In late April, the Financial Times’s (and soon to be New York Times's) Vanessa Friedman gave a speech at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit on the paradox of sustainability in the fashion industry. With designers piling on season after sub-season, the imperative to push new styles stands in opposition to any notion of permanence, Friedman argued.
There are a few sides to sustainability in fashion. One is the manner in which a product is made — be that environmental practices or the treatment of workers, the failing of which was tragically exemplified in the Rana Plaza factory collapse last year. The other is the rate at which consumers are expected to replace that product with the next, more stylish thing.
Both are dependent on fashion’s attitude toward values-driven business, which, Stella McCartney noted in an interview with Friedman at the FT Business of Luxury Summit in Mexico on Monday, is a notoriously fickle thing.
“The sad thing about the fashion industry in particular is that things come in and out with fashion. It’s what we’re good at. One season fur is in, the next it isn’t,” McCartney says. “To be sustainable and responsible in business, [the effort] needs to be continuous.”
McCartney says that building environmentally sustainable practices into her own business has been a “long-term commitment,” from eschewing leather and fur to setting up supply chains with environmentally-friendly wool manufacturers in Patagonia and using recycled materials for the lining of her handbags. An outspoken animal rights activist, McCartney has woven sustainability into her company’s story. While those decisions might not be top of mind when looking at her new collection, it would be impossible to speak about her career as a designer without bringing up environmentalism at least once.
“People don’t always question the sourcing of their materials, and it’s critical, it’s key,” McCartney says. “In farming, you know you have to put back into the soil in order to get a good crop the next season. The fashion industry doesn’t always approach it from that point of view.”
Despite proving that one can build a successful business while taking a more responsible approach to production, McCartney admits that her label is far from 100 percent sustainable in its practices.
And regardless of the manner in which McCartney’s collections are made, the designer admits that her job is to create sartorial cachet — no different from any other designer who lives and dies by making the hot ticket bag of the season.
“I’m a fashion designer, and I have to create desirable, luxurious products that women are going to want, whether they’re a little more sustainable than the other or not,” she says. “The main thing is, they need to want them.”
That’s just it. To reduce the impact of fashion production through sourcing and manufacturing is undeniably a good thing. But designers still have to play the game of persuading shoppers to buy, and buy more.
Watch McCartney's full interview with Friedman, below.