She has pioneered sustainable clothing for 20 years but, as fashion's environmental impact reaches a critical catastrophic point, Stella McCartney — businesswoman, fashion designer, mother and environmental activist — explains why this is the planet's Time's Up moment
When Stella McCartney first started talking about the climate crisis, she was largely ignored. No one in fashion really wanted to know how she produced her fur-free, leather-free collections, or how she ruled over a business obliged to offer a new ethical code of conduct for workers and a new respect for the countries they lived in. People admired her stance but they didn't follow her lead.
But now we have reached a tipping point for the fashion industry, which is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon emissions — more than maritime shipping and international flights combined. We have to turn to legislation for change. McCartney has now written an impassioned letter calling for change. In it she notes that if nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will be using up to a quarter of the world's carbon budget.
The campaign for her latest autumn/winter collection was shot in Wales by Johnny Dufort, and stars Extinction Rebellion activists alongside models including the iconic Amber Valletta. The clothes themselves feature organic cotton, denim that has not been sandblasted (a process that is harmful to workers due to the silica in the air), viscose from a sustainably managed forest in Sweden (where each tree felled is replaced by a seedling), recycled polyester and metals with reduced environmental footprints. If you buy into this collection, you are buying into a new sustainable production process, into a business that really cares. More importantly, you are supporting a brand that proves it can be done.
The luxury end of fashion can do what she does, it just needs to be more transparent about its current practices and work out how to do what McCartney and businesses like hers do. Her years of scientific exploration are available to the fast-fashion end of the business, too.
McCartney isn't the only one leading the way: many producers have put their money where their mouths are but the rate of change has slowed down recently. We cannot accept this as consumers, which is why we asked her to write an open letter to the industry.
An open letter to the fashion industry
By Stella McCartney
My aim in writing this is to encourage those of you reading it to be more conscious, take action and question the current state of affairs.
While I have been talking about these issues, practising sustainability and fighting for animal welfare in my workplace since I started my brand in 2001, I am by no means perfect but I make every effort I can. The fashion industry is at a crossroads and I believe that this is a moment for us to come together to achieve systemic, sustainable change in our industry. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting and damaging industries in the world. Every single second, the equivalent of one rubbish truck of textiles is sent to landfill or burnt. The fashion industry accounts for more than a third of ocean microplastics, while textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of clean water globally. If nothing changes, by 2050 the fashion industry will be using up to a quarter of the world's carbon budget.
This way of working is not sustainable. The world is crying out for change and it is our responsibility to act now. The younger generation, members of the School Strike for Climate movement, are standing up and telling us that our house is on fire and that we need to respond like we are in a crisis, because, in fact, it is a crisis. Groups like Extinction Rebellion are even demanding change to the point of boycotting fashion. The science is clear and we need to do more than just incremental shifts; keeping business as usual is no longer an option.
In this moment we should reflect on how we got here. Not so long ago we did not treat clothing as disposable. The rise of "fast fashion" has distorted our relationship with fashion and design. In the current system, designers set trends, fast-fashion copies these trends and force-feeds them to us. This leaves no room for self-expression.
We are seeing that people are looking for a better way and want to recycle, to repurpose, to rent, to buy vintage, to buy and sell each other's stuff. This creates an exciting time for other business opportunities such as rental, re-sale and new ways of recycling clothing. These new ways of engaging with fashion create communities, providing a creative way to express your personality and individuality through the clothes you wear.
The next step is to shift towards circularity and reuse what we already have on the planet — helping to reduce the need for a high quantity of new raw materials. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation tells us that only 1 per cent of textiles are recycled back into textiles each year — this is simply unacceptable. Supporting innovators will help to drastically increase this number, but we need this shift now.
Consumers are the ones in charge - and we are all consumers. Every time we buy something, we advocate for it. By giving our money to a company, we are voting for it to stay in business. Consumers are now asking for clarity on where the stuff they buy comes from, pushing brands to be open. There is a need to be more transparent about how things are made, where they are made and their impacts. For the conscious consumer, at
Stella McCartney we try our best to do the work for you.
For us, 60 per cent of our overall brand impact is concentrated at the raw-material stage (farming and so on). This is why we are so focused on how we source our materials. It is why we are using organic cotton, why we don't use leather or fur and why all of our viscose comes from a sustainably managed forest in Sweden. The decisions I make as a designer when I choose my fabrics are some of the most impactful ones I can make. For instance, at the farm level, the differences between organic cotton and conventional cotton are huge: conventional cotton is one of the world's most toxic crops. Knowing the source of viscose is critical because 150m trees are cut down annually to make it and, if not managed or monitored, it can lead to the destruction of our last intact forest ecosystems.
For decades the fashion industry has relied on the same 10 to 12 fibres to make almost all of our garments and I believe it is time for us to add some new tools to our toolbox. Innovators like Bolt Threads are using cutting-edge technology and biology to develop new textiles and materials. They are reimagining what the building blocks of our industry could be and we are working closely with them as they develop incredible mycelium-based "leather", grown in a lab and not harming a single creature in the process. The production of leather, which can account for up to 10 per cent of the commercial value of a cow, shares full responsibility for the same environmental hazards as the meat industry. Most critically, it is a leading cause of climate change. I believe with these new technologies that we are on the brink of something very exciting.
This is our moment for change, the planet's Time's Up moment.
The fashion industry shares everything: supply chain, raw materials, logistics and this overlap means that we can truly work together to fix things. In August, the G7 Fashion Pact was launched. The pact is aligned with the UN Fashion Industry Charter's climate commitments but also has an emphasis on reducing fashion's impact on biodiversity and oceans. These historic efforts show the industry is starting to move together in the right direction. If you are in the fashion industry and represent a company that is not signed up to either of these initiatives, I urge you to. It is going to take all of us together to shift the scales in the right direction.
We are coming together as an industry because governments have largely failed to enact meaningful legislation to protect the environment. We need to work together toward changing policy. Companies that choose to use sustainable materials such as organic cotton, recycled polyester or other verified inputs could and should be incentivised by legislation. For example, offering lower import tariffs could accelerate the use of these better materials, because right now it is a cost to the business that, unfortunately, prohibits some brands from embracing more sustainable options. We need not compromise style for sustainability and we can show that it is possible to build a healthy, profitable business with mindfulness and consciousness.
To end, I want to encourage everyone to be curious and to question things. We can all be activists and should be. There is no reason for us to continue down the path that led us into this environmental emergency and collectively we can reroute and create a better future. I am encouraged every day by the people I work with. I see more hope now than ever and, by simply reading this, you are part of the solution. I am more excited than ever that we are awake and alert in this critical moment for planet Earth.