vivienne westwood and greenpeace talk staying angry and finding hope
John Sauven, executive director of Greenpeace UK, took a starring turn in Vivienne Westwood’s recent climate protest catwalk spectacular. We got the two in conversation to hash out our impending ecological apocalypse.
At London Fashion Week in February, Vivienne Westwood used her autumn/winter 19 show to offer the brand’s most explicit warning on the environment yet. Less a fashion show in the traditional sense and more a sort of rotating Speaker’s Corner — in which various activists and campaigners took to the runway — there were calls for wealth redistribution, asides on Brexit, and messages of sustainability delivered by her in-house activist group Intellectuals Unite.
At the centre of the show was a brief but memorable appearance by the executive director of Greenpeace UK, John Sauven. Making the link between powerful conglomerates and the destruction of the planet, it served to reiterate the feeling that this was less a presentation of clothes, and more a presentation of ideas: of politics, of heretics and of the activist organisations Vivienne chooses to through her weight behind. The takeaway was simple: wake up, woke up, and do something — anything — before it’s too late.
What do you make of the young people behind School Strike for Climate?
John Sauven: For me, this is one of the best things that’s happened to the climate movement for a long time. They are the generation that will be most affected by climate change, a generation whose voice hasn’t been heard until now, but they’re also a generation that is extraordinarily eloquent. I’ve been amazed listening to Greta Thunberg’s TED Talks and the speeches she’s given. There’s this thing she says: “You say you love me, how can you love me if you leave me no future?” It’s a direct statement, something that an adult can’t say to another adult, yet she can say it, and that’s immensely powerful.
Vivienne Westwood: I’ve written Greta a letter, and I wanted to say to her: “Know your enemy.” You have to know your enemy and you have to know what you have to do. So I’ve listed the things that can be done, things that are easy to do, like how we get to have a new economy. It’s the only way that we can save ourselves. Because unless we start to implement things that will change the whole ethos, and give us a fair distribution of wealth, we’re never going to solve the problem.
John: The thing about the current economic system is that if you take something like the value of the Amazon rainforest, which Vivienne and I have been very involved in trying to protect. If you look at the value of the Amazon and all the services it provides for us, in terms of rainfall, of being a massive store of carbon, of biodiversity, of the Amazon river containing more freshwater than anywhere else on the planet; nature does this for nothing! The problem with how economists think about this is that while the Amazon rainforest is providing millions of dollars worth of services free of charge, it’s actually valued at zero. So only when you clear the rainforest and you put cattle on it, or grow a soya plantation, does it have an exchange value. That’s the extraordinary thing about our economic system is that it gives a value to unbelievable levels of destruction.
You see it in fast fashion. I always find this statistic extraordinary: there’s one truckload of fast fashion that goes into a landfill or incinerator every second. We’re buying more stuff and wearing it less. And everything about sustainability is the reverse of that – we should buy less stuff and wear it more often! I think Vivienne is right, when you look back at a previous generation, they would have bought a winter coat, that winter coat would have been worn for maybe a decade. Now it’s all disposable. And this is crazy because when you look at the production of that stuff, it’s coming from petrochemicals, synthetic materials that are coming out of the oil industry, or it’s made from cotton and coming out of India where you’re just drowning the fields in pesticides. You’re killing the workers and you’re killing the biodiversity. That, to me, is the insanity of the system.
Vivienne: I want to just say one thing which is that people have a proper choice: buy less, choose well, make it last, that kind of idea. I’ve actually changed that slogan to Own Less, Wear Less. The world is run on cheap labour. It’s absolutely terrible. But the fashion industry is trying to regulate itself. It is trying to reduce its output.
“I think it’s absolutely wonderful and I’m very impressed. I don’t watch television, I’ve never watched any of this but I’ve seen photographs and the slogans they’ve got, they really know what’s going on. They’ve really got it sorted. That’s one thing that I’m sure about” Vivienne Westwood
John, how did you come to be involved in Vivienne’s most recent show?
John: Being able to talk about climate change was the thing that was really important. And I think also to do it with that audience and those people. Rose McGowan and others had a really big impact and we saw that from the coverage, the discussion that ensued after that. I think what’s important — and Vivienne is very good at this — is that we need to get this message out everywhere we can and to every type of audience, and try and get people thinking about these of issues. Try to have this cascade effect. It’s beginning to happen. It’s beginning to permeate the way people are thinking about these issues which is really good.
Do the young people of the movement give you hope?
John: This is one of the most hopeful things that I’ve seen and I think it’s looking at the exponential growth of this. Greta sat alone outside the parliament in Sweden and for a long time nobody took any notice. Then people started talking, and you began reading about her, and on the 15th of March there were 1.5 million school children on strike around the world. That is amazing, and it’s even more amazing when you think about who Greta is. Greta is that shy girl sitting at the back of the classroom, she’s not a leader, she doesn’t see herself in that way. She sees herself as a very shy, quiet girl who doesn’t usually say very much. And you think, wow, that’s immense power, and it gives you immense hope. You need all these different types of people to create change. The people that shout the loudest, they maybe aren’t the people you’re going to see coming forward in the next generation. They’re going to be much more thoughtful and much more aware of their presence and the impact they’re having. And maybe engaging in a different kind of way, that people are going to find attractive and going to want to support.
The other thing with climate change is that it’s one of those slowburn issues, and that’s always a problem for humans. Humans find it very difficult to deal with slowburn issues, they respond to catastrophes, but this is something that is creeping up on us, and creeping up on us quite quickly. But it’s the next generation that will face the full impact and consequence of climate change. It’s good that they’re beginning to wake up and realise this now, what their parents are going to leave them. Now they’re going to say, this is no good, you’ve got to act now to do something about it, to stop this being our future. That is the most powerful thing, because they can say it in a way that is very compelling and very difficult to deny. That gives me huge hope. I’ve witnessed both school strikes, because I find it incredibly empowering for so many young people to be marching, demanding action on climate change.
Vivienne: This has come absolutely at the right time. I’m not going to have to convince people, because they’re already convincing them. Look, they’re nearly there, and if they start to say it themselves, then we’ve got a strategy and a formula to actually do something. I think it’s absolutely wonderful and I’m very impressed. I don’t watch television, I’ve never watched any of this but I’ve seen photographs and the slogans they’ve got, they really know what’s going on. They’ve really got it sorted. That’s something I’m sure about.
When I did my fashion show, I wanted to give my message, but I only gave the first half of it because it was too much to actually get through to people that it’s rot dollar that is killing them, and is the cause of the whole thing. If we had a different economic system we would have a totally different world. By the next fashion show, people will be even more ready for it, and if you guys can help me then we have a far better chance of tipping into a situation where people understand the problem and the solution, which they ignore at the moment. If we don’t do it this year, we’re not going to do it tomorrow. We have to do it now. It has to start to happen this year. As soon as it starts, then it will go on, you see.
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Mitchell Sams