Stella McCartney is arguably the leader of sustainability in high fashion, and one of the first catwalk designers to embed sustainability, and in particular her sincere commitment to animal rights, throughout her entire business model.
What makes her inspiring to me is a clear sense of responsibility for the environmental and ethical impact of every aspect of her business’s activities. Sustainability is at the forefront of every choice, from raw materials for products to the lighting in her stores. Her collections use more than 50% organic cotton, and rather than PVC or other polluting petrochemical-based vegetarian synthetics, only the most sustainable fabrics available. Her scientists are constantly working to develop new greener fabrics as well as cleaner manufacturing processes. For example, Stella McCartney shoes now have biodegradable soles, manufactured from a new compostable bioplastic called APINAT.
Every Stella McCartney office, studio, lab or store in the UK is powered by wind energy, and, in 2012, for example, the company diverted 34.3 metric tonnes of textile waste from landfill to make high-fashion, luxury clothing and accessories.
While sustainable fashion has been with us for a while now, many haute couture designers are still reluctant to risk their ‘luxury’ reputation by doing anything that might be construed as thrifty, which unfortunately can include a reluctance to replace leather or fur. And too many are happy simply to present dubious arguments supporting their chosen materials’ ‘green credentials’.
While vegetarian, and therefore instinctively averse to animal exploitation, Stella, by contrast, is also refreshingly clear on the wider environmental impact of using animal-derived materials. “There’s a huge connection,” she says. “Livestock production is one of the major causes of the world’s most pressing environmental problems, including global warming, land degradation, air and water pollution, and loss of biodiversity.” She goes on to point out that tanneries are among the most polluting industries according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The success of the Stella McCartney business, with more than 60% growth between 2010 and 2013 and profits of around £3.4 million, seems to be due to, rather than despite, her uncompromising vision. She’s clearly sincerely motivated, and keeps innovating, proving what can be done. “I am always asking what have we done to make this garment more sustainable and what else can we do,” she says on her website. “It is a constant effort to improve.” She’s also realistic in her objectives: “Our philosophy is that it is better to do something than nothing. Every little bit really does count.”
The company is part of the Ethical Trading Initiative, and was the first luxury manufacturer to participate in the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC)’s Clean by Design Programme to improve process efficiency, reducing water use, energy consumption and waste and finding alternatives to polluting chemicals. She even supports the call for fashion lovers to buy fewer pieces. “Love your clothes and make them last longer” she says on her company website, and since Spring 2015, each Stella McCartney garment features a ‘Clevercare’ logo to remind the owner to consider the environment in the way they care for it. ”I design clothes that are meant to last” she says.
Like all true leaders, she is also a campaigner, actively advocating change beyond her own company’s activities, participating, for example, in The True Cost, a documentary highlighting the impact of fashion on people and planet. And while high-profile collaborations like her work for Madonna, Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the 2012 London Olympics are smart business moves, they’re also opportunities to spread her ethical message more widely. Adidas by Stella McCartney and her line of cosmetics for Procter & Gamble take this commercial outreach further.
Inspiringly, rather than treating the ethical dimension as an add-on, she sees her responses to today’s sustainability challenges as part of the designer’s role – “to turn things on their head in a different way, and not just try to turn a dress on its head every season” – and seems to enjoy confronting those problems.
“Try and ask questions about how you make that dress, where you make that dress, what materials you’re using,” she says. “I think that’s far more interesting, actually”.