Lily Cole is a model, film-maker, actor, writer, founder, activist and mother. With a renewed focus on climate + global issues she has written 'Who Cares Wins', a book and accompanying podcast - in which she has interviewed hundreds of people around the world who are working on environmental solutions, from technologists and scientists, to activists and indigenous leaders.
Lily + Oyuna connected over a mutual passion for change and playing an active role in speaking up for the earth.
Read Oyuna and Lily Cole's conversation about optimism, conservation and Mongolia below.
Photography by @cathykasterine
OT: Can you tell us more about your thoughts about using optimism for positive change? I innately believe in a human positive baseline.
LC: I am too, and actually there's a big part in my book about that. Co-operation is such a big part of evolution and human nature - there are so many examples of humans being cooperative and kind. The idea that we’re innately selfish is somewhat of a myth, I think.
And in terms of optimism, for me optimism is rooted in believing anything is possible and we can choose the future we want. It doesn’t mean it’s going to turn out well, but we have the power to affect how it turns out. By being optimistic that a better future is possible is more likely to create a better future.
OT: It’s true - you can’t make your dreams happen until you really decide that. Then they can actually come true.
LC: Exactly that, we create our future in a way and so if we’re optimistic and we believe we can solve problems, and come together, we can overcome the different challenges we have. We’re more likely to actually make the effort and make the changes that are needed to get to that better future. And I also believe there are lots of things going in a positive direction, and there are lots of things that are not. There’s a lot of scary things happening in the environment, but there’s also a lot of people that are waking up, and there's more public awareness and more and more political change, and that makes me optimistic.
OT: Without an optimistic outlook, what else is left - what’s the point of having a negative outlook and saying it’s not going to work. When you had your daughter, did it change your views on the environment and sustainability or strengthen it?
LC: Yes and no. It probably strengthened it, but I was already working in the environmental space, so it wasn’t new. However, thinking about the next generation and the reality that you're giving this earth to this next generation, and then their children, and their children, and theirs, maybe came home a bit more. It didn’t change me, it just made me more committed to what I was doing.
OT: For me, I felt that with Mongolia. It’s truly beautiful and the countryside is so pristine and I really want my sons, their sons and future generations to enjoy Mongolia in the same way I do. A lot of places in the world have changed, and I think Mongolia is one of the few places that really stays still.
LC: I'd love to see it. Where in Mongolia are you from?
OT: I'm from Ulaanbaatar, the capital, but you should come to see the country - it’s so beautiful, people in the countryside are so warm.
LC: I love mongolian music as well, mongolian singing!
OT: Have you heard about the throat singing, it’s so cool right?
OT: You should check out this band, The HU, a mongolian band. They became very popular, their songs carry a lot of dynamic energy.
LC: Can you tell me a bit about your work in Mongolia, the herders you work with, and how you got involved?
OT: Well, from the beginning we were into sourcing straight from nomads, having a very short supply chain. And we’re working with nomads who really care about nature. The traditional nomads have centuries old traditions of taking care of the land. You know the issue about cashmere - about desertification?
So, traditionally they’ve been managing the pastures, making sure they don’t have too many goats, and changing pastures often. Some wise nomads are still good at this, but modern younger nomads might want more goats so they can get more income. We tried to focus on the quality and the value of the cashmere itself rather than quantity.
LC: Does that mean you have to limit how much you’re able to grow as a business? Because you don’t want to have huge numbers?
OT: Yes, but we decided to reach out to a wider audience rather than being a niche, small brand because the ratio of non-responsibly sourced cashmere is too high at the moment. So in order to balance that out, we have to grow, so that’s one of the strategy changes we had. We looked to reduce the prices making more democratic designs. Like with the EARTH pullover, that’s just a nice jumper. Previously we would have never thought of doing that because we were very much a ‘designed’ cashmere collection.
LC: When you say nomadic, what do you mean?
OT: Mongolian herders lead a nomadic lifestyle, following the needs of their livestock. That means they move at least four times a year, depending on the pastures and seasons. They follow the better pastures, or move to more sheltered areas in colder months or next to a river.
LC: And they put the yurt up again each time they stay there? It’s a very simple way of life.
OT: Yes, it’s a very simple way of life, but if you go there and if you look into their eyes they are the most beautiful people!
LC: I don’t say simple as a bad thing - but a good thing!
OT: At the same time, it’s so easy to romanticise a nomad's life, it’s very tough to face nature all year around. I always say these nomads have their living room as this beautiful valley, but...the storms and the wind…
LC: So whose land is it?
OT: It doesn’t belong to anyone, just the country.
LC: Has the country been good at protecting nomads’ rights to stay there?
OT: No-one wants to take the land from them, because that’s how it’s been for centuries
LC: That’s beautiful, there’s very few places in the world like that
OT: That’s exactly why I’d really like to preserve that because it’s so rare. There are no fences, because Mongolia is not only a country of blue skies and cashmere but also no fences, you’re free to go anywhere.
LC: I’d love to visit. When I was writing my book I looked a bit into nomadic cultures, because all of human history went from being nomadic to being settled. Humans were all originally nomadic. And a lot of anthropologists say that the transition to what was called the agro-culture revolution when we decided to be settled is what began everything - that’s where all our problems stemmed from. There was the patriarchy, because of ownership, as women became property because of that sense of ownership. It then allowed for so much inequality and so many different social phenomenons that we have now - all stemmed from this idea that we can own land, which is obviously a made up concept.
We can now carve pieces of land and make legal papers to say this is mine, this is yours, so there’s very few places now in the world that can be truly nomadic. A lot of the indegenous communities are now fighting for land rights so they can own their land, so they can exist in the current system. They can’t be nomadic unless they own the land - and they have to own the land or someone else will kick them off it.
OT: In Mongolia, in the countryside there are unwritten rules for the land. Nomads manage pastures among them in perfect agreement, sealed with words - there are no contracts, but respect for land and spoken word. That's how it's been for centuries. That's one of the characteristics of Mongolian nomadism that has so much wisdom.
We work very closely with SFA, the Sustainable Fiber Alliance, NGO that is helping to transfer that wisdom to a new generation of nomads. SFA is doing a great work on land working with nomads and sustainability.
LC: Do they work with many women?
OT: Yes of course. The best nomad of the year award by SFA this year went to a woman herder.
The good thing about Mongolia is that the women are very strong. We don't have issues about women being mistreated, as women are quite strong headed. If you think about the nomadic culture, as a human you are facing nature, you can't differentiate between man and women - you’re just in it. That’s why when you live in nomadic culture, if you have a visitor that's another human they're an ally and in nomadic culture it’s so hospitable. In very rural Mongolia you can just go inside someone's Ger (yurt). Most of the time they’re empty because they’re away on the pastures, and you can help yourself to food and drink, and it’s normal.
LC: What’s nomad of the year?
OT: It’s an award given by SFA to the best responsibility operating herders.
LC: Is SFA just focused on Mongolia or is it global?
OT: It’s global which is a good thing. One of the big reasons we did the EARTH collection - I didn’t want to just say that Mongolia should be preserved for the future generations, it’s the whole earth.
LC: What do you think about the idea of regenerated cashmere?
OT: It’s a very good name to call it regenerated cashmere. Basically it's recycled cashmere and the quality is not so good. I do think it’s very important and it is a good initiative - instead of old cashmere going to waste, you use it. I don’t think regenerating cashmere is bad, you can, but I would say the end product should be different matching the quality - like making carpets out of it. As clothing, the quality is not as good a standard as our usual - we tried! We did make some styles, but I'm not crazy about the quality.
What do you think are the common misconceptions about cashmere?
LC: Probably the lack of awareness of its environmental footprint. People assume that because it’s a natural product, it’s not plastic, therefore it’s more eco. Obviously it can be the case, as you say, but just because it’s natural it doesn’t mean it’s being made in a good way, so you need to understand sourcing, would you agree?
OT: I absolutely agree. Like with anything, nothing is black and white, there are so many nuances. Once you start learning a subject or issue, there’s so much more to discover. The more I learn I realise how little I know!
LC: I never trust anyone who thinks they’ve got it all figured out!
OT: One of the projects we’re exploring is not just saying oh look at nomads they really need support, but celebrating that they have amazing values and different values.
For example, how do they deal with nature or what is important in life - their life values are really cool. I would like to do an exchange of values and information between mongolian nomads and the world, not just one way. Could you think about a question you’d like to ask them and I can pass it on?
LC: Do they have any guidelines or rules they live by as a community? What’s the governing ideology that rules their way of life?
OT: I can ask! Do you camp?
LC: In Mongolia I would!
OT: 180 degrees of stars!
LC: Have you heard about the nomad hotel? They have one in Tulum, they have them around the world. Maybe they could sell the clothes in the shop. Did you ever think of writing nomad, in the way you right earth? It could be strong i think, i think people would wear that - made by nomads.
OT: I’ve been told by SFA that the technical term is herder - but I think that the idea of nomad is much better and more beautiful!