A fashion model leading the ‘gift economy’. Impossible?

Jini Reddy finds out what led successful model Lily Cole to set up a website and app aimed at nurturing a culture of sharing

One click and I’m in: a universe where wishes are cast, and granted, as if by magic. It’s an online world where you can ask for whatever you need and strangers, people who live in your own neighbourhood, will provide it. But that’s impossible, right?

Actually, it’s very possible, in the form of Impossible.com – a social network based on a culture of giving and receiving freely. The sharing economy is growing; an antidote to rampant consumerism and undoubtedly a reflection of our growing hunger for a society based on kinder, more trusting and nurturing forms of interaction. Of all the advocates that immediately spring to mind: counter-culture thinker Charles Eisenstein, Moneyless Manifesto author Mark Boyle, or Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, the unlikeliest must be Impossible’s creator: 26-year-old model and actress Lily Cole.

Cole has worked with the world’s most well known fashion brands and graced the cover of, among other style bibles, Vogue. She is also a committed ambassador and supporter for a wide range of charities. But on top of this she has now become an eloquent and passionate gift culture pioneer. She’s poured her heart and soul into Impossible; the question is, why?

“It was an idea I had with a friend that felt very powerful and I couldn’t let go,” she says. “I started researching attempts to do something similar and couldn’t find one that inspired me. I also started researching the gift economy as a concept anthropologically, and the more I learned about it, the more inspired I felt by its potential on many levels.”

Impossible, both a website and app, helps people to help each other for free. Rather than cash, its currency is connection, generosity, inspiration and creative possibility.

“I hope over time, as our technology improves and our community grows, that we can become a valuable resource to help people get things done, or indeed get things, without needing money,” says Cole.

She rates her family and friends as her biggest influences and her mother, in particular, has played a pivotal role. “She was always thinking about – and therefore had me thinking about – big philosophical issues and the world’s injustices.”

Working in fashion, ironically, has taught her a lot about business and the effects of production chains, and helped her look to solutions to injustice. “I’ve been so blessed by my exposure to different environments. It has brought me the opportunity to work with different charities and learn about different ways of solving problems.

“Travelling has been a huge influence on me – experiencing different cultures and ways of life; seeing how relative our cultures are, and how free happiness is, how it is to be found anywhere and that it bears no real relationship to success as my society had defined it. It is a process though, and I am still moving, with a long way to go,’ she says.

“I try to do things from my heart and over time feel more and more empowered to answer my heart’s calling. Sometimes I have to compromise but more and more I’m living the life I believe in”

A Cambridge University graduate (she received a double first in Art History in 2011), Cole’s studies have also had an impact. “Studying history and politics and the politics of artists enabled me to explore different ideas and try to come closer to my own,” she says.

She quotes Genevieve Vaughan’s book, Forgiving, Lewis Hyde’s The Gift: How the Creative Spirit Transforms the World, and a study of giving and exchange by sociologist Marcel Mauss, entitled The Gift, as sources of inspiration. She also singles out an excerpt from Charles Eisenstein’s book Sacred Economics, about needing to begin the gift economy at home. “That quote still carves lines in my mind,” she says. “I thoroughly agree, that anything in life can only begin with yourself – so you become a mirror and create a different reflection. And that, I believe, is probably the hardest, though simplest part.”

But isn’t there an inherent contradiction between a life of acting, modelling and existing within the monetary economy, and a life devoted to social activism and the sharing economy? These are very different worlds. How does Cole square one with the other?

“Neither my ‘social work’ nor ‘creative work’ feel like choices,” she says. “If I wasn’t being creative, part of me would die. If I wasn’t trying to solve problems I see around me, a part of me would die. And I don’t think there is a simple wrong-right equation. I think we can learn from many different spheres and often the learning is in the differences. However, I would thoroughly understand someone questioning the seeming contradiction and indeed I have often questioned it myself, which is probably why my path has diverged this way.”

The world of fashion, she says, has been a great teacher, particularly in understanding the powerful global language that is economics. “I think the implications of the businesses we support – by founding them, by buying into them, by modelling for them – define the world we create. I feel proud of my work with the Environmental Justice Foundation, looking at cotton farming; The North Circular, a company I founded where we make knitwear sustainably and name the makers of goods so as to drive transparency in production; and The Body Shop, who arguable pioneered ‘trade not aid’ models, to this end.”

She recognises that we’re a long way from a full-blown gift economy. “I’m not yet convinced that that would be ideal. I think there are some advantages to the exchange paradigm – to organize complicated projects and when you want to have the distance that transactional relationships can offer.”

She’s also inspired by the range of possibilities that exist in contemporary society.
“Now, given the power of business and the effect of the internet, we can actually opt to be part of different economic structures simultaneously. I still have one foot in the door of the monetary economy, and considering most of the world does, it feels important to keep that foot in, but I am able to put my foot in the other. And then there’s the collaborative monetary economy somewhere in between. Who knows where I will stand in time, but right now both feel necessary.

“I try to do things from my heart and over time feel more and more empowered to answer my heart’s calling. Sometimes I have to compromise – to pay the bills, to pay to build a gift economy, to buy that coffee or that flight, or to learn – but more and more I’m living the life I believe in.”

Wishes on Impossible range from the very specific: “I wish for a gallery space to curate and host a couple of art projects,” to the whimsical: “I wish I could mend the broken hearts of others.” The offers, currently outnumbered by wishes, are intriguing. One man is offering Reiki treatments “to anyone who wants to relax and heal.” Scroll down and another writes: “I can help anyone applying to be a vet student.”

A feeling of abundance is tangible when surfing Impossible, and as Cole says, it works because it makes people feel good. “Every experience I’ve had on or through Impossible so far has been incredibly positive and I’ve had many others now say the same to me. All the experiences feel very social, rather than transactional and this is such a refreshing and liberated way to encounter ‘strangers’.”

Her anecdotes make for heartwarming reading. Most poignantly, she recalls the time a man called William wished for help speaking English. “When I met with him he had also wished for someone to help a homeless man who lived near him. We met together with the homeless man and discussed, in English, how we could get the only thing this man, Muhammad wanted: a tent. I sent it up to William, and he called me to say he had set it up for Muhammad. It was one of my best moments of last year.”

Cole’s Impossible might just be the perfect marriage of technology and human values, and a hopeful vision of the world to come. “In its biggest dream I hope we can make giving and receiving – between friends, but also between strangers – feel more normative,” she says. “If we achieve that, then I believe by implication we will achieve the positive social consequences, such as social cohesion, which are at the heart of Impossible’s mission”. But the venture has clearly impacted Cole on a deeply personal level too. “People’s generosity and kindness inspires me and makes me feel a little less alone on this planet,” she says.