Stella McCartney: Policy must encourage businesses to make fashion sustainable

Designer and green activist Stella McCartney has called on policymakers to implement laws which will incentivise big-name fashion brands to shift away from cradle-to-grave models and poor supply chain practices.

Speaking at Bloomberg Philanthropies’ climate exchange event in London on Wednesday (12 December), McCartney was asked to explain her solutions for the global fast fashion problem, which produces around 100 billion garments and 20 billion pairs of shoes globally every year.

“We live in a disposable society and the reality is that people wear a fast fashion piece an average of three times before it’s thrown away,” McCartney said.

“There’s a conscious consumption conversation that needs to be had and we need to educate so people are more mindful of the impact of their clothes – but I do believe it’s the business leaders and politicians that really need to take control.”

While McCartney founded her brand on the principles of social and environmental stewardship, she argued that high street brands would need support from policies which offer tax breaks to those producing clothing using biodegradable, compostable or sustainably sourced materials to set similar ambitions.  

“We now need to work with policymakers to create measures that incentivise change because, right now, the fashion industry is getting away with murder,” she explained.

“The supply chain is really where it falls down for the fashion industry. Brands don’t ask questions, they don’t challenge. There’s zero incentive to.”

Specifically, McCartney cited the fact that she pays 30% more tax to import vegan-certified handbags and shoes into the US than she would if they were made from leather. Her namesake brand is a prominent player in the sustainable-sourcing movement, having never used real leather, fur, skins or feathers in any of its products.

Amid sluggish policy changes and relentless demand from most consumers for cheap, mass-produced garments, McCartney argued that young people are leading the fashion industry’s transition towards sustainable sourcing and manufacture – with the expectations of millennials already spurring brands such as H&M, Gap and Adidas to increase their ambitions.

“Every brand that stands for something will be targeting young people and they will not stand for [weak sustainability action],” she said.

“People are pricking up their ears in my industry because they’re seeing that the young consumer will not stand for anything less than leadership.”

McCartney’s talk came off the back of several pieces of research which revealed that millennials – who will account for 75% of the UK’s working population by 2030 – want to buy from companies that have a purpose beyond their products and operations.

Communications agency FleishmanHillard Fishburn (FHF), for example, found that 93% of the millennial generation want to buy from companies that have a purpose, sustainability and environmental stewardship built into their ethos. 

These findings echo evidence given to the Environmental Audit Committee’s (EAC) inquiry into fast fashion, with designers and academics arguing that young consumers are leading the shift towards new business models that champion reuse, resale and the sharing economy.

An investor-led transition?

McCartney’s talk was followed by a panel discussion on the topic of sustainable fashion, with audience members given the chance to quiz representatives from retail giant C&A and NGO Fair Fashion Centre – the latter of which works with corporates to build the business case for circular fashion and supply chain sustainability.

During the panel, Fair Fashion Centre’s founder Cara Smyth disagreed with McCartney, arguing that investors – not young consumers – are driving change within the sector.

Specifically, Smyth argued that new technologies such as blockchain, digital payments and satellite mapping are bringing about an era in which fashion brands can no longer “hide” their supply chain and manufacturing practices.

“Data is being scraped shows everything from your tweets to your biggest suppliers,” she explained.

“The investment community is there pointing out that you grew a third of your cotton in a water-stressed area, or that you’re producing clothing in an area of geopolitical risk. These risks interest the investors and, as such, creates a domino effect down the supply chain.”

Smyth also argued that consumers have a much larger role to play in solving the global fast fashion problem than McCartney claimed. Despite the efforts of leading brands, consumers are still sending the equivalent of a bin lorry full of garments to landfill globally every second, she claimed.

“People are buying things because there is a market for them and there are a lot of very conscious young people who live their lives in photographs – the idea of not wanting to wear the same thing twice on Instagram is real,” Smyth said.

Responding to this comment, C&A’s chair Stephen Brenninkmeijer argued that the onus is now on high-street brands to develop sustainable products at a price parity with traditional fast fashion garments – and to pay more to do so, if necessary.

“There’s a massive demand for fast fashion and, if there is a demand from customers, you have to meet it in some way,” Brenninkmeijer said.

“We know sustainably-sourced materials are more expensive but they’re also better for the environment and better for the consumer, which is why we sell them at the same price as traditional garments. We subsidise them and we take a lower profit margin.”

C&A revealed in 2017 that it would redesign its business model to move away from cradle-to-grave methods. Since then, it has launched the world’s first Gold level Cradle 2 Cradle Certified t-shirts, which are made with 100% organic materials and designed to be reused, recycled into new products or safely composted. 

C&A is now looking to achieve C2C certification for more of its product lines, after meeting the certification standards for its jeans in August.

Sarah George

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