As the world wakes up to ethical consumption, the sustainability pioneer — and pragmatist — has a blueprint for the future of sustainable fashion.
LONDON, United Kingdom — “Penny Lane” was playing on the radio the morning I left the house to meet Stella McCartney. I asked Tariq, my Uber driver, what he knew of Paul McCartney. Before his time, he said. How about the Beatles? Same, but he knew to avoid Abbey Road on a Saturday due to the crowds of tourists recreating the Beatles’ last album cover on the famous crossing just outside. Linda McCartney, while not exactly a household name, he was familiar with from her range of vegetarian food (Tariq doesn’t eat meat) and he’d seen Stella’s stores, so he was aware that she was in the fashion business.
This was surprising and surely atypical — less a comment on the fickleness of fame than a contemporary reflection of its specificity. “Authenticity” is a word that’s been knocked around a lot in fashion for the past decade. Lately, I’m hearing it being supplanted by “relevance.” Linda was relevant to my driver. And Stella, with a career-long commitment to what she labels “conscious consumption,” is perhaps more relevant to fashion now than at any time since she launched her label in 2001 as a joint venture with Gucci Group, now known as the luxury conglomerate Kering.
“I started my career being Paul McCartney’s daughter and that was my headline,” she muses. “Then they started to put in the veggie thing and the non-leather and the ethics and the sustainability and that was almost another way of saying, ‘You’re weird.’ And now it’s coming to this place where they’re saying, ‘Maybe you had a point.’”
Earlier this year, Kering sold its 50 percent share in the label back to Stella after a 17-year partnership. The designer’s new independence excites her, terrifies her. “But I’ve always thrived on uncertainty,” she claims. It’s easy to imagine such confidence comes from her conviction that, come hell or high water, she has always done what she feels is the right thing. “We have authenticity at our roots, but more important for us is honesty,” she says when we finally get talking in the canteen of her west London headquarters. “At the core of authenticity, you have to have an honest reason to do what you do.” I feel it begins with family for her: the one she was born into, and the one she’s created with her husband Alasdhair Willis, creative director of British heritage brand Hunter.
We have authenticity at our roots, but more important for us is honesty. You have to have an honest reason to do what you do.
Her mother has clearly been on her mind. Getting her youngest, seven-year-old Reiley, ready for school that morning (four kids, four different school runs), she’d played her “Seaside Woman,” a song Linda wrote in 1977 which was later turned into a cartoon that won the Short Film Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 1980. “I’ve never really played the kids mum’s music,” Stella muses. She’s hoping they’ll all get into it at some point, but right now, Reiley is more interested in becoming a vet or a dogwalker, and the other three, Miller, 13, Beckett, 11 and Bailey, 10, are each on their own very different paths. “Which is weird, but I was very different from all my siblings.”
It has recently been weighing on Stella that she’s about to be mother to three teenagers all at once. She’s conscious of the recent bulletins from Silicon Valley, where it has emerged that the gurus of the digital age won’t let their own kids near gadgets. “It’s a massive parenting conversation in this generation. I’m conscious of how opposite I am to my parents. They’d leave us with the turndown lady in the hotel while they went off to play a gig. We as helicopter parents are missing something genius like that.”
That’s not to say there was ever a moment when the McCartney brood didn’t feel sufficient attention or protectiveness from their parents. Stella talks about them leaving “the circle of madness,” the extended family that was the Beatles, for Scotland or the countryside. “That was mum and dad’s survival instinct. I grew up in a two-bedroom round house in the country, with all six of us. I speak about it with my sister Mary a lot. Being bareback on a horse, being bored, those are the greatest memories of our lives.” And they’re always all over her mood boards.
“I can see myself as a five-year-old kid, eye level with the boots and shoes, ranging from moccasins and cowboy boots to dad’s teddyboy shoes and sneakers to glittery platform boots for stage gear. The most feminine was the glam rock, but men were wearing glam rock too. There were no gender roles. I found so many things I assumed were my mum’s but actually they were my dad’s. That’s been a massive influence on how I work and how I live my life. There’s a seamlessness between masculine and feminine, a real element of androgyny in what I do.”
You sense that her own experience as a “helicopter parent” is proving a particular challenge.
“I’m very aware we’re living in London, and the kids are in a situation very different from the one I grew up in. God knows how one arrived here. But we have a place in the country and I’m adamant they have to go there and get bored and get dirty and get away from this. I want to keep them innocent and free for as long as possible.”
Where innocence is concerned, “as long as possible” just got a brutal edit from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose consensus is that, unless global warming is held to 1.5°C (already conceded as a practical impossibility), 2040 is looking like a watershed year in the chronicle of our extinction. According to the World Wildlife Fund, we’ve been doing a pretty good job of wiping out the rest of life on Earth too: 60 percent of the world’s animal populations since 1970 are gone. Meanwhile, the fashion industry is the second greatest polluter on the planet, producing greenhouse gas emissions of 1.2 billion tonnes a year. All in all, it’s hardly the most upbeat of times to be a 47-year-old idealist activist working in fashion and mothering four young-ish ones.
Once upon a time, such statistics would have made her angry. Maybe the kids have changed that. She comes to a simmer now and then while we talk, but she insists that’s mostly the frustration of “anyone who’s trying to change things in a positive way through a business model. My glass is very ‘half full.’ I wouldn’t do what I do if I didn’t feel there was a reason to do it. I’m very aware that the minute I create anything, it’s becoming a statement. Regenerated cashmere, organic this, non-leather that... I know I’m making a product that’s better environmentally and for the wellbeing of our fellow species that we’re extinguishing by the second. I know I’m the best example of that by far in my industry. And that gives me the will to go on.”
“It’s all about excess, that’s the problem. The fashion industry is excessive,” she says. “We wear things three times on average before we chuck them away. Why? Who are we? We’re so vulgar. I know we’re not perfect in my company, but excess is something I have a massive problem with.”
That’s the voice Stella speaks to her customers with, the voice of common-sense experience. The voice of reason, actually. “My conversation didn’t start out as an environmental conversation,” she says. “From day one, I was saying, ‘Let’s not kill innocent creatures.’ That is really at the core of what I do, and if I’m faced by a question of animal welfare or the environment, I will always choose animal welfare. But when we do our environmental profit and loss — and we’re one of the few houses to do so — the biggest impact we’ve had in a positive way is not using leather.”
Indeed, Stella’s use of recycled polyester creates four times less negative impact than French leather and 24 times less negative impact than Brazilian leather, according to Kering’s latest environmental profit and loss assessment, which attempts to quantify environmental impact in financial terms.
Her anti-leather stance set her in opposition to most of her peers at Kering, which introduced environmental profit and loss across the group to measure the impact of its activities on the planet in 2016 but depends heavily on leather goods (especially leather handbags) to drive sales. There’s the possibly apocryphal story that, once upon a time, Tom Ford was keen for Stella to take over at Gucci while he focused on Yves Saint Laurent, but his courtship floundered on her refusal to work with the animal skins that were the brand’s stock in trade.
From day one, I was saying ‘Let’s not kill innocent creatures.’ That is really at the core of what I do.
She acknowledges that contrariness suits her: her roots are Russian/Jewish on her mother’s side, Irish/Scottish on her father’s. At the same time, she freely concedes the argument that her upbringing meant there was never a moment when she had to tone down her rebel yell in any way. “I knew I always had financial stability, I always had a family unit. I have more admiration for people who didn’t have my background, who didn’t have the insight I got from looking at the world through their parents’ eyes.”
One of Stella’s highest forms of praise is to label something “punk rock.” Like when she points to her vegan Stan Smiths which Alasdhair had Adidas make as a special order for her years ago. “Every day I’d be saying to people, ‘Don’t worry, they’re not leather.’ And every time I saw the CEO of Adidas, I’d say, ‘Why can’t you make all your Stan Smiths veggie? And don’t tell your consumer until two years after you’ve done the production and they’ll never notice.’ And then he could say, ‘Guess what? Two years have gone by, you haven’t noticed and you saved x amount of animals’ lives, x amount of water, x amount of land mass, x amount of Amazon rainforest, x amount of electricity and you’ve actually done this.’ Power to the people! Major! Punk rock! What a powerful thing that would be. His customers would love it. But he didn’t hear me.” (Chief executive Kasper Rørsted did, however, let Stella make her own collection of vegan Stan Smiths, the latest manifestation of her 13-year collaboration with Adidas.)
The notion of doing good unconsciously intrigues her. Another opposition, this time to her stated faith in conscious consumption? “Our incentive is the core values of the house. The customer doesn’t even know about them sometimes. There are even people who work here who don’t know that our viscose is eco, for example. I don’t need people to know, half the time I don’t even want people to know that’s not a leather bag.”
It’s no surprise Stella is a pragmatist. She knows that, above all, she has to create a product that people desire. “The future of fashion has got to be that you shouldn’t sacrifice your style, sacrifice your make, sacrifice the payment of others along the food chain just to have a better, more ethical product. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’m not trying to make a new compromise in any way, shape or form.” She has a faithful coterie of consumers who respond to her on that shoes ‘n’ handbags level. “But now I get young people, 13, 14, 15, thanking me for making ethical fashion, not killing animals. That’s why I struggle with the price point. Because I’m making a product ethically, it costs me more.”
Again, it’s hardly a shock when Stella says, “If I was a kid, I’d be in tech. I’d be figuring out how to utilise the $500 billion worth of waste in the fashion industry. I wouldn’t be bothered making things. Every second a truckload of fast fashion is landfilled. I’d be taking that and making a business out of it. One arm of my company is doing that, looking at technology, looking at the future. It’s 90 percent of what we’re doing in house, like developing a viscose from sustainable wood that isn’t cutting down 150 million trees a year. It took us three years, all at my own cost. We have created a product and guaranteed its source in Sweden. Now, can everyone please use that? And I’m turning my attention to fake fur now.”
When we live in a world where diamonds, animal skins and furs may soon be lab-manufactured at scale, the traditional value system that has been attached to such conventional emblems of extravagance is up for reassessment. “I guess there was a romance attached to the idea of scarcity,” says Stella, “but there’s no scarcity attached to fur. With fur-free fur and skin-free skin, people need to know you can’t tell the difference.”
Fake fur, however, has been slammed for its environmental impact. “When I started at Chloé and had the conversation about fake fur, it was just about not using animals, it wasn’t about the environment. Then I didn’t touch it for a long time because it got so real-looking I thought it was kind of promoting real fur and making it ok. But I started to feel for really fake-looking fur. And young people were asking me why I didn’t do it. Big luxurious fakes. They want that look, that volume. It’s a statement.”
“I know there’s an environmental toll, but it’s tenfold more for real fur: the chemicals, the land usage, water consumption, energy efficiency. Of course, the fur lobby is going to say they’re more natural and it’s better, because that’s their PR spin and they know they have to do something to stay relevant and have a conversation and not look like mass murderers, which is what they are. But they are extraordinarily powerful. They have masses of money. When I was at college, they didn’t sponsor the kids, they said, ‘Use fur, and we’ll pay for your final collection.’ I sponsor students at Saint Martins now. I give them an ethical charter, and in order to get the sponsorship, they have to deliver on it.”
But Stella has always put her money where her mouth is. “I’ve sacrificed massively financially as a business. To do a non-leather bag and import that into America and get hit by a 30 percent tax because it’s not leather? There’s crazy stuff that goes on. That law’s gotta be a couple of hundred years old. When is America going to say that’s an antique law to protect the cowboys bringing the cattle industry into America? When is policy going to change to actually incentivise a business? Why does it cost me 70 percent more to make a non-leather bag? I don’t hit my customer with that, I hit my margin with it.”
On the flip side, Stella could point to the way China’s decision to restrict the importation of recycled plastic helped push waste and recycling to the top of the policy agenda. And yet, she says she’s one of the few who won’t sell her perfume in China because animal testing is mandatory for cosmetics companies doing business there. This means big conglomerates like Estée Lauder and L’Oréal have had to backtrack on their commitments. “And everyone is going to find out,” says Stella, “which means those businesses are going to have to go into China and change policy. And they will have to make that change for financial reasons.”
If I was a kid, I’d be in tech. I’d be figuring out how to utilise the $500 billion worth of waste in the fashion industry.
The bald fact is ethics don’t drive economics, economics drive ethics. “That’s the only way,” Stella agrees. “Human survival is the core of everything on this planet. The future of economics and politics will have to be saving the planet we live on. Millions of animals are dying every day for food or handbags. An area the size of one hundred football pitches is razed every hour for cattle feed. But when they can grow meat in a lab, that won’t be a business anymore. The question is, can they do it in time? We only have so much of it. It doesn’t take a genius to figure that out, when there’ll be more plastic than sea-life in the ocean by 2050. When can I start opening up about this in my interviews? Now we can have this conversation, where I feel we’re aligned, and I’m not being ridiculed, but at what stage am I allowed to have the conversation about the billions of animals that are dying and where they’re getting killed? This is dark stealth shit; it’s like gun manufacturing.”
She is feeling the urgency of the future. “What is fascinating to me is it’s a young people’s movement, because they know they’re screwed. They’re asking questions, making certain demands about the way they live, the things they consume. And every single business forum is focusing on: ‘How do we target them?’ I’m deeply offended by that word ‘target.’ Because it’s not like they care. Look at the warehouses of the people who say they’re not using fur. Where are all those fur slides going? There’s thousands of pairs, it’s going to be tricky. So, let’s really have the conversation.”
When I crunch the stats, consider the karmic impact of what humankind is doing to the planet, I feel the fire of drastic measures kindling in my black heart. For a moment there, Stella sounded like a kindred spirit. But then she says, “Fighting fire with fire doesn’t on the whole succeed. You have to gently open up a conversation and you have to have some heartfelt give and take. I’m a bit kill-them-with- kindness. I saw my mum really get hurt. It really affected her, and it affected a lot of my early career.”
“You can’t say I’ve given up. I’m still here after 20 years. I can have a conversation with the hard-hitters on the business side and they can see numbers and results, which show people you can do it and have a healthy business.” True, a Citigroup analyst estimated her brand’s sales at around €260 million ($320 million) in 2017, not including her partnerships with Adidas or Procter & Gamble. Not Gucci numbers, but proof that as the world wakes up to ethical consumption, she’s a force to be reckoned with, armed with a blueprint for how others can do it too. “And that’s possibly how I’ve made a little bit of difference,” Stella concludes. “Regardless of the ethical foundation, if you haven’t got a healthy business then nobody who steers the shifts is going to pay attention. It’s not charity, is it?”
The Business of Fashion is honoured to present the Global VOICES Award 2018 to Stella McCartney for outstanding achievement in fashion and exemplary impact on the wider world. VOICES 2018 takes place from 28 November-1 December in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.