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Lily Cole on her passion for the environment, cutting ties with unethical brands and the controversy around population growth

The British model wants to end traditional diamond mining

Sharnaz Shahid
Sharnaz ShahidDeputy Online Editor
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Runway model, actress and author, there's no denying that Lily Cole has many strings to her bow. But in recent years, the model-turned-activist has been vocal about her uninterrupted passion for the environment, fighting the climate crisis and supporting various charity initiatives.

READ: Lily Cole reveals the 5 books her daughter must read

The 34-year-old, who has graced the covers of British, Italian and French Vogue, began her career as a teenager by modelling for brands such as Versace, Alexander McQueen and Chanel. She also made her acting debut in the 2007 hit St Trinian's before going on to film The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Moth Diaries.

WATCH: Lily Cole dazzles in new photoshoot with Skydiamond

Posing for photography icon Rankin for HELLO!'s Earth Day digital cover, Lily speaks about cutting ties with unethical brands, her thoughts on population growth, and the royal family's narrative on the environment.

The Cambridge graduate, who shares six-year-old daughter Wylde with boyfriend Kwame Ferreira, has also teamed up with Skydiamond, the world's first and only conflict-free diamonds made entirely from renewable energy.

earth day cover

How did this partnership with Skydiamond come about?

"I actually met Dale [Dale Vince, green-tech pioneer and founder of sustainable energy provider Ecotricity] many years ago. Vivienne Westwood randomly introduced us. I have a lot of respect for her, and she has a lot of respect for him. I was aware of his work with Ecotricity and I reached out to interview him for my book, Who Cares Wins, and in the process of doing that I found out about this new project he was working on with Skydiamond, and it just sort of blew my mind. I was like, 'Wow, that's so weird and cool.'"

MORE: 7 simple sustainable swaps to make for an eco-friendly home

RELATED: 7 ways to make your wardrobe more sustainable

Do you think this could be the future for jewellery brands?

"One hundred per cent, yes. There's growing awareness of the environmental impact of all types of mining. Diamonds are similar to many other things that we have mined, they have a huge environmental impact and can have a huge negative social impact depending on how the mine is managed and where is it.

"We've all heard horror stories about what happens in some of the diamond mining trade. Finding an alternative – like if people just stop wearing jewellery and diamonds, but we're not in that world – we can try to find better ways to source them. I think there's been a big movement towards lab-grown diamonds for these reasons, because of the kind of ethical and environmental concerns. For me, this Skydiamond project takes that to a next level because it's not only a better alternative, it's actually potentially solving a problem at the same time."

lily cole rankin

You've been incredibly open about your decision to stop modelling for unethical jewellery brands. What gave you the motivation to quit? Was it a difficult decision to make at the time?

"I think the one you're referring to was when I was a teenager. I wrote about it in my book, Who Cares Wins, because it was my entry into looking at supply chains and trying to understand the real significant impact that the products that we buy, use, sell and model for have.

"I had been caught up in a controversy around diamond mining in Botswana. Because I think I'm just quite a curious person, I was trying to understand it better before I could make a decision or say anything publicly in response to this situation. I ended up travelling to Botswana for a few weeks with an anthropologist and tried to investigate on the ground, which was really eye-opening. An outcome of that was that I set up a fair trade initiative trying to sell jewellery made by the Kalahari bush women in Botswana in London as a kind of fair trade initiative that would put money back into the local communities.

MORE: Lily Cole launches cruelty-free make up range for The Body Shop

"It opened my eyes to both the negative consequences of some of the ways that supply chains can impact communities - in this case, it was the indigenous communities in Botswana who, these groups were arguing, had been relocated to facilitate diamond mining.

"But also to the positives, that if you set up trading initiatives in a mindful way, that global trading can be really empowering to different communities around the world. It was a really eye-opening experience for me. It put me on a path of trying to look for more fair trade-type initiatives that I could support and work with."

It goes without saying that you're passionate about the environment, but where did that interest first come from?

"It came when I was a teenager and I was in the position of modelling and was just trying to understand better the different social and environmental issues in the world. I was being asked to work with different charities so I went on a bit of a journey trying to understand different issues so I could work out where I felt it was worth putting most of my energy really, like, what was the priority?

lily cole skydiamond makeup

"Environmental issues came to the forefront, both because it felt so fundamental – if we don't have a healthy environment, every other issue that we might care about, whether it's human rights, or animal rights, or poverty, all of those issues will be made worse with a compromised environment. It was also just kind of crazy. It was like, 'Hold on, our scientists are telling us that we're potentially destroying our only home, how is this not a bigger point of conversation, and a point of concern?'

"I'm happy to see it has become this. I think in recent years there's been a much bigger mainstream movement towards environmental concern. There's been a real kind of intersectionality between understanding how the environment is not a separate thing, it's very deeply connected to human issues and animal welfare issues, that all of our issues are very interconnected. And I think that's a much more holistic and healthy way of thinking about the challenges that we face."

A lot of people don't believe in having more than one or two children for the environment. What do you make of this viewpoint?

"It's an interesting question. And again, I sort of looked into this topic quite a lot in the book, and it's really nuanced. Fundamentally, I think it's about choice. There is a really compelling argument that we need to manage population growth in order to have less of an impact on the earth, less of a need for food, a need for material resources.

lily cole skydiamond

"I don't think this is the kind of conversation we should shy away from having because it will make a big difference whether we have ten billion people or 12 billion people on the planet in a century's time. But actually, interestingly it's all about women's empowerment.

"When women are empowered and communities are given access to education, access to sex education, access to contraception, birth rates usually stabilise and in many wealthier countries, the birth rate is stable or is going down. So it's very much coupled to gender equality and women's empowerment which I think is really interesting.

"That being said, it's really important that you don't talk about population growth without also talking about consumption growth because they're not neatly separated. Some of the wealthiest countries in the world have a footprint, a carbon footprint, a thousand times higher than some. The statistics vary but it's between 400 and 1,500 times difference, so a huge difference between the footprint of somebody in one of the poorest countries in the world and one of the wealthiest areas in the world.

"And so, it's not simply about how many children we're having, it's also about the lifestyle that we are expecting those children and ourselves to have.

lily cole rankin bts

"I'm really encouraging of being mindful of being open to the population growth conversation, as long as it is caveated with the consumption growth conversation. And fundamentally, I think it's all about choice. I think that if you give women access, and men, but predominantly women, access to sex education and contraception, they often choose to have two children or less.

"The fundamental thing is giving people that choice and not being coercive. And so I think that means that if women in our society want to have four children, for every woman who wants to have four children, there's usually a woman who wants to have no children, and so it sort of levels out.

"I'm not one to say that people shouldn't have more than two children. I just think we should focus on choice and making sure that everybody around the world has access to choice and also focus on consumption growth and what actually is a sustainable lifestyle."

Royals like Prince William and Princess Eugenie are so passionate about the environment, with William launching the Earthshot Prize last year. How important do you think it is for the royal family to lead the charge in environmental issues?

"I think that it's important that everybody is of equal value in terms of participation and we need people from all walks of life to care about this because it's such a fundamental issue. So I don't have a sense of hierarchy of who needs to lead or who needs to care.

"That being said, I organised an indigenous listening session in COP26 in Glasgow with different indigenous leaders speaking from around the world. And we did invite Prince Charles, and he came. One of the reasons that we invited him is because he's so publicly outspoken about environmental issues and we thought he'd be sympathetic and interested.

lily cole diamond mouth

"But also symbolically, the royal family historically has been very connected with colonialism and systems that decimate indigenous communities around the world. I'm not saying the people who are in the royal family today, but historically speaking.

"We're in such a crisis right now. We really need everybody to come together and try and collaborate and work together to find solutions. It felt amazing, this moment of reconciliation, to have the indigenous leaders meeting and speaking with Prince Charles and him listening to them. Them sharing what can we learn from their communities that only 100 years ago we, I say we as in the West, were treating with such a lack of respect.

"Now, I think the tables have turned and actually we realise we've got so much to learn from indigenous communities and that we actually, in a way, need their help to help guide us into a more sustainable future."

What easy changes can people make to their day-to-day lives to be more environmentally friendly?

"For me, the main thing you can do is look at money, look at where your money's going. That might be who you bank with, because a lot of banks are funding the climate crisis, funding the arms trade, and some banks aren't. Going with a more responsible bank, where you're investing your money and pensions, to then how you're spending your money day-to-day. So the food you buy, the clothes you buy, how much you buy, how much you waste.

"Right now, money is a sort of language that is running our whole economy, it's running so much of our global situation, our political situation.

lily cole rankin final

"Obviously, having a political voice is really important, so not being afraid to have these conversations to communicate about it with other people. The third thing I'd say probably is mindset. Everybody has different ways of working on their mindset, whether it's meditation or exercise. But I think that a healthy mindset also enables us to have a healthier relationship with our choices and feel more empowered to make better choices."

Who do you most admire who's trying to make a difference?

"I think the youth activists. I think that the youth activist movement has given me, and I think obviously so many other people, so much inspiration because they just don't seem to tolerate rubbish. There seems to be a lot more listening to science, fact-checking, and reality-checking. There's a kind of freshness to that perspective and a courage in that movement that has been really inspiring to see."

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