the industry was going to address this, that this was an anomaly. But, after Rana Plaza, the reality of the industry - in terms of the workers, and the environmental impact, the climate emergency - kept emerging. With these two strands coming together, it was appalling.
But it's almost even more appalling now. We are not addressing environmental and social justice fast enough; garment workers are still starving. I left in 2014, because I couldn't write any more of these articles, knowing what was going on underneath. It became untenable - although sometimes I do think, what could I have achieved if I’d stayed on in terms of bringing these issues to light?
D: But could you have achieved anything within the constraints of that part of the business?
B: Yes. It depends on how you do it. I was fortunate that I had a very hands-off editor. But it would have been challenging because, at Metro, there was the underlying narrative that people only want fun stuff from fashion - and from the newspaper in general, to be honest.
D: When you left the Metro what was your next step?
B: I set up my own blog and was trying to focus on ethical labels, which was a joy because I could write about labels I found inspiring. But still things didn’t seem to be changing. This plugs in to current debates about the efficacy of individual change, whether it’s enough, and whether enough people will ever say to themselves: “I’ll stop buying Boohoo and start buying Fair Trade.”
What we've realised, particularly in the last two or three years, is that ethical consumption is not going to shift anything at the rate we need it to. The ongoing questions are, ‘how much does personal choice matter or should we focusing solely on asking for systemic change?”
My answer tends to be, we need both. The challenge is so huge and so urgent and so multi-faceted that we need all approaches. Plus, individual change is an important cultural response to the emergency. It’s a way of showing how things can be done going forward, I’ve followed a plant based diet for six years now and quite frankly, in order to feed the world, more and more people are going to have to embrace it. The planet simply does not have enough capacity to keep producing meat at this rate. So in a way, it’s good to try this now, when our part of the world is still relatively stable.
So I do think personal choice is extremely important as a way to show willingness for the systemic change that needs to happen. But obviously, politics is vital as is calling out the industries that aren't changing their responses fast enough and appealing to governments which could implement full scale change quickly if they have the appetite for it.
D: That's the thing, ‘if they have the appetite for it’, but they don’t seem to at the moment. We can see this with their behaviour around the big petrochemical companies.
B: We are more aware now though. We know what enormous subsidies fossil fuel companies receive; we know how much profit they make. And we are starting to ask, what is the point of having any kind of environmental policy if governments are going to give money - our money - to exactly those companies that are creating the problem in the first place. groups that are creating the problem in the first place?
D: You also have two websites BellJacobs.com and
The Empathy Project, which started out as How Now Magazine.
B: Yes, How Now came out about from the fact that when I started to write about plastic pollution and fashion, I realised that plastic pollution was everywhere. And I wanted to write about that and tell people about it.
D: That’s true, for example most children's toys are all plastic now.
B: Yes, although it still staggers me how little people talk about kids toys. It shows that dangerous practices have become normalised and that this lack of awareness really serves the capitalist system. I'm hoping that's changing at the moment.
D: How do you feel about fashion now? What do you think needs to change?
B: We still need to tackle human rights. The way garment workers and those along the entire fashion supply chain were treated during Covid is a disgrace, with many workers going hungry, or losing their jobs or living on a pittance, and the big companies not paying their bills. In True Cost, there’s a young woman working in a garment factory who was eating once a day - and that was before the pandemic. What is she eating now?
We have yet to see what the long-term effects of Covid are going to be. On one hand it was a shock and an awakening, and for a long time, I thought, this is it. This is when we all wake the fuck up to what we’re doing to the world and other people and animals. But instead, there’s been a clamping down and a swell of reactionary forces and a return to mass consumption.
For me, the gold star of sustainability in the fashion industry now is whether a brand is actively seeking way to reduce the amount of product it creates. I believe fervently in the idea of degrowth.
We talked about the government putting in place environmental plans, declaring a climate emergency and then going on to subsidise fossil fuel industries. Very similar things are happening across industries and particularly in fashion, where a lot of labels and organisations have come up with fantastic plans to address issues like biodiversity and pollution but at the same time are still producing huge quantities. It’s another situation in which efforts going one way will be completely cancelled out by efforts going the other way.
In many conversations around sustainability, the issue of mass production was the huge elephant in the room.
One of the things we need to look at is alternative economic models, like rental and up cycling, but we've got to be realistic: they will never produce the same kind of profit as 20 million T shirts. Someone, somewhere is going to have to say ‘Very basic things are going to have to change, like the amount of profit we return to shareholders or the number of staff we can employ.”
Someone is going to have to ask, what is fashion for, in a climate emergency?
D: 20 million T shirts - a third of those go straight to landfill anyway, the next third end up in landfill because they've been worn once, and the next third if we're lucky stay in peoples’ wardrobes and are worn more than 10, 20, 30, 40 times.
B: Here, we come to education - of the consumer, which is such a denigrating term. People often say, consumers have to have free choice, but the trouble with that rationale is that the consumer is swamped with information, telling them to buy, which is funded by the exact organisations, we are talking about.
Whilst the alternative narrative coming to meet it - that garment workers are starving, that fashion degrades the environment, it’s side lined, it can’t compete. Fashion consumers are not making educated choices. The result is that staggering figure where the richest 10% of the world's population creates almost half of the carbon emissions (see here).
Why do we need so much? It’s because we've been told that we have to have so much. And that’s another way that fashion has to change: in the way it portrays itself in traditional fashion media. Magazines or media that still write about fashion only in terms of clothing are very out of touch. There needs to be much more focus on human rights and on relationships with nature, on innovation and regeneration, on alternatives to an industrialised fashion system. Many magazines feel like they are from another world, out of time and out of place.
It’s tragic, when you consider that it’s those in the global South who have done least to cause the climate emergency who are directly enduring it right now.
D: Places like Bangladesh are actively moving people away from the coastline because they are already so strongly impacted and they know it's only going to get worse, so they are actively moving people inland.
B: Change is coming, more than 80% of Bangladesh’s export earnings come from the garment industry. If they won’t have the land on which to produce the clothing, that's going to have an impact.
The question is then, can we prepare for it adequately? Can we mitigate the emergency for our children and our children’s children? And can we do it in a way that’s just and fair to communities in the global South, whose industries and economies are so profoundly dependent on our own. Can we adapt? Adaptation, resilience, regeneration - these are the three key terms now.
D: Plus the whole marketing wheel needs to start asking us to behave and to act in different ways. Because we're buying ourselves to what? what? extinction?
Bel: We are shopping our way over a cliff. But there has to be hope and this is an aspect of the environmental movement that's I really value: a visioning now of what the future could look like. No one has all the answers because we're now stepping into uncharted territory but there needs to be space for idealism, and visioning and speculative. We have to have something good to aim towards.
D: The big brands have futurists, so do we need to be futurists?
B: Yes. Brands use futurists to map out potential consumer demand. We need a different kind of futurist, and people are stepping into this space. We need good things to show what can come out of change, that other ways of living on this planet could be better, more equitable, it's more in harmony with nature, where we're not constantly being driven to aspire to things that are simply illusion.
D: How would you describe yourself now? How would you describe what you do?
B: The easiest word would be activist, but that word has taken so many forms. It can mean that you are researching constantly or having conversations. I’ve opened a climate centre in my local borough, but I don’t really sit within any traditional category, and I think that's how we will need to be in service to the planet. And I give street speeches, which can be terrifying, but I hope they’re useful.
D: The greater fear would not be speaking.
B: Every time I give a street speech I’m thinking, how quickly can I get to the core of the matter in a way that moves some of this audience further into action? Can I move them to more direct involvement with what we need to do?
D: Did you join Extinction Rebellion (XR) right from the very beginning?
B: I was there from the first action onwards, when they closed the bridges. I talk about this a lot, XR was revelatory for me, in that, with all the fear and panic I had about the climate emergency, I finally found a space in which I was not the only one saying ‘this is terrible’.
NVDA (non-violent direct action) feels proportionate to the emergency we all face. The beautiful thing about today’s climate and social justice activism is the variety of people there. On the bridges in 2018, for example, there were parents there, there were small kids there, there were scientists there, but there were also musicians, and there were poets, and there were writers. It was an alternative cosmos of people all hoping for a better world and it felt very very beautiful.
I don’t always agree with everything Extinction Rebellion does and I won't get arrested because I don't want to freak my daughter out. But, on the other hand, no movement has managed to highlight the agenda like XR has. When the XR scientists went into the Science Museum that was such a fantastic action, it was beautiful and it melded together the science with the children it was perfect.
I still have enormous faith in XR and other protest movements to tell the other story we have to tell. The movement is asking for justice for our environment, is asking for the futures for children, it is asking for equity.
D: You mentioned earlier in the conversation, the extra powers that the government are giving the police to stop us from having a voice and taking to the streets, if that bill passes how are we going to be able to get around all of that?
B: It is a really dangerous precedent and it's the beginning of a slide into a more repressive regime.
D: You founded Fashion In Schools which is a fantastic
B: Fashion In Schools was designed to confront students with the realities of the fashion industry, at a time when they start heading into this whole world of ‘I wanna wear what she's wearing’.
My starting point tends to be a picture of me when, at Metro, I would dress up once a week and wear something trendy and say ‘Oh look, florals are back.’ It was an interesting exercise for me, because I used to spend an hour in makeup, an hour with hair and had hundreds and hundreds of pictures taken of me to get one or two “good” shots, according to traditional notions of what it means to look good. And even after all of that, the photographer would retouch the image, so basically it was a constructed image. I use that image to get students thinking about the reality - or not - of the fashion image, and what all that work, all those photographers and models and make-up artists, are trying to do: which is really about how the industry persuades people to buy, and creates these worlds that people want to enter.
With Fashion in Schools, the aim is to start talking about workers rights and environmental pollution and to make the students question their own choices, make them ask questions about where their clothing comes from.
D: Also very dear to your heart is Animal Rights.
B: I’ve always loved animals. If I see a dog walking down the street, suddenly there’s this point of light and love and warmth and vibrancy in the world. So when I see what we do to animals, it’s unbelievable. Most of the time, we objectify them utterly and that enables us to cause them immense suffering. It’s time to redress a terrible error, a terrible imbalance.
Six years ago, I came across the Yulin dog meat festival - and I couldn't rationalise what they did to the dogs before they ate them; that people could regard these wonderful, cheeky, affectionate animals as things to be brutalised and consumed.
Yulin almost inevitably led me to industrial farming, arguably the greatest site of animal cruelty of all time- over and above hunting, and experimentation, and entertainment, although they are all faces of the same inequity. The animals we eat are really gentle creatures. In film footage, I’ve seen dogs and pigs being dragged to slaughter and they don't fight back because it's not within their vocabulary to be aggressive. The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari has said that industrial farming is the greatest crime of humanity. I think that’s true.
I volunteer for XR’s sister movement Animal Rebellion, which highlights the impact of animal agriculture on climate. And they’re huge: 18% and rising of greenhouse gas emissions, and that's without considering the effects of deforestation, water pollution and soil degradation. At the same time, animal agriculture occupies 76% of global agriculture land while only providing 18 percent of our calories. What a stupid way to use the planet.
And what creates almost as much pain as the way we treat animals is the way people - good people - work so hard to ignore it. The cultural resistance against giving up meat is powerful. I give school talks on animal rights and, on a recent zoom call with a bunch of 17 year olds, they started throwing up questions like ‘aren’t we predators and aren’t they prey?’ ‘aren’t we biologically pre-determined to eat animals?’. Neither state is true but both are still batted around like they’re gospel.
We are so ashamed of the way we treat animals that we can't confront it. A lot of anti-vegan responses I get are rooted in deep guilt, which in turn enables terrible suffering to continue unabated. People don't want to be seen as cruel, but if you're paying an industrial farm to keep and rear and slaughter young animals for food, it is cruel. Someone once said to me - only partly joking - that they’d give up flying before they gave up cheese.
I thought of the reality of the dairy industry - all those calves torn from their mothers at a few hours old, the grieving of the mothers, the culling of those calves - and I thought: “How can that be?” When you’ve watched film footage of an unweaned calf being kicked in the head because he couldn’t walk properly, it breaks your heart a thousand times over. Eating cheese isn’t an option.
Because of these incredibly emotive aspects of animal agriculture - the intensity and the cruelty - talking about animals is more challenging than talking about the climate. It’s really challenged my ideas of goodness and equity. We talk about systemic change; one of the clearest signs of our ability to change is our willingness to confront traditions that no longer work for us or the planet.
We talk about how much we love nature. Animals - all those 80 billion land animals killed for food every year - are part of nature and, at the moment, we won’t even stand up for them, we won’t make a simple lifestyle change for them. Our wholesale exploitation of the natural world, whether other peoples, other species or nature itself, is what’s taken us into this emergency. I spent a lot of time at the beginning of the journey in animal rights in tears; I’m still working out how to address this catastrophe, the animal emergency.