Stella McCartney, a British fashion designer, is special advisor on sustainability at Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) . She has spent recent years developing new sustainable fabrics such as Econyl, a 100% recycled and recyclable nylon, and luxury leather substitutes made from plants. McCartney is also a founding investor in Collab SOS, a $200 million fund to support the development of circular materials.
What is the single most important action you think the public, or a specific company or government, needs to take in the next year to advance the climate agenda?
Since day one, in my personal life as well as in my business, animals and their welfare have driven me and my vision. When I connected this ethos with the impact animal agriculture has on the environment after learning from Livestock’s Long Shadow report 17 years ago, it all clicked. Over 1 billion animals are killed to supply leather to the fashion industry every year, so for me the single most important thing for the public, businesses, and governments is to focus on animal agriculture and how it impacts our industry.
Fashion is one of the most harmful industries to the planet. Animal agriculture accounts for approximately 14.5% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, which is about equal to the transport industry at 14%. This is where leather comes from. Not only is leather driving the destruction of our rainforests, but it is also releasing toxic chemicals into the environment which are also entering local water systems. It needs to be tanned with carcinogenic chemicals that are drastically shortening the lives of factory workers, often in the most impoverished nations. It is cruel on every level.
Businesses need to transition away from these conventional, harmful materials and methods that hurt workers and animals. We need to get creative and innovative with alternatives, moving beyond the limited materials that the industry has been working with traditionally. If we work collaboratively with these goals, we can actually begin doing business in a way that regenerates our planet instead of only taking from it.
The public too has an integral role to play by demanding transparency and accountability from brands and governments. Meanwhile, governments need to create incentives for fashion businesses to work in a more sustainable way. This is a direct result of the leather industry’s lobbying and is counter-productive to our shared goals of fighting the climate crisis and protecting our planet for future generations.
What sustainability effort do you hope will gain popularity with the general public this year, and why?
Since the shift away from animal products and byproducts is one of many efforts that I’m most passionate about, alternative material innovation is the sustainability effort I have always championed.
I’m so proud that here at Stella McCartney we have been leather- and fur-free since I founded my brand in 2001, and I’ve invested in these animal-free alternatives for decades. Through the sustainable investment fund I co-founded, SOS Fund, we have helped to further advancements in the next generation of material innovation and technology. There is now an incredibly wide range of eco-friendly materials for both companies and consumers to choose from, from plant-based leather to infinitely recyclable fabrics.
I am incredibly proud to craft accessories from MIRUM by NFW, which is a plant-based, plastic-free alternative to animal leather that requires no water or tanning. We were the first fashion house to send this pioneering material down a runway and are using it in more pieces every season.
In my recent Summer 2024 runway show, we worked with the visionaries at Keel Labs on a seaweed-based yarn, Kelsun, grown from renewable and regenerative kelp that uses the ocean’s resources to protect it. This could also offer a planet-friendly alternative to cotton, which accounts for 2.5% of the world’s arable land and 16% of all pesticide use. Kelsun uses 70 times less water than conventional cotton, and 100% less land and pesticide use. This is the future of fashion.
Innovators need investment. Without, they cannot scale—or survive. An example that I am heartbroken over is Bolt Threads, who innovated the Mylo, which was a mycelium-based alternative to leather. We had been working with them for over five years to pioneer and perfect this material but without enough industry and consumer support, they had to stall production indefinitely.
Part of my role as special advisor on sustainability to LVMH CEO Monsieur Arnault is introducing these innovators not only to LVMH Maisons but the wider industry so that they can get the support they need, and this never happens again.
What is a climate technology that isn’t getting the attention or funding it deserves?
We all know that sustainability has become a bit of a buzzword, which I hate. What does it even mean? For me, this is so much more than a trend and a marketing ploy. It is something that I feel so deeply in my heart that we must do to protect our fellow creatures, our planet, and our children’s futures.
At the end of the day, this is not only good for our collective wellbeing, but is also good business. The equivalent of a truck-full of clothing goes to landfill or incinerators every second. This is a huge opportunity for any company willing to be brave and bold enough to tackle it.
Circularity is a technology that deserves not only further corporate investment, but legislation from our leaders. By forcing companies to reuse and repurpose what we already have, we can help to limit the amount of virgin natural materials we extract from the planet and reduce our impacts.
Two that really excite me at the moment are innovative textile recycling and the ability to create new materials through direct air capture of greenhouse gasses.
We are seeing the development of technologies capable of breaking down used garments into their basic fibers, which can then be reused to create new, high-quality fabrics—such as Protein Evolution, which I am already investing in both through my brand and SOS Fund. Further examples include new initiatives that are able to create materials from greenhouse gasses, which is so exciting to me and we’re working with a number of innovators across this space too.
These kinds of circular approaches can not only dramatically reduce waste and the demand for virgin materials, but also ultimately lead to a new form of sustainable business that is integral to our survival.
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