The power of words: Interview with fashion activist Bel Jacobs

Sophie Billington talks to the ex-fashion editor of the Metro, Bel Jacobs about her plans to shake up the world as we know it with direct action and the power of the written word.

Bel Jacobs is a journalist with an inspiring story. She is the founding editor of two platforms that publish articles with a sustainable angle, beljacobs.com and How Now Magazine.

When did you decide to create beljacobs.com and why?

I’d been fashion editor for Metro newspaper since 1999 and had been battling a simmering unease about the scale and quality of new products coming through my desk and about an industry that seemed overly focused on superficial achievement.

One of the reasons I love fashion is craft and creativity and certainly in the early 2000s this was becoming increasingly rare; at the same time, there was a growing interest in sustainability, in Fairtrade and in organic cotton. Then Rana Plaza fell in 2013, and I remember very viscerally the images that came out of that, with some of the labels belonging to brands that I was having to write about on a daily basis.

Enough was enough. I left the job soon after and started beljacobs.com to focus on the sustainable alternatives to an industry I’d fallen in love with.

What do you enjoy about managing this platform?

I love the freedom of writing about people, brands and initiatives that I think really have something to contribute to the world.

And, as understanding of the climate crisis really hits home, there are more and more projects designing with resilience, care and the future in mind.

Did writing about fashion with an ethical eye inspire you as a fashion writer?

It gave a renewed energy and sense of joy to my work. By the time I left Metro, I was truly bored of the cyclical nature of seasons and of trends. Surf, safari, florals, black, tailored denim: the terminology just went round and round and became increasingly meaningless.

The arts and media section of beljacobs.com seems to be themed around strong women and revolution. How do you see the relationship between culture and politics – in your eyes is it perhaps a call to action?

I’m one of the co-ordinators of the Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action team and we talk a lot about how culture - in our case, fashion - should be a reflection and an expression of our times. But the fashion industry has been hijacked by big business and once profit enters the equation, all deeper qualities including moral judgement, can become skewed.

So at the moment the fashion industry is NOT a reflection of the climate and ecological crisis or an expression of our fears and hopes - which means, in my view, that it is no longer really culture. It’s just business.

Over the past two decades, I’ve now watched the sustainability movement grow, with an ever-increasing sense of urgency, and really at the beginning, that movement was led by women, both in the West and in the Global South.

I would give talks about sustainability in fashion and inevitably the audience was mainly female; if there was a male in the room, we’d thank him. We all have theories about this: that women are more empathetic to other peoples and other species; they’re better able to see the bigger picture; that constructed masculine identity made it difficult for men to show pity or compassion. I’d really love to know. Thankfully, I’d say XR is really about 50/50.

We need to talk more about this; because, in emergency scenarios, women are disproportionately affected - ie they are raped, killed or abandoned - by extreme events such as war or climate. The stats are shocking: 80 per cent of all climate refugees are women; women grow 70 per cent of Africa’s food; 80 per cent of garment workers are women.

There is also evidence that women, given the power, actually improve conditions:

“When women own the land they till, families tend to be better fed, better educated and healthier, research suggests. Daughters tend to marry at an older age and wives tend to suffer less incidents of domestic violence. Babies are born with higher birth weights. Food security and economic development increase.”

Women need far more attention.

You’ve also started How Now Magazine. When/how did this come about and how has the platform been received?

The thing is, if you hear out about issues of waste or animal exploitation or pollution or carbon emissions in fashion, you hear about the same issues in other areas. And I wanted to write about the pioneering efforts in those areas too. I’d say, when I manage to work on the site, that it gives me even greater joy than beljacobs.com.

image: bel jacobs fashion action extinction rebellion boycott london rebellion 2019
Bel rallying the crowd as a co-ordinator of the Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action arm at a protest in autumn 2019.

On the How Now Mag website it says ‘Don't underestimate the power of your voice as an ordinary citizen’. Do you think that a lot of people do this and is this what’s holding us back or is it something else?

I think that, if people truly understood the extent of the emergency, they would do more. But they don’t, because it’s a hard thing to get your head around, particularly when so much of the world seems to be jogging along as normal.

Many of the messages we get - from politics, from advertising and from media - is that everything is fine and progress is always economic; we just need to re-jig things a bit. But that’s not true and I genuinely think people can have a far greater say in whether this planet has a future than they know.

I’m talking about active, challenging engagement with communities and the democratic system; I’m talking about using our powerful social media system for good rather than self-aggrandisement and market, and I’m talking about the mass mobilisation of non-violent direct action civil disobedience.

Are we seeing a change for the better in children and young people in your opinion?

In some cases, yes. In other cases, no. But the engaged, informed young person - as we see in XR Youth - is a powerful force for good.

I went on a school strike, looked around and thought, I need to step back from this and play a much more supportive role than I’ve been used to because this is their fight now.

I do school talks on animal rights and veganism and both the depth of both ignorance (most kids genuinely don’t know how we get our food) and the potential for compassionate action (once they know, they often want to help) is staggering. But they’re still being taught that they don’t have the right to speak up and so what I often say to them, you CAN shape the world you want.  

What do you enjoy doing with your time outside of writing?

I walk the dog and spend time with my daughter. I research a lot. Because what we need to get to grips with is so vast and complex, and developments are happening so quickly, I always feel like a beginner.

And, from being quite an urban person, I am actively cultivating my bonds with nature: by really focusing on the skies, the plants around me, by seeking out time wherever possible in the British countryside. A big part of me would like to go on retreat somewhere beautiful - but that’s not possible at the moment.

How do you feel about the vegan issue – it seems like everyone has a different perspective on it! Are you vegan yourself?

Yes, I am vegan and with that question, you’ve touched on the heart of the matter because I consider myself first and foremost a speaker on behalf of animals. One of the richest parts of my world right now are the talks I give in schools about industrial farming and veganism.

I’m one of those people, if an animal walks into a room, the world lights up for me because suddenly there is this perfect being in it and I wouldn’t dream of hurting it. I’ve been vegan for three years, vegetarian for five, and the reason it’s taken me so long to get here is that I, like many people, had no idea of the extent of suffering that takes place in the industrial farming system and beyond.

I credit social media for this awakening. I’ve now seen the violence and abuse that takes place in slaughterhouses, the dog meat markets, the Chinese wildlife markets, the Chinese leather industry, the animal entertainment industry including elephant rides, and British and European factory farms - and I’ll say it now, hell is on earth and it exists right now for billions of animals around the world. And most of these are gentle, loving, intelligent, playful creatures who want only peace and companionship.

We are decimating wildlife populations and abusing domestic animals. It’s shameful.

I used to eat tons of cheese and dairy and cakes etc. but I gave up dairy when I discovered that the industry repeatedly impregnates female cattle and takes those babies away within a day either to be fattened as veal, shot or shipped overseas so that we can take their milk.

A friend of mine who lived on a dairy farm once told me that the sound of bewildered mothers calling for their babies almost drove her mad. And when that dairy cow can no longer produce milk or calves because their bodies are spent, they are then slaughtered at the age of between 5 and 7. Left to lead a full life, cows would live till 25 so these are very young animals by the time we’ve finished with them, as are most of the animals we consume (pigs, 4 to 6 months old when they’re eaten, chickens about 12 weeks).

So now, when I see aisles of milk, cheese and meat, I feel sick with grief.

Obviously, there is the environmental argument - animal agriculture produces between 14.5 and 51 per cent of emissions, depending on whether you take into account the impact of deforestation required to graze the animals and grow feed for them. And that is important to highlight: because if we really care about the planet, we should all be eating less meat and dairy.

It’s no accident that most climate scientists are vegetarian and/or vegan. And there is the deeper social argument, harking back decades, that if we feel free to exploit animals - simply because we can - then we have confirmed a hierarchy in which we feel free to exploit any being that we regard as somehow less important than us: like indigenous peoples and women.

But for me, it is always the animals. A lovely woman said to me the other day, “Oh, I’d love to be vegan but I can’t give up cheese.” And I thought, ‘you obviously haven’t seen footage of the unweaned dairy calf being punched repeatedly in the head because she hadn’t learnt to walk properly yet, and didn’t know how to get to where she was being forced to go - which was probably slaughter. All while her mum keeps calling for her.’ That is the dairy industry.  How fucking dare we?

What are your plans for the future – do you have any new projects coming up?

Lots. I’m working more and more with Animal Rebellion and am looking forward to my first protest on March 7th, in front of the UK’s biggest milk supplier Arla. I am launching a multi-media project - including artistic collaborations, t-shirts (on recycled cotton) and a magazine - focusing on raising funds for small animal charities.

Finally, I am writing up a Fashion in Schools project so that I can reach young people with talks about the fashion industry before they enter into the whole system of marketing and promotion that is driving our destructive consumption habits. I’ve received funding for this: just trying to find time. I really do need help so if you can think of anyone, I’d be grateful.

We would like to thank Bel for taking the time to talk us. Hear her speak about the state of the fashion industry in our podcast.

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