Can the world of fashion, activism and sustainability co-exist within the same society? Meet former Metro fashion editor-turned-animal rights-and-climate change campaigner, Bel Jacobs who strives to make it happen.
The acclaimed writer joined Metro newspaper at its start in 1999: “I kinda fell into fashion really, I joined Metro newspaper quite close to the beginning and they actually made me shopping editor,” she told us.
“I had to write about everything that was to do with consumption, as the newspaper got bigger, they realised that they can split my page, instead of implementing tech on my page they could have a separate page for tech. However, it became very obvious as time went on that my interest was fashion. So, even though I hadn’t studied fashion, I loved everything about it. It was so fun and exciting and beautiful! It had such amazing people in it, when I was given a page of my own in Metro, it was quite obvious that I was going to be editing that.”
Initially, Bel loved the creativity and the expressionistic ways of fashion, but there was a pivotal moment in her career when she realised that her beliefs no longer aligned with her career.
“I joined Metro in 1999, and it still felt very innocent, fashion felt very, very innocent. During my 13 years there, it started to feel much less innocent and much more aggressive, and I think I was pretty uncomfortable and as time went on, I was getting more and more uncomfortable with different aspects of the fashion world.”
It is inevitable that all fashion media will share what should and should not be the trend of seasonal fashion, hoping that dedicated readers will eagerly abide to updating their wardrobe or adopting a new fashion persona for the upcoming season.
This is one of the moments when Bel felt like her job was becoming overwhelmingly repetitive: “In my 13 years [at Metro], it went from not many things to cover, you know, quite a controlled amount of fashion stories to write. However, by the time I left, there were so many products! It was really, really overwhelming”.“You know when you get so much of something you start to question its necessity and you think ‘why is there so much of everything?’ and it’s not because people need more clothing. I also got very bored of writing trending pieces, if you’re in a particular position for long enough, you start to write the words ‘florals are back in’ or ‘safari is back’ or ‘tailoring is back’. And you start to wonder ‘why is it back if there’s no freshness to it?’ It’s just this constant artificial cycle of production.”
With the rise of overproduction in the fashion industry and their heavy involvement in fast fashion and animal cruelty, it started to make Bel think about the significance of these familiar never-ending fashion trends.
“PRs would phone me excitedly and go ‘Oh my gosh you featured the product and loads of sales took place, thank you so much!’, and then you go ‘great’ and you just think everyone bought this product, but what is it really for?”.
The popularity and validity of consumption didn’t particularly satisfy Bel as it all felt quite meaningless.
From 1999 to the early 2010s, there were different types of fashion styles that were trending throughout the years and when you add social media into the mix, the evolvement of fashion began changing faster than usual.
“It was such an interesting time to be a fashion editor because we really went into that massive peak coming out of the 90s into the 2000s the peak of consumption, which I did feel really greedy by the time I left.”
The Rana Plaza collapse in 2013 caused Jacobs to revaluate her role in fashion and gave her the final push to leave Metro.
“I left because of Rana Plaza and that was one of the biggest thing in the flow of things”, she continued, “if you remotely cared about people, you couldn’t look away from these images and start asking difficult questions, so I would say that was the big turning point on why I left.”
What amplified Jacobs’ animal rights activism was when she was abroad in Cuba and witnessed something horrific. “Dogs were in very pitiful situations and I started to get involved in dog charities, when I came back to Britain that opened another can of worms, which is the way not in just how dogs are treated but the way how animals are being treated in industrial agriculture and the way how animals are being eliminated through hunting and the way they’re used in experimentation.
“And then suddenly in a way, it was an incredibly painful entry into this horrific world, and it really did make me question humanity, like ‘how could humans let this happen? How could they perpetuate this? How could they value their own needs so much more over the suffering of another creature?!'”The increase of animal adoption had skyrocketed during the first lockdown, with 3.2 million households in the UK adopting pets. Unfortunately, as soon as lockdown restrictions were lifted many people returned their pets, most of which were dogs. “It’s still happening now! Dogs being returned, puppies being left on the streets – it’s madness,” Bel exclaims.
“As we are the dominant species it’s not just our role to use and exploit and chuck away, we really have a role to take care. You know if you’re the dominant species, you protect and nurture. We’re not doing that at the moment, and it really infuriates me,” she says passionately.
The response that society has towards animal cruelty, climate change and sustainability, should make you wonder, what our lives would be like in the future? Bel thinks that “within the next five years to ten years people are going to be asking some serious questions and whether you can base a civilised society on this degree of suffering and loss.”
Swiftly after leaving Metro, Jacobs created beljacobs.com allowing her full autonomy over the work she produces and contributes to: “I just came out of Metro, and I really wanted to create a platform for all the great sustainable initiatives that were happening in fashion.
“It’s changing now though if you run your own website the culture of the website changes. In the beginning it was like I have to tell people about all these ethical labels and then you start to get more and more into human rights. You know, all the human rights issues and then it became sort of about labour and that kind of thing.”
Fashion and social media are quickly evolving together, and with the help of influential celebrities it causes fast fashion to be produced at an alarming rate. “Fashion culture can be really challenging; the entire system makes people in rich countries feel they deserve more clothes at the expense of people in poor countries.”
The overproduction of fashion affects many creators: “I’m not alone in this shift, every website and if you create a website of your own it will evolve, and things are changing so much and so fast now because of the climate.”Bel Jacobs is also the founder of HowNow magazine, which is about fashion sustainability and environmentalism: “HowNow came about because I write about fashion, I write about human rights in fashion, human rights is an issue through every industry and every intervention.”
The sleek website is currently under reconstruction and redirecting its focus onto the wellbeing of animals: “HowNow is actually in the process of being transformed into something else, because the whole issues of animals is becoming so prevalent for me. So, I think I’m going to switch HowNow to focusing on how we change the way we perceive animals,” Bel tells us.
Alongside her journalistic achievements, Jacobs has combined her love for fashion and the environment as she was the coordinator of Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action, she has been a part of numerous Extinction Rebellion protests.
In 2019, Jacobs organised the Funeral March during London Fashion Week, its purpose was to spread awareness of the toxicity that the fashion industry is responsible for and how the fashion industry detrimentally impacts the environment.
“I’ve never organised a march before! And it was the time when Extinction Rebellion was holding quite a few funeral marches, it was a very impactful way to make a point about everything we’re losing.”
Bel Jacobs recounts the day of the march: “I remember in the morning, having this absolute fear of thinking I was going to turn up there to Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action with only five of us and it wasn’t like that at all!
“Everyone was onboard and a lot of the fashion crowd came up really dressed up in a fashionista way, but essentially they were all there to support. I think that was the first time I realised that we weren’t the only ones thinking about how damaging the fashion industry was, and there were lots and lots of people within the industry itself who were really concerned.”Jacobs didn’t realise that the protest would cause quite a stir within the fashion industry: “You know when you do something, but you don’t really recognise the impact of it a year later? I remember a few people say to me that’s the moment when the British Fashion Council got frightened, but we weren’t really there to scare people, but they realised the way they were doing things was going to be challenged in a dramatic way.”
Even today, Jacobs’ activism and work is still being recognised for her monumental efforts with spreading awareness of the harmful relationship between the fashion industry and the environment: “I remember recently, someone said to me like two weeks ago that the fashion industry started to think really hard about what it was doing, and it started the conversation. It was jarring, but you need to be a bit jarring for people to wake up a bit.
“I joined Extinction Rebellion because I was so concerned about the climate, and no one seemed to be talking about it in any way that seemed to match what I was reading! And just the horrific reports from the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) but no one in my immediate circle, definitely within the fashion circles I was in at the time were that concerned.”
Nowadays, Extinction Rebellion’s portrayal in the media isn’t always positive, the international climate change movement are often condemned about their disruptive protests. “Extinction Rebellion was a group that I finally went, ‘oh my God finally there’s a group of people who get it!'”
However, it was the sense of unity that caught Jacobs’ attention: “The sense of community in Extinction Rebellion was sort of nourishing back then, it really is a different beast now but then the relief of it was incredible when I heard that that fashion was being targeted within Extinction Rebellion it was completely, you know, it was inevitable for me using what I knew about the industry and join that group so we ran some really challenging campaigns in the first year which was 2019.
“Extinction Rebellion holds less funeral marches now, because we probably overdid it a bit. But when we did the funeral march it was literally the sense of community that I longed for,” she explained.
“I could just reach out to different parts of Extinction Rebellion and go ‘I need some help planning the route’ and someone was there to walk the route with me, or ‘I need some help calling on the Red Brigade’ and they were there in an instant and were really supportive, we had the Extinction Rebellion band who were really happy to get involved.”The action of protesting and activism has significantly changed, not all activists plan to evoke anger from the public they just want to be heard, Bel highlights what it means to be an activist today.
“We need to look at what an activist is now, because I know what people thought what an activist was before as someone who goes out on the streets shouting. I think you can be an activist in many ways now as what was amply shown during lockdown by a number of really power online campaigners who showed us how much you can achieve working in a virtual space.”
Virtual activism and social media activism heightened from March 2020 during lockdown, the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #StopAsianHate are prime examples of movements that were propelled globally with virtual and social media activism.
Protests were happening on the streets of London but also in the comfort of our own homes, activism isn’t solely confined to robust chants to reach those who are unaware of the cause, but it can also appear on our social media feeds with just one simple hashtag.
“Even people who don’t even go out on the streets, I think they’re activists as well. It’s just how you spend your time, I think one defining thing about activism is that you are trying to communicate with others, it’s very, very difficult to be a private activist,” Jacobs explained.
“You are communicating, you are reaching out, you’re trying to inform, change minds and tear down myths. I’m much happier now and I also think this is how we should be working, the situation with the climate is so urgent, we all need to be engaged with an activity that is in some way regenerative, challenging, and adaptive – its everything. We all need to be working on this in some ways.”
As well as being a member of Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action, Jacobs has other endeavours within fashion and environmentalism. “I’m part of Extinction Rebellion Fashion Action, but my main focus is Fashion Act Now, so we’ve sort of grown out of Extinction Rebellion and we are working in slightly different ways.
“Fashion sustainability is in the mainstream media and what we find intriguing in Fashion Act Now is that sustainable fashion initiatives tend to take place within the structure as before by which I mean, it is still more or less to make a profit and to perhaps use new resources that maybe aren’t as bad as the old new resources, maybe more organic cotton and less synthetics,” she told us.
“In Fashion Act Now, we’re saying time is over for that. It’s now too urgent to try and tweak around the edges, we have to rapidly shrink the industry and so, sustainable fashion brands no matter how wonderful and well intentioned they are they’re still growing in the industry and they’re still producing new items.”
With 120 billion pieces of clothing produced a year, that presents a challenge: “There’s no planet in the universe that needs that needs a 120 billion pieces of items of new clothing a year and 90% of that is being thrown into landfills. So, we’re taking all these resources, all these animal skins, human labour to make all these items of clothing which is thrown into landfills.
“It’s a crazy way to act in a climate emergency when we’re currently on 2.7° temperature rise by the end of the century! We have to stop and reconsider everything,” Jacobs says.
“Fashion Act Now is very much about de-growth in the fashion industry and we have a new campaign called De-Fashion Now and that’s what its aiming for. And it could be a 60% or 70% reduction, it just needs to shrink. If all synthetics were reduced by 60% or 70%, isn’t that incredible!”
It it well known that politicians and big corporations are directly responsible for the decline of the environment, so are they going to help prevent climate change? “They’re not going to because it’s too challenging for the current cultural environment to accept but, for example, taxing new resources would be a great start. Particularly, taxing the use of synthetics really heavily would be a great start,” Bel suggests.
“The more radical end of that would be creating some kind of quotas, saying to people ‘you can only buy 10 pieces of clothing a year’,” she says whilst laughing.
“That’s not going to happen any time soon but that would be amazing! I think if politicians were a little bit more open about the extent of the emergency that we face, it would be a great start. They need to be a little bit more honest, they know we’re heading into a disaster and they’re not alerting their own citizens and they’re not taking action.”
So what’s next for Bel Jacobs?
The work is already underway with the upcoming changes that she’ll be making for her websites: “So, HowNow is going to change into the Empathy Project, and so I’m looking for writers and people who are happy to talk through some of these issues with me because it’s not just about animal agriculture, it’s just awful for the planet.
“It’s also about finding our own humanity in relation to vulnerable creatures but also just how much they contribute to wellbeing and happiness. I’m still thinking through this but within the next 12 months I’ll be in more of this work!”
Featured image by Gareth Morris courtesy of Bel Jacobs.
Edited by Zain Yasin and Aman Hafiz.