Can fashion ever fully reconcile sustainability with growth? The industry is manufacturing-dependent, which means pushing ever-more product out into a world already saturated with stuff. Must the purveyors of said stuff at some point limit their massive quantities — and even at the luxury level, the quantities produced are indeed massive — if they are serious about saving the planet?
That was the starting query for a column intended for WWD’s Earth Day Special Issue on Monday. I approached an academic, a scientist and, of course, leaders in fashion’s sustainability efforts, from stalwart designer-advocates to the heads of sustainability at Kering, Tapestry, PVH, Ralph Lauren and LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. My goal was short-term and considerably more manageable than their ongoing pursuit of sustainability: a tight 1,500 words or so that would address the overarching question and related themes. Some common themes emerged across the conversations. Most of those interviewed insisted that corporate growth and sustainability are not parallel goals. Rather, they must be intrinsically linked for the good of the planet and its inhabitants.
“Sustainability is not at all an option. It’s a necessity,” said Marie-Clare Daveu, chief sustainability officer at Kering. Nor can the industry satisfy itself with “incremental progress.” Rather, she offered, “we are speaking about changing the paradigm.”
Eileen Fisher emphasized urgency. “The U.N. tells us we have 10 to 12 years before catastrophe if we don’t act. So just from basic moral and philosophical reasons, we have to do it,” she said. Still, she noted the inherent dichotomy. “Our commitment is to work hard toward making everything we make more sustainable and to really force the way to be a fully sustainable company. But at the same time, how do you keep growing, and is that even the right goal?”
She noted, too, that even the financial world is waking up to the necessity of an integrated approach to sustainability, with the finance lords now “paying attention to the environment” when making their investment decisions.
They aren’t the only ones. Members of the workforce are posing questions that resonate through the recruitment and hiring process. “There is a war for talent going on right now, we’re all in the middle of it,” said Marissa Pagnani McGowan, senior vice president, corporate responsibility at PVH. Applicants often want to know where a company stands on environmental issues, she offered, citing one candidate interviewing with the controller who asked about details of the CR report before benefits. “We hear it over and over,” she said.
Nor is such heightened interest mere apple-polishing through the interview process. Chief supply chain and sustainability officer Halide Alagöz joined Ralph Lauren three years ago from H&M. “The moment my hiring was announced,” she said, “I started receiving hundreds of e-mails — ‘how about this?’ ‘What are we doing about this material?’ ‘What are we doing about tracking and traceability?’”
Ditto consumers. Almost everyone I spoke with agreed that consumers are more informed than ever and demanding information more than ever, particularly younger consumers, a direction expected to continue. “It’s happening all over the world,” Daveu said, noting particularly the interest of Gen Zs and Millennials. They “want to buy products made paying attention to the planet and to the people.”
Despite the accord on numerous points, something happened en route to crafting my tidy 1,500 words — an explosion of interest indicative of the dedication of those leading fashion’s sustainability efforts. There was none of the typical prelude to a group-story request (“who else is participating?” — ugh). Stella McCartney can be a tough woman to pin down for an interview. Not now. And if the only time that worked for both of us was at 8 p.m. her time at home with the kids, no problem.
When I contacted Tapestry’s p.r. about a conversation with the head of sustainability, she let me know that chief executive officer Victor Luis was about to unveil the group’s corporate citizenship goals for 2025, and would I be interested in that story as well. Of course, but for my original piece I would be speaking with groups’ sustainability chiefs, not ceo’s. “That doesn’t matter. He’s passionate about this.”
Most people agreed to phone interviews rather than e-mailing responses, and most were in no hurry to hang up, going into considerable detail on the topic. While I’m no Alberta Einstein, I’m smart enough to know that in a 30- or 60-minute call, you can’t really go deep on a company’s sustainability processes. You can grasp the corporate philosophy and glean meaningful perspective on its implementation from people in positions to develop and impact procedures at large companies, the activities of which have major impact on the Earth and its inhabitants. Given the time they devoted to our conversations and the passion with which they spoke — and that they are all either specialists in sustainability issues or at least deeply involved in concrete measures to achieve it — it seems inadequate to insert snippets of their thoughts into my nonexpert musings for a single column. Instead, through this week, WWD will run significant portions of their interviews.
Those conversations swerved through all kinds of compelling subtexts. Along the way, some questions were answered, others not. Left unresolved: my original query of whether it’s possible to reconcile sustainability with growth, in part because I didn’t properly force the topic of general overproduction until well into the series of interviews. But no matter. This is not a one-day or one-week topic. As Stella said, “If you’re working this way and you really mean it, it never ends.”
Speaking of Stella, it’s well-known that her zeal for preserving nature’s wonders, starting with animals, predates her arrival to fashion. She was raised on it, “on an organic farm by a family of people [you may have heard of them] that were open-hearted and open-minded to these kind of conversations 45 years ago.” When she brought her personal belief system to fashion, she found herself pretty much a lone wolf, admired by some in the industry and really not admired by others.
Today, while Stella thinks the fashion industry still doesn’t do nearly enough to protect the environment, she finds reason for optimism. “This is a conversation that really seems to be happening,” she said. “I’m not the freak in the room anymore. I’m not the weirdo funky vegetarian chick having a conversation that nobody knows how to even start engaging in.”
No better place to start here than with that never-freaky, ever-funky vegetarian chick who has always put her business procedures where her ideals are.
STELLA MCCARTNEY: So the question, how can one come to terms with the struggle of growth and being sustainable? And is it a contradiction?
In my mind one has to lead by example. We are talking about an industry that is one of the most harmful on the planet to the environment. That’s just a fact. So we’re starting off from a pretty bad place. I think it would be wonderful if we were mindful from Day One, and we conducted ourselves with some kind of awareness. Unfortunately, that’s just not how we seem to have gone.
Having said that, we can do better business in the fashion industry. I’m trying to show people that you can have a healthy growing business and still have sustainability at the core of that. There’s a way in which to conduct yourself as a businessperson creating product in the fashion industry, at any level really. I just happen to be at the luxury level of the conversation.
The reality is if we don’t start doing it, then we will have no business anyway, you know? We will have no planet to conduct business on — full stop. So we have to look at the reality. It’s hard for me to say because this is my business, my business is to be sustainable and to be mindful, to be ethical. And not only to other creatures on our planet, but also to the people who make our clothes. And when you start having that conversation from Day One, I’m answering your questions in a very different way.
So I am looking at it from a place where I’m proving to my colleagues in this industry that you can have a conversation in this industry, be relevant, be fashionable, be desirable and be better also when it comes to environmentalism and conducting yourself in a conscious manner. So for me, yes, the two can go hand-in-hand and they have. At this stage in the conversation, they must go hand-in-hand, because if you cannot create a business model that is viable and sustainable and supports human beings in their place and the home, then you don’t have a conversation, you have no business.
Of course, the theory of creating a product in any way is a contradictory idea when it comes to sustainability, and I have always said that. The minute you make anything you’re creating some kind of footprint. But what I’m doing at Stella McCartney is I’m trying to look at the source point.
The source point is critical for us. We’ve learned that 60 percent of all of the sustainable benefits that we have as a fashion house start with our sourcing. That’s an incredible number. We are very, very mindful of the raw materials, how we source them. We only use recycled viscose, recycled plastics and we are very focused on the technology. That is, for me, the future of this conversation, and is something that can be a really healthy growth area of the industry, looking at recycling these materials so that they can get back into the food chain of fashion more than once — twice, three times even. That’s really critical in order to have a more positive impact on the environment.
Transforming your supply chains is really the conversation to be had. For viscose, for example, 150 million trees a year are cut down in the name of fashion. I’m probably the only brand in the world that’s sourced sustainable viscose from renewable forests. That’s something I had to do off my own back, it cost me money, it cost me a lot of time, but you know what? I mean it and I believe in it and it’s how I want to live my life. It’s the kind of footprint I want to leave behind, as a businesswoman and as a mother, on this planet.
WWD: How did you come to the sustainable viscose and for how long have you used it?
S.M.: It took us about three years to source a viscose in Sweden, looking at the pulp in a sustainable way where they were really planting the trees rather than just cutting them down and leaving deforestation. That took us about three years to create the process from thoughts to actually the point of finish.
And then we took that fiber and we took it to the same exact luxury mills in Italy that everybody in the fashion industry uses. There was resistance at first; those mills were like, “Hey, we only use X, Y and Z, and we’re historical and we have our standards.” But they slowly opened their minds and they slowly came to realize that we could create a product together that was better for the planet.
If you’re working this way and you really mean it, it never ends. This is a conversation that will never end at Stella McCartney. Every single day we find a new challenge that we have to find a solution for. It’s not easy to only use recycled polyesters and nylons, but that’s a commitment that we have at the heart of [our business].
WWD: You only use recycled polyesters?
S.M.: We only use recycled polyesters and recycled nylons. But that took us time to find the suppliers.
It also took [time to find] a quality level that we were satisfied with and that our customers responded to. Because there is no point in creating an organic cotton shirt if I can’t get the meterage and if the client is like, “you know what? This is a compromise, and I’m still paying this price.” Because, of course, organic cotton is more expensive than a conventional cotton. There’s so many issues around the conversation.
But to your point, which is a really interesting point, is it not a contradiction in its own right? Well, no, because we have to start somewhere. We have to create a business model within the world of fashion that is less wasteful. We literally wear fast fashion a maximum of three times before it becomes landfill or is burned. That’s literally a truckload of fast fashion every second being incinerated or put into our earth. That is not a sustainable business model, and that growth is not healthy for our environment or healthy for our mind-set.
It takes billions of barrels of oil to produce polyester and nylon. That’s crazy. That’s a conversation that has to be had; it doesn’t have to happen. What I’m trying to do is set an example, show that you don’t have to sacrifice style and you don’t have to sacrifice the quality, the make, the sourcing, you don’t have to sacrifice, hopefully, the design. It should be equal to every other product that’s actually destroying our planet. The customers should feel it.
I’m not killing animals. That’s basically the biggest impact I have — not using leather. I don’t use the chemicals, I’ve got no tanneries. Killing and farming animals inefficiently uses electricity and water sourcing and basically, [it cuts] down forests. I’m trying to show that with no compromising, I can have a growing business.
I don’t want to have this conversation if I can’t have a sustainable business to show for it. There’s no point. Then it becomes a completely invalid conversation. It’s irrelevant. You quite frankly wouldn’t want to talk to me if my business was going down the pan.
WWD: You said this conversation should go on at all levels of fashion, that you just happen to be at the luxury level. Everyone agrees that there’s a huge problem with excess consumption. But I think fast fashion has been demonized in the ecological discussion when the reality is that most people can’t afford to buy at the luxury level.
S.M.: Of course. I totally agree with you, my god. And to create a product that ticks all the boxes costs money. That’s another conversation that needs to be had. There’s no guidelines, there’s no real policy set in place for the fashion industry, and thus there is a cost that is paid by someone like me. I have no incentives. The government doesn’t incentivize me. I can be taxed at 30 percent more just bringing a nonleather good into the Untied States. I’m actually punished for trying to conduct myself better in the business of fashion.
The reality is that most people don’t want to be irresponsible. I think a lot of people can’t afford [expensive] clothes but I think they can afford vintage, I think they can afford thrift store. I think they can feel freer to style themselves now than we have ever before. There is a much more open mind about reflecting who you are through what you wear than there ever has been.
These are conversations that are at the forefront of fashion right now. You can be educated into knowing that you can question what you’re buying before you buy it. You don’t need to have seven pairs of jeans that really deliver on the same thing for you. Maybe you can have one and maybe the second pair is a hand-me-down or it’s from a thrift store or you customize it yourself or it’s from The RealReal or it’s rented. These are the new business models that are supporting this conversation in the fashion industry today.
WWD: You have been committed from Day One. You also have your own company, soon to be fully yours. Most public companies report quarterly; all live and die by shareholder returns. Is it realistic to expect them to put the environment first in planning their operations?
S.M.: Is it realistic to think that the fashion industry can be the only industry that isn’t going to reflect the future of consumer needs? In the food industry, the fastest-growing area is probably vegetarian and vegan food. Is it realistic for the fashion industry to dig its head into the sand on this issue? It’s not.
Whether it’s authentic or not isn’t the conversation. The conversation is that everyone now is having this conversation. There are protests in the street by the next generation, and you know what? Every single big corporation now that looks at a bottom line, whether they’re doing it for the right reasons or not, knows they have to look to that generation X, Y and Z. Every single one of them wants to safeguard the future of the planet. That’s the reality and that’s what will protect their bottom line.
They’re not stupid. I am engaging with [countless executives] in this industry and the question they have for me is, how can they do it? How can they do what I’m doing? Number one, I would suggest that they need to mean it because you do have to take some kind of hit to actually have some long-term results when it comes to talking about the environment and delivering to the next generation of consumers. They’re not idiots, and they can sniff the unintention a mile away.
What’s the driving force now in architecture, in cars, in everything? It’s [green architecture]; it’s electric cars. These are the industries people are investing in now. The modern investment in most people’s portfolio is environmental. We all know that these are the future growth areas. So why not in fashion?
As a business conversation, it’s a great conversation to have. I know that I have a healthy business and I know that I shall continue to do so if the consumer [continues to react positively]. This is the area that people want to talk about. The product can’t be sacrificed. The problem is that people need to know how to do it. I’ve been doing it from Day One. There are so many ways of doing it. If anybody wants to know how to do it, they can come and ask me and I’ll tell them, gladly.
WWD: You’re willing to share information?
S.M.: Absolutely. It’s estimated that 95 percent of clothing being produced ends up in landfill. Who wants to be part of that? I don’t think anyone does…I don’t think the consumer can be blamed. I think we need to give gentle information, we have to nudge people in an encouraging way into the right direction. We have to provide solutions and I think we do need to provide incentives.
I sponsor scholarships at my old school, Saint Martins. And I have basically a guideline: no leather, no fur, no feathers, and it has to be environmentally friendly design. I have plenty of amazing students that I’m currently sponsoring. This is the kind of intention that I think the industry could have. I say “could” and not “should” because I don’t think anybody needs to be made to feel bad in the process.
Fashion is for dreaming, it’s for elevating the mind and it’s a creative, desirable, dreamy place to be. Environmentalism and sustainability can be part of that conversation. You can still escape into that side of fashion, but you can have a heart at the same time, and you can have a responsibility to the planet and the future generation of people who want to design or wear fashion.
The thing is, it’s not about yesterday and today. We have to talk about tomorrow. We have to act now. We all know in the industry how long it takes to create a collection. If you’re sourcing in another part of the world, it can take up to six months to a year.
My collaborators at Adidas, we’re working so far ahead. The impact [of work we’re doing] today won’t come around until far into tomorrow. The action does need to take place now. From Day One, my collaboration with Adidas, which has been hugely successful, we have always been sustainable in the way in which we design and approach that collaboration. And that’s what, 13 years? So if I can do that and if they can do that, I think that sets a pretty good standard for other companies to join.
This is why I set up the Stella McCartney (Care Green?) Foundation. I’ve been a scientist for 18 years. It’s essentially what I am, not just a designer. I have to work every single day to look at the challenges that we are all facing as an industry and create solutions. My last collection is a good example. I have upcycled garments that were just made of all of the landfill we’re talking about. I ripped them up and I made a multicolored dress. And then I had all of the fabrics that I’ve used over the last 10 years, sitting in storage, prints that the majority of the luxury fashion industry burns. I upcycled them and I made my dresses for the runway show.
But see, I find that exciting. I find that as exciting as when I’m trying to grow leather in a laboratory or work with somebody in San Francisco to grow silk in a lab. I find that as sexy and exciting and challenging as designing the next length of a skirt or a silhouette.
WWD: It must be creatively exciting to approach materials in that way.
S.M.: When you’re a fashion designer, you don’t just sit anymore and go, “ohh,” and “dreamy.” That doesn’t exist now. Even if you have a dreamy design idea in your head, you have to make it real, you have to make it happen, you have to get it on a person’s body. I believe in designing clothes that people can wear, god forbid, and so I have to take what’s in my head and make it real. With that comes a whole set of challenges.
All I’m trying to do is make it real with a cotton that’s grown in a bio-diverse manner, which is actually putting back nutrients into the soil. So in answer to your first question, which is, is it a contrast of arguments, I’m actually trying to do the reverse.
Essentially when you’re a fashion designer, you’re as much a farmer. When I talk about 60 percent of what we do is to source sustainably, in a positive way, we’re farming the land. Fashion designers are farming the land. Now, either you’re farming it with animals or you’re farming with crops. I’m looking at biodiversity in a way in which I farm and source my cotton, for example, and I’m putting those nutrients back into the soil, I’m looking at the structure of the soil and trying to not dismantle X amount of the depth of the soil, which is where all of the oxygen is stored. It’s science, it’s farming and it’s fashion. It’s all mixed.
WWD: So it’s all connected.
S.M.: Of course. What do people think it is? Where do they think new fabrics come from? Who do they think is making it? These are conversations, and they don’t have to be overwhelming and terrifying.
I feel so privileged. I don’t know how I got so blessed that I was brought up on an organic farm by a family of people that were open-hearted and open-minded to these kind of conversations 45 years ago. That’s a miracle, and it’s impacted everything I’ve done.
WWD: You were born to it.
S.M.: We’re working with Econyl, an amazing tech company — it’s recycled nylon. All of the linings in our Falabellas are made out of recycled nylons; all of them are nonleather. That in itself — it’s unheard of, and we’re so lucky we even have a bag that people recognize and copy.
For that bag to be sustainable is crazy brilliant, and I’m so proud of us. But we’re looking beyond that. We’re challenging ourselves, looking at someone like Econyl, which is basically recycling not once, not twice, but we’re trying to push every boundary we have. We’re not perfect. There’s a lot more to be done.
Do people even know that glue in every shoe and every bag in the fashion industry pretty much is made out of boiled-down fish bones or animal bones? Do people know that? No, I don’t think they do. If they knew that, would they still want to buy it or would they maybe go ugh, that can’t be good. What are my alternatives?
I’m offering an alternative. Vegan Stan Smiths, the Stella Stan Smiths. That’s the new future. That to me is the future of fashion.
WWD: Are you optimistic?
S.M.: I’m more optimistic than I ever have been. I really feel like this is a moment where people are engaged in this conversation and I feel they’re genuinely interested and genuinely concerned that we need to rethink the business model, to have a business. [The answer to] your first question is there won’t be a business if we don’t conduct ourselves now in a way that looks to the future of fashion. And it’s not only fashion. It’s making any product, it doesn’t matter what it is. We now have to respond.
So I am optimistic that this is a conversation that really seems to be happening. I’m not the freak in the room anymore. I’m not the weirdo funky vegetarian chick having a conversation that nobody knows how to even start engaging in. I’m less mocked than before. Now I feel that people want to react. And for whatever reason, I am hopeful that at least there is some kind of reaction happening.
I believe in the future; I believe in our kids. Because they are going to fight for their lives on this planet. Every single fashion house that’s starting now should start in this way. If I can do it, they can do it. This is what I did from day one. Yes, I had a great business partner helping me but…
It’s way more doable now than it’s ever been. The fabrics are there, the materials are there — I’ve created half of them. And they’re getting better and better. This is the first season I’ve ever been able to put a full-length, faux-leather coat on my runway. Before, I couldn’t have that expanse of faux leather that didn’t just fall like cardboard or look terrible. I had faux leather and fur pieces on the runway that I think looked real. I don’t think anyone could tell the difference.
WWD: You’re right. I don’t know. I’m assuming. I do know there’s a lot of merch out there.
S.M.: I know what you’re saying and, of course, it feels that way because we’re just so exposed and it feels like the planet is full and it feels like this industry is just getting crazy.
This is a conversation of sustainability. I grew up with a grandfather who said staying power [is what’s most important]. It was at the core of how I wanted to conduct myself in the fashion industry before I even knew what the word “sustainability” meant. At the end of the day staying power is the root of every good business model, no matter what.
WWD: Several people I’ve spoken with about sustainability have said that consumers, particularly younger consumers, are forcing the sustainability agenda, asking questions wanting to know.
S.M.: I don’t think you would be engaging in this interview to the extent that you are if you didn’t know that that was the case. You know what I mean? The next generation of people may not compromise, I hope. They are not going to compromise in what they eat, they are not going to compromise in what shampoo they use. They are asking questions, and rightly so. They are challenging the convention. And how f–king kick-ass is that?
WWD: You said you’re more optimistic than you have been. Do you feel maybe a little smug? People are finally coming around to your thinking.
S.M.: No. No, I don’t. I don’t think that’s it. That’s not chic, I don’t feel smug, that’s not why I’m doing what I’m doing.
I don’t feel smug. You know what? I’ll feel smug when I have one person standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me, just one, then I’ll start feeling encouraged. I have not still got one person in the industry standing shoulder-to-shoulder with me that isn’t killing animals.
That’s the next conversation that you will be having. I’ll give you a few years; you will be having a conversation about the amount of animals that are killed for fashion. Because it’s also a conversation about kindness. It’s always been a cheesy thing to say and it’s never been cool. For some weird reason it’s always been cooler to kill animals than not in fashion. But you know what? That is a conversation that will arrive. I’m very sure of that.
WWD: Don’t you think it’s a little bit there? Many brands have sworn off fur, though not always shearling, and certainly not leather.
S.M.: No it’s not there at all. It’s not there at all. It really isn’t. But it will hopefully get there, because people are going to have to connect with their fellow creatures in order to coexist. This is a conversation of coexistence both with nature and animals. We inhabit the planet with other things. In order to really make the connection of sustainability, we’re going have to figure that out.
But I don’t feel smug, because it’s not done. And even if it gets done I won’t feel smug, I’ll feel so relieved. I want help. It would make my life sooo much easier if somebody else in the industry refused to use PVC, so that I could have more than five sequins on offer. Everyone else gets 50,000 sequins they can use because they use PVC. I have like five. I will feel really happy.
Smug isn’t something that even occurs to me. I’d just be relieved that I’d have to do less work on sourcing and I could work more on design. I would have to solve a lot fewer problems if I had some people joining my conversation.
WWD: On that note, your passion on the subject is powerful.
S.M.: I’m sorry how tough I get. I truly get so passionate. I’ve just come off an ad campaign that was all around this conversation. It’s hard when you see — it’s an industry that has been wearing blinkers, and it still is, really. We need people to really commit. There needs to be a commitment and in order to commit, sadly, we’re going to need some kind of parameters put on us in this industry.
WWD: Do you mean legislation? I talked to a scientist, Linda Greer, who said that.
S.M.: Well we need [something]. That’s why I work with the U.N.…There has to be because sadly people don’t care. On the whole, people don’t care.
WWD: Are you talking about animals or the environment?
S.M.: The environment. I mean, your article is absolutely on point because the bottom line is the bottom line and all of these businesses are focused on the bottom line. It doesn’t mean they’re bad people, but that’s what they have to be focused on. In order to even have a conversation about sustainability, we’re going to have to put in some kind of parameters and laws, and people are going to have to be told they can’t use X, Y and Z. There has to be a starting point for the industry.
WWD: Linda said self-governance hasn’t worked.
S.M.: It won’t, it doesn’t. It’s a dream to think that more people would be committed. I don’t blame people for not being [committed], but there have to be rules and regulations set in place. And I do believe in incentives because you have to encourage people. It’s not a punishment.
WWD: Thank you so much.
S.M.: Thank you, Bridget. I hope I haven’t been too passionate. I hate that I’m so passionate about this. Sometimes I wish I didn’t give a s–t.