Lily Cole's Mission to End Money

A supermodel aims to free us from commodity culture.

It’s February, and Lily Cole is in New York when she calls. “I don’t actually know what’s happening,” she says with the delighted laugh of someone who is relieved they don’t have to put up with the New York Fashion Week imbroglio this year. “I just landed today.”

Cole, a fashion model who achieved enough fame in the early 2000s to break into acting, is in town to promote her startup, Impossible, which launched in the U.S. in March. Impossible is a website Cole created with the help of Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales that promotes “gift economies.” It functions as a wiki-style tumblelog, where users take over the platform to post “wishes” of what they need and “offers” of what they can provide.

It’s a simple concept, inspired by Lewis Hyde’s beloved book The Gift, about the necessity to creatively free oneself from commodity culture. “As the technology gets better and as we get more users, it can actually become a useful tool for people to get things done, or to get things they need, object-wise,” Cole says. “Without money.”

Already, in Cole’s native U.K., there is a congregation of benevolent users, called “Imps,” who post wishes regularly—anything from someone yearning to fix their relationship (which a psychologist offered a free consultation for) to an offer for a free Reiki session and one user’s proposition to cook a meal for someone. “So far, it’s been affirming of how generous in spirit I hoped people would be,” Cole says, pausing to emphasize her excitement that people are starting to grasp the concept. “It’s just small acts, but they’re doing it.”

If Impossible seems like an unusual labor of love for a model/actress, that’s because Cole herself has never colored inside the lines of her profession. She earned an honors degree in the History of Art from the University of Cambridge, where she learned about the utopia-referencing artworks made by Mexican conceptual artist Gabriel Orozco and generosity-based art by Rirkrit Tiravanija, both of whom are other inspirations for her current website.

Not one to put all her eggs in one basket, Cole is also devoting time to the Environmental Justice Foundation, a nongovernmental organization working internationally to safeguard human rights and the environment. She focuses on starting dialogues about the product supply chain and its myriad digressions. “I’m a big believer that there’s a potential to start encouraging trends in the market that could lead to more social standards or environmental responsibility and less waste in production chains,” she says. “We can help to change that by changing the dialogue about the things we want to buy and what we expect out of the stories behind the products we buy. Right now, there’s so much opacity, so it’s very hard to know the story behind objects and where they’re made.”

To be clear, Cole’s not giving up on modeling or acting—she’s the face of the new G-Star Raw ad campaign and recently agreed to portray Helen of Troy in a stage adaptation of Homer’s Iliad called The Last Days of Troy—but it’s evident she’s driven to make positive changes on the Earth during her time here. And that’s a trend we can get behind.

Photo by Retts Wood