Meet the fashion editor, pig farmer and aircraft engineer who quit to fight the climate crisis
Millions of people go to work in high-polluting industries every day. But at what point does consciousness about climate change collide with your role in driving it? These workers share why they quit their jobs over the crisis.
Bel Jacobs, former fashion editor, pictured at a “funeral” demonstration for London Fashion Week in 2019. Image: Bel Jacobs
On April 23 2013, large cracks were discovered snaking through the Rana Plaza, a multi-storey building in central Bangladesh comprising a garment factory, shops and a bank.
The bank and shop were immediately closed, but more than 3,000 garment factory workers were forced to return the next day to fulfil orders. On April 24, the building collapsed, killing 1,134 people.
Almost 5,000 miles away, Bel Jacobs watched the aftermath unfold from her office in London. Since starting as the Metro’s fashion editor in 1999, she’d become increasingly uneasy with the breakneck pace of the fashion industry, but that morning, the penny finally dropped.
“Because of the speed of the industry, [the workers] were pretty much coerced into going into the building. They were making garments for really big [clothing] brands,” she tells The Big Issue.
“I’d already been thinking about fashion’s relationship with deforestation, land use and water use, but it [Rana Plaza] opened up a can of worms for me…it just felt really bizarre and uncomfortable to write about fashion after that.”
Within a year, Jacobs had quit her post of 14 years, turning to climate and animal activism. She runs a blog on sustainable clothing, no longer buys new garments and avoids fashion magazines completely.
In 2013, Jacobs was somewhat of an anomaly. Yet in 2021, with public concern about the climate at a record high, more workers than ever before are finding their jobs in high-polluting industries incompatible with their position on climate change.
While many still feel able to disconnect their role from the climate crisis, a small but growing number of people are taking drastic action – and quitting their jobs entirely.
For Alice Brough, who worked as a vet at pig farms between 2015 and 2019, the tipping point was less a single moment than an intense build-up of discomfort with her job.
“It was almost daily that I was doing something which would shock the public.
“I was seeing animals suffering immeasurably, having to shoot them in appalling environments where many people were unable to accept the evidence of the damage they were doing to the environment and the pigs,” she says.
By 2019, Brough was suffering with severe mental health problems from the violence she’d witnessed on the job, and became convinced that she couldn’t make a dent on the excessive wastage, plastic use and toxic chemicals she saw every day at work.
She’d entered the role believing she could work her way up to improve environmental and welfare issues in the animal agriculture industry, but quickly became disillusioned, finally quitting to join a vegan charity in 2019.
“After four years there comes a point when you realise that even when you try to improve things you’ll turn up at the next farm and find the same things wrong”, she says.
It’s a story familiar to Finlay Asher, a former aircraft engineer.
As a keen graduate, Asher wanted to find ways to reduce the environmental impact of flying, and started working on designs for sustainable aircraft engines.
It wasn’t long before his efforts felt futile.
“What was really frustrating for me was that there weren’t any resources given to developing these advanced designs, and the industry was lobbying hard to prevent regulations which would make [sustainable designs] more profitable,” he says.
It turned out, says Asher, that airlines thought it “not worth the technical and economic risk” to work on sustainable aircraft due to the designs being radically different from old ones and jet fuel being tax-free and cheaper than more eco-friendly options.
He recalls Greta Thunberg’s decision to journey across the Atlantic in a boat rather than a plane to COP25 as a pivotal moment in his decision to leave the job.
“That put the industry on the back foot, and the biggest aerospace manufacturers released a joint statement on their sustainability strategy”, he says.
Asher read it and “disagreed with every single sentence”, finding the strategy to be “misleading to the public, to employees in the industry and politicians”.
Though he later set up his own sustainability group to push for change internally, Asher found that industry leaders were unwilling to engage with the group’s suggestions and research around sustainable aviation. In 2020, when coronavirus brought about the opportunity for voluntary redundancy, he took it.
Since then, Asher has set up a group called “Safe Landing” for ex-aviation workers concerned about the climate. He also runs a Youtube channel exploring sustainable aviation and industry greenwash.
Though he’s had workers join the group from around the world, he believes there’s one powerful force stopping others from doing so too: marketing.
“It’s difficult to convey how much greenwash around aviation taps into people’s emotions, taps into technological fetishism and self-worth. We’re up against a multi-billion dollar marketing and media machine,” he says.
“A lot of people in the industry really care, but they buy into the greenwash,”
Jacobs echoes this sentiment, pointing out that the glamour associated with fashion journalism isn’t easy to part ways with.
“[Fashion] is fast, it’s beautiful and it’s exciting. It can be really difficult to step back and accept that we have to do things differently now,” she says.
“But every time you write an article about trends, you’re essentially promoting consumption. Every time you create a fashion shoot, you’re promoting consumption. We can’t be doing that in a climate emergency,” she adds.
For her own part, Jacobs feels it would now be impossible to return to her old ways.
“Seeing an ad for a new handbag feels really really out of tune. To be honest, I feel like I’m looking at something from another world.”
Both she, Brough and Asher feel their ability to drive change on the climate has been far more effective outside their former industries than was possible when working within them.
“It’s 100 per cent more effective being outside [animal agriculture]”, says Brough.
“If I can make just a few people think about what they’re choosing when they go to the shops it makes more difference than everything I was doing within that industry.”