Lily Cole, the gift economy & fashion for good

A model and actress with the right attitude.

There’s no doubt that Lily Cole is an iconic beauty, a red-headed tribute to the Pre-Raphaelite era. I could write an article simply on the symmetry of her doll-face. She is also an academic, achieving a double first in History of Art at Cambridge with a dissertation on the artist Gabriel Orozco and Impossible Utopias. Aside from these amiable qualities, Cole is the founder of three innovative companies. The entrepreneur has used her face and brains to tap into new markets in ethical fashion and social networks, with Wild Rubber, The North Circular, and Impossible.

body shop

The Body Shop

I intended to ask Cole a few questions about her forward-thinking businesses and her University thesis, ‘Impossible Utopias’ but I was unable to contact her as she is about to become a mother! She met her partner, Kwame Ferreira when he offered to help build her social network, for free. A gesture that characterises the humbling nature of Impossible; an online platform set up to help create a community that grants wishes and offers advice, services and material goods, all under the understanding that everything is done for free. It is a social, rather than environmental, enterprise and it seems to have been sparked by the desire to enrich our sense of community, one that will maintain support one another even in an economic downturn. There is even evidence to suggest that the gift economy if it had a monetary value placed on it, would generate more than the UK’s GDP. The sceptics amongst you should note that Muhammad Yunus, Nobel Prize winner for his work on micro-financing, has personally advocated Cole’s work. images

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The website (now also an app) works as a social media account, you create a profile and post ‘wishes’ in a twitter style format. Some wishes may simply be seeking advice on a piece of writing you’re working on, and there is no need to meet face to face. Other wishes, such as cookery classes or driving lessons, are granted on a much more personal basis. The platform is centred on the idea that everything is free. The currency is in essence, ‘thank yous’ and Impossible has transformed this idea into the act of sending cyber votes of thanks, which tally up on your profile (for those of you who remember Bebo, it’s very much like sending your Bebo love hearts). Going back to Cole’s activity within the fashion industry, this quote concerning Fashion Revolution Day, in an interview with the BBC, clearly iterates her motivation for The North Circular and Wild Rubber. Fashion Revolution Day was on 24th April, marking a year after the Rana Plaza disaster that killed 1,133 people and the Cole spoke about the “real cost” we need to attribute to the cheap, new clothes we buy every month.

[lowest cost production] has dominated the market for so long that it becomes very hard to explain to consumers why you might pay a little bit more because maybe t-shirts shouldn’t be so cheap, because there is a true cost behind them.”


Wild Rubber is a business selling trainers, condoms and jewellery using rubber at premium prices to incentivise local’s to protect the Amazon Rainforest. The North Circular is an accessories brand with products hand-knitted by grannies in the UK with their names signed on each label. The idea of this “socially aware knitwear” is to promote a producer-consumer relationship and transparency within production; to know and appreciate those who make our clothes.

I really believe that in this capitalist western structure, the biggest blessing is the idea that the consumer is king. Even if we feel disempowered, the choices in how we spend our money give us so much power. Because the people who have the actual power – the big businesses, and politicians too – are ultimately responsive to our voices.”

An interview with The Guardian, 2011

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Most of the rubber and wool products are now linked to Impossible, alongside other books, clothes and home-wares with philanthropic concerns. Cole is an altruist and an environmentalist but nonetheless a businesswoman. Charity work is not to be belittled but through business, Cole is creating a sustainable way to solve problems. To Vogue in November 2014, after talking to the Brazilian embassy about Wild Rubber, Cole explained:

I’m not that interested in campaigning or charity – I’m interested in developing businesses as a means to address social and environmental issues… I love reaching back into the fashion world to see how we can work together to promote meaningful value systems through fashion and production.”

It is astounding how much good can come from buying a luxurious pair of fluffy socks and trainers with natural rubber soles.The fashion industry does not have to harm the environment or abuse developing countries with poor regulations on production. We can use our consumer power for change.


I originally wrote this piece for my student newspaper, Epigram.

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