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Stella McCartney 'Barely Knows What Sustainable Means Anymore'

The designer used her Spring 2021 presentation to try and go deeper with the language we use to talk about fashion's environmental impact.
A look from the Stella McCartney Spring 2021 collection.

A look from the Stella McCartney Spring 2021 collection.

Environmentally-conscious fashion has a language problem, and Stella McCartney knows it.

"I barely even know what the word 'sustainable' means anymore," she said on a Zoom press conference on Thursday. "There's so much greenwashing going around, as we all know, and there's confusion about what these words mean."

So McCartney decided to use her Spring 2021 collection to try and expand people's understanding of what it means to do right by the planet. She created a brand manifesto based on the alphabet, where different letters would correspond to different brand values. Some connect directly to sustainably (for example, A is for Accountability, O is for Organic and Z is for Zero Waste), while others have more to do with Stella McCartney-specific brand codes (F is for Falabella, which references one of the house's iconic bag styles). 

Each letter in the alphabet manifesto was illustrated by a different artist, including notable names like Cindy Sherman and Jeff Koons. And each letter corresponded to one look from the Spring 2021 collection.

The goal, McCartney explained via video chat, was to try and communicate something about the brand that goes deeper than just a basic understanding of sustainability.

"The majority of people who say they're doing a sustainable thing, if you ask one question, it will pretty much fall down at the first hurdle," she said. "What you need to qualify for that word is just the bare minimum of paying people a decent wage... It's a bit tiring to see people's overuse of these terms and really not have any substance to back it up."

She notes that luxury brands in particular are able to get away with this simply based on the fact that they're not selling fast fashion. But she wants to challenge her industry peers to do more. On the call, she "dared" other brands to do Environmental Profit & Loss (or EP&L) reports, as she does with her own label, in order to actually track the real environmental benefits and harms incurred by their production. 

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As much as she's tried to lead from a company perspective, McCartney also welcomed governments getting involved. She recounted growing up on an organic farm and knowing that neighboring farmers were able to get government subsidies that her family couldn't, even though they were being more environmentally responsible. And she notes that, because her bags are vegan, she has to pay higher taxes to import them to the United States than she would otherwise.

"I get a 30% taxation. Thirty percent! It's a fucking huge amount of money, and I don't put that on my customer, I swallow it in my margin," she said in the video call. "But if you put a piece of pig leather this big" — here she held up her fingers a couple inches apart — "on the product, you don't have to do the tax. So you can have 30% extra money in your margin. I even wrote to Obama when he got in, I was like, 'Can you have a look at this tax?'"

The tax is still there, she notes. But she maintains that the fashion industry should be regulated by the government to reduce harm, and incentivized to increase good.

"Our industry needs to be told they're not allowed to do things, and they need to be told that they can do something a better way, and if they take that choice, they will get a benefit for it," she said.

Despite all the talk about politics and being weary of greenwashing, McCartney's attitude seemed light on the call, matching the playful energy of the clothing she presented. A number of dresses are made entirely of lace trims from past seasons, and McCartney also noted that the majority of the cotton in the collection is organic. Bright pinks, whimsical seashell prints, quirky suiting silhouettes and super-short miniskirts pointed to an optimistic vision of a future that will have room for parties with friends, as well as lounging around at home. 

"We will all come out of this," she said, referencing the pandemic in which Spring 2021 was conceived. "I'm already saying to my team, 'Ok, where's the celebration collection?' Because we all know it's gonna happen. I think that's why there's color, and there is hope in this collection."

See every look from the Stella McCartney Spring 2021 collection in the gallery below.

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