Fashion conscience: Stella McCartney

Stella McCartney
Stella McCartney talks to Matilda Lee about designer activism and the release of her second 'eco collection'.

Matilda Lee: What prompted you to design an eco collection using organic and recycled fabrics and low impact dyes?
Stella McCartney: I would always touch on an element of a sustainable or eco collection in everything that I do. So in my lingerie collection, I have a part of the collection that is organic, or with my Adidas collaboration again there are organic materials or recycled materials in the bags or shoes, and every part of my design at some stage comes into contact with that. But what I wanted to do was isolate the collection and in itself make it completely sustainable, because I really wanted to bring all those elements together and show the importance that it has within the brand.

What do you find most alarming about conventional cotton and dyes?
I guess it’s just a very inefficient use of resources and it’s damaging. In saying that, I’m not perfect. I do use conventional dyes and cottons in the collection, but I think it’s important for people to know that. I’m a great believer that something is greater than nothing, and it’s difficult once you find out information about the consequences of the fashion industry to turn a blind eye. I think it’s important to educate oneself, to try to provide a high-quality product for the consumer and not to lose any of the desirability, and yet also to try to be more responsible in the way that you think and the way you source your materials.

How did you manage to source enough organic materials for your eco collection? Did you have difficulty finding enough raw materials that were organic?
We have a great rule that once we run out of organic fabric, that’s it – we can’t buy any more. So in a sense it’s always slightly a limited type of collection. That is something that really appeals to me anyway, that kind of philosophy that you shouldn’t just buy billions and billions and billions of the same jacket in the same colour. I think that that’s not a very modern way of looking at anything in life any more.

What was the most challenging thing about designing and producing your eco collection?
The most challenging thing was trying to play by the rules. It’s slightly more limiting: you have less colours available, you have less fabrics available, they’re a different quality to the type that you’re used to… I wouldn’t say there are restrictions, but there are definitely challenges. I think again it comes back to anything being better than nothing. So if I have 200m of something in storage that we didn’t use up in previous collections I will always turn to use that again before ordering more fabric. I think that it’s just a different way of looking at making things and creating a product.

The Design Council has said that as much as 80 per cent of a product’s environmental impact is decided at the design stage. As a fashion designer, would you agree with this?
Yes, probably – I would say that, yes. In fact I would say that designers of every industry have to be aware of the impact [their products] have later on down the road. Certainly in the car industry, the aviation industry, in housing – in everything. Designers are at the top of the pyramid in terms of creating products and they should know. It would have less of an impact on the environment if the creative teams were more educated about the impact the products they design have on the world we live in. In the fashion world I think that most designers know fur is wrong. More and more of them also know about the huge environmental impact of [producing] leather, in terms of the use of chemicals for tanning and dyeing. The land mass that is needed just to raise enough leather, enough skin for one handbag is far greater than growing a crop – bamboo, for example – that is sustainable. I think the consumer also has to be aware of these things and has to act responsibly in terms of the things he or she buys, and to start limiting the demand on products that are environmentally unfriendly.

What role can/should designers take in minimising harm to humans, the environment and animals?
Designers should get information and make adult decisions based on this information. Also they should try to avoid or simply avoid using any animal products – it’s not a huge task. As far as I’m concerned that goes for the food industry, the beauty industry and the fashion industry. Billions of animals are killed every year for ridiculous things. A lot of it just gets thrown in the bin.

Is your eco-collection just a one-off or the first of many Stella McCartney eco collections?
It’s not a one-off. We’ve been doing it for many years now and we intend to continue, and every year make a larger percentage of the collection more environmentally friendly.

You’ve been on the outside of the mainstream in your refusal to use fur and animal products in your collections, and in many ways have put the spotlight on animal welfare issues. How do you feel when other fashion designers are critical of your ethical concerns?
Number one, I’m not aware of it. I don’t really listen to a lot of that. How do I feel when they are critical? I feel disappointed, I guess, and surprised, but I haven’t really been aware of fellow fashion designers being critical of my ethical concerns – not in public anyway.

To date, fashion buyers, press and the public haven’t really held designers to account in terms of their impact on the environment. Do you think there should be more awareness of these issues in the fashion industry?
Yes, absolutely. It is the responsibility of journalists and buyers, but at the end of the day it is also the responsibility of the consumer. It’s like any industry: if people don’t buy something because they don’t believe in it then that’s the biggest impact you can have in getting your message across.

Your eco-collection is beautiful and sexy. Do you think the press/ public should finally relent in calling eco fashion clothes just for wearers of woolly socks and sackcloth?
I mean, yes. One of my biggest passions on this side of my collection is that ‘eco’ shouldn’t be a word that immediately conjures up images of oatmeal-coloured garments or garments that are oversized or lacking in any sort of luxury or beauty or detailing or desirability. I think that’s something that really needs to be broken down, and there should be no compromises from the design point-of-view. Your products should not be compromised in any way just because they’re environmentally friendly.

What did you learn through doing all this?
Every single day something is changing, somebody’s inventing a new material or giving you a new piece of information, either good or bad, so you’re learning a million things all the time. I guess the main thing I’ve learnt is that this is the right thing to do, and that decisions I’ve based on my beliefs and upbringing have served me well. I feel in my heart that this is the right way to work and it’s the right direction to take our business.

How can you help ensure that eco fashion becomes an underlying trend or movement and not just a one-off seasonal fashion trend?
Anything – this subject or in general – is in danger of becoming a trend or a one-off. The important thing is that everyone keeps an interest in it, and there is a vested interest because we live on this planet and we need to look after it, as without it, we have nothing. So it’s just not the fashion industry, it’s every single industry and I really think it’s important for me to stress that I am not perfect. I repeat: I am not perfect!

Could you see yourself increasing the amount of organic/recycled materials used to the point where all your collections are ‘eco’?

Who are your heroes in the eco fashion world? Are there any designers or campaigners that are a source of inspiration to you?
Yes, I have tons of heroes outside the fashion industry, but I can only think of Katharine Hamnett who is championing this kind of thing. I don’t have enough information about what she’s doing, but I think she is very vocal and very talented and I think she’s a cool woman. Unfortunately I don’t have enough peers who are thinking this way – I wish I could list you a million heroes in the fashion industry in the eco-world, but unfortunately I can’t think of many.

Stella McCartney’s eco collection is available from Stella McCartney, 30 Bruton Street, London W1. 020 7518 3100


Matilda Lee is the Ecologist’s Consumer Affairs Editor


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