Stella McCartney au Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Kering Talk 2016, Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, au London College of Fashion, Frances Corner, Dilys Williams

Sustaining a fashionable world

Stella McCartney speaks at London College of Fashion

You probably knew that Stella McCartney, as well as being a successful designer, was a vegetarian and does not use any leather or fur. But did you know that it's sustainability that gets her up in the morning, and that she doesn't consider herself a preacher? She revealed all recently at the third, annual Kering Talk at Centre for Sustainable Fashion at London College of Fashion, as K reports.

In her introduction, Frances Corner, head of London College of Fashion said: “We don't see sustainability as separate: it is an integrated part of the design process”.

Stella McCartney au Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Kering Talk 2016, Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, au London College of Fashion, Frances Corner, Dilys Williams

The same approach could be applied to the designer Stella McCartney who was being interviewed on stage at LCF by Observer/Guardian environmental journalist Lucy Siegle. Wearing high Stella McCartney platform shoes of recycled materials and false leather, Siegle asked the designer where she got her “effortlessly cool” look, and where it fitted in with her sustainable principles. “It comes from my upbringing,” McCartney said, “being ethical and responsible. I always believed you shouldn't sacrifice ethical for style.”

The designer admitted she was made fun of when she started her eponymous fashion house, “I was told I wouldn't have a business because it was sustainable!” People are more conscious now particularly, as she pointed out, because fashion, especially fast fashion, is one of the most harmful industries for the environment.

That is why her brand had been working for two years, with Canopy, to develop sustainably sourced viscose. McCartney said that 120 million trees a year are cut down to make unsustainable viscose. Her firm started looking at the complete picture, “We invested love in our supply chain”. (She also mentioned they had done a similar project in wool.)

Red leather, yellow leather

This is of course not the only or the most important ecologically responsible element of the brand's production, “The biggest sustainable thing we do is not use leather, and therefore there's no polluting tanning”. She added that one billion animals are killed for leather and that cotton [because of its processing] is one of the most carcinogenic products. She's proud to be recycling polyester, for example from fishing nets.

I get taxed 30% more on imports to the US compared to leather products. It should be the opposite!

What keeps her awake at night, apart from Trump?! asked Siegle. “The consumption of meat, which accounts for 18% of global greenhouse gas – I worry about that.” But, modestly, McCartney said she was “not trying to make the world vegetarian”. She is simply keen to raise awareness and ameliorate the situation, like her Meat-free Monday movement, which has been adopted by people and organisations around the world. “I get taxed 30% more on imports to the US [for her items] compared to leather products. It should be the opposite!”

She is realistic about what her campaigning can achieve and how she should go about it. “I'm also human; I'm not perfect; I don't want to preach.” Her approach is rather, “Did you know that wind power is more ecological?”

McCartney used to be embarrassed to say she was a fashion designer because of the waste and because: “The fashion industry is pretty old fashioned. We need to challenge the way we do things: we need innovation and technology.” So how would she describe herself now? “Oh, I don't know: a mother, a wife…” Not that she's likely to be giving up the design part any time soon.

Super furry animals

Her concern is to reduce environmental impact, “The minute you make something you make an imprint. I want to reduce that, for example by using recycled materials.” In general, she'd like to see greater awareness, “I wish more businesses would join us, by using more sustainable materials and processes.”

The minute you make something you make an imprint. I want to reduce that.

So how sustainable is the latest Stella McCartney (spring-summer 2017) collection? The women's wear is 53%, she declared, and the men's wear is 45%, “And we're happy with that.”

And how does the firm's Environmental Profit & Loss account play? “It's a way of tracking your business,” she explained, “with the E P&L we're lessening the impact, despite the fact we're one of the quickest growing businesses Kering has.” McCartney has had to adapt her approach, “What's the point of designing [drab] 'oatmealy' cotton clothes for it to end up in landfill?”

Similarly, 'fake fur' has improved (though apparently it's hard to put labels on): “Therefore there's no need to buy fur; there's no need to kill all those animals”. She pointed out it was exciting to work on sustainable issues, thanks to Kering.

And in case we were in any doubt as to where her heart is, she said, “Sustainability is the most exciting thing: it gets me out of bed in the morning; I feel blessed”

Not making a killing

What can we do in our daily lives to be sustainable? “Be mindful,” was the answer. “Ask questions, write letters, for example why did that watch only cost £3 [$3.4]?” She had similar advice for shopping: “We feel the food”, so it should be the same with clothes as she argued for more precise labelling of what garments are made of. “Fashion is literally getting away with murder!”

Who influenced her the most? “Mum and Dad. Growing up on an organic farm, we had sheep for wool; we didn't eat them: we let them grow old. It was uncompromising; it gave me strength”. McCartney is also influenced by documentaries such as The True Cost and programmes such as Clean by Design. She pointed out that using less water was often less energy-consuming and “can save money”.

The designer is constantly on the lookout for new, sustainable materials and processes but it was all “secret” she said, before adding, “Why not mushroom leather?”

She was referring to one of the Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion projects. Out of 400 registrations, five LCF students were selected as winners. The victors will receive grants and will be taking up internships at this year's two participating brands, Stella McCartney and Brioni.

Stella McCartney au Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Kering Talk 2016, Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, au London College of Fashion, Frances Corner, Dilys Williams

Live and let live

Californian Irene-Marie Seelig won the Stella McCartney Award for Innovation with her amadou mushroom skin project. The substance is a renewable, biodegradable and vegetarian leather alternative, and Seelig has tested both its aesthetics and durability as a luxury fashion material. “My project confirms my belief that innovation occurs at the intersection of the arts and sciences where we can leave a positive, lasting imprint on society and the environment,” she said.

Other projects including Agraj Jain's peace silk – letting the silk worm live its full life and emerging from the cocoon before it's used to make fabric, and Ana Pasalic's 'uncoloured colours' which could help save a substantial amount of water and avoid the human risk involved in synthetic dyeing, through dyeing the master batch solution. There was also Elise Comrie's proposal to design a dinner jacket dyed from organically sourced tobacco plants, and Iciar Bravo Tomboly's tool to measure and improve the social impact of a company related to the UN Goals and Kering's social targets, using a women's perspective.

At the end, McCartney was asked if she could she see herself art directing another brand that used leather? “No, the lady's not for turning!”

 

Stella McCartney au Centre for Sustainable Fashion, Kering Talk 2016, Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion, au London College of Fashion, Frances Corner, Dilys Williams