Stella McCartney: Making faux leather a luxury
While the term luxury in itself and even less so the luxury industry might be connected to a sustainable image, Stella McCartney has succeeded in building a powerful eco-friendly luxury brand.
Luxury goods and sustainability – does that go together?
Luxury – the term itself finds its origins in the Latin word “luxus”, which translates into “splendour”, “sumptuousness”, “excess” or “extravagance”. More so, thinking about the luxury industry evokes thoughts of precious and rare materials, that usually require a high amount of resources to manufacture. Taken together, luxury initially sounds more at crossroads with a sustainable use of resources and conscious strategy about climate change.
When writing my thesis about the future of personal luxury goods a couple of years back, I found that experts were skeptic about eco-friendliness becoming a more important purchasing consideration for luxury goods going forward. (1) More recently, however, a variety of academic and business publications have described sustainability as “the next big thing” for the luxury industry. (2)
How Stella McCartney is leading the way
The designer Stella McCartney – and daughter of Paul McCartney – has made sustainability a key priority for her. Founded in 2001, her fashion label is part of the powerhouse Kering and focuses on women apparel and handbags, starting at price tags of $1’000. Her efforts of achieving a low-carbon footprint are based on two key pillars.
- Using and promoting environmentally friendly materials
- Reducing the environmental impact of her operations
Having been a life-long vegetarian, McCartney refrains from using real leather in any of her products. (3) Widely used in the luxury industry, leather is the most important co-product of meat and thereby responsible for a waste use of water, food and pasture land as well as extensive CO2 emissions. To further educate consumers about the hazardous impact of leather production, McCartney has even teamed-up for a video production with the activist organization PETA (4)
Beyond leather, McCartney uses low-impact material for her collections. Textiles are as far as possible dyed with environmental friendly textures, her knitwear is made from organic cotton, while shoe soles are of biodegradable plastic. Furthermore she does also not shy away from using recycled and renewable materials for the production of her luxury products: recycled metal is used for the bras of her lingerie line, while her eyewear collection is made of renewable raw materials. (3) (5)
The company exhibits their measures to fight climate change also in how it operates its facilities. All stores, offices and studios are powered by wind energy in the UK and renewable energy abroad, while operations are currently at a renewably energy level of 45%. (5)
To further reduce the environmental impact of operations abroad, McCartney has partnered, as the first luxury company, with the National Defense Resource Council (NDRC) on their Clean by Design program. In this program, the NDRC tries to leverage the buying power of multinational companies to make suppliers in developing countries shift towards a more efficient usage of resources, like e.g. to reduce the amount of water used and polluted in the process of dyeing clothes. (3) (6) (7)
With all these initiatives in place, Stella McCartney still prefers her products to be judged by their design, rather than their sustainability aspect:
“I love that people come into the store and don’t even know that something is organic or in faux leather. That’s the biggest challenge, having people not notice.” (3)
Luxury companies in general seem to adopt measures against climate change because of the convictions of their founders or to appeal to shareholders and activist groups rather than because of changing purchasing behavior of consumers.
Where does the industry take it from here?
McCartney is certainly still one of very few luxury for which sustainability of products and operations is an essential consideration. Yet, it might have stimulated Kering and its subsidiaries more broadly to follow this trend. Recently, Gucci has launched non-deforastable bags and Kering has announced ambitious sustainability goals for the entire corporate.
After all, luxury is primarily about having a superior, long-lasting and high-quality product – which at least in its philosophy is very much in line with sustainability.
(1) Wilhelm, Katharina (2014), Luxury in the year of 2025 – An expert Delphi panel approach to develop scenarios for the personal luxury goods market in 2025
(2) Positive Luxury (2016), 2016 Predictions For The Luxury Industry: Sustainability and Innovation, http://blog.positiveluxury.com/2016/01/2016-predictions-luxury-world-sustainability-innovation/
(3) Stella McCartney (Website), Q&A with Stella http://www.stellamccartney.com/experience/us/sustainability/our-commitment/qa-with-stella/
(4) Peta (Video), Stella McCartney takes on the leather trade, http://www.peta.org/issues/animals-used-for-clothing/leather-industry/
(5) Lolli, Alessandra (2015), Stella McCartney: Fashion And Sustainability, http://www.thefashionglobe.com/stella-mccartney-sustainable
(6) National Resource Defense Council, Clean by Design, Apparel Manufacturing and Pollution https://www.nrdc.org/resources/clean-design-apparel-manufacturing-and-pollution
(7) National Resource Defense Council, Fixing the Fashion Industry, https://www.nrdc.org/stories/fixing-fashion-industry