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.

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

 

Sustainable Black Jacket – Black shirt in silk / Paper – Short in organic cotton/ Plexi – Black Shoes/ Gold Falabela in faux leather
Sustainable Black Jacket – Black shirt in silk / Paper – Short in organic cotton/ Plexi – Black Shoes/ Gold Falabela in faux leather

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

Eco-friendly materials

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)

Low-impact operations

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.

 

Sources:

(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

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12 thoughts on “Stella McCartney: Making faux leather a luxury

  1. I very much admire how Stella McCartney has been so disciplined about sustainability while also maintaining an aspirational luxury brand. I find it interesting that similar to the Nike case, her efforts toward sustainability where very strong but not made into the main marketing message used for the brand. I also think there’s something to be said about starting as a private brand with personal funding. I do wonder if that financial freedom could have contributed to her ability to see more long term as it relates to the cost of her inputs and her commitment to sustainable practices.

  2. I find it very interesting how distinctive the sustainable material that Stella McCartney produces is.

    It gives rise to the question – when creating a new operations system that takes sustaibility into account, do you create a product that is significantly differentiated, or create one that closely resembles the existing products in the market?

    I think Stella McCartney is a great argument for the former, whilst too companies like Kering and Gucci are trying the latter.

  3. I enjoyed learning how Stella has made the choice to challenge traditional views of luxury goods (e.g., real animal products) and to reshape consumers’ view of luxury fashion products. Rather than step onto an openly environmentalist platform, she has instead built demand for her products for their design… and their sustainable production is a beneficial byproduct. Something that I’ve noticed in my own shopping experiences is the brilliant re-branding of fake leather (formerly known somewhat pejoratively as “pleather”) to “vegan leather”. I admire the positive environmental impact of such initiatives, but am also curious about the economics of the shift. I would imagine synthetic materials are much cheaper than authentic animal hides, fur, etc., so am interested to understand how producers of luxury synthetic fashion items (such as Stella McCartney) think about transferring economic value between their customers and their own bottom line.

  4. It’s very interesting to think about how sustainability plays in to the future of the luxury industry. I find it especially interesting because you mentioned sustainability as becoming “a more important purchasing consideration for luxury goods going forward,” while Stella’s view is that “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.” This raises a few questions 1. are consumers really incorporating sustainability into their decisions? If so, why would Stella want to hide it entirely? Perhaps it is more Stella’s personal mission and fears that drawing attention to her practices could draw attention away from her skills as a designer. 2. Are consumers only incorporating sustainability into their decision it if they are deterred from a purchase due to hearing about environmentally unfriendly business practice rather than encouraged to make one because of it?

  5. I have been reading about a lot of brands that are experimenting with faux leather and it seems like there are three main issues with the product: 1) quality 2) longevity and 3) price point. When reading about Stella’s shift to sustainability, I did not see anything about her developing innovative ways to create faux leather which leads me to question points 1 & 2 and whether her products can stand up against other luxury retailers who continue to use animal products. Like one disgruntled blogger notes (see link below), Stella is using PVC and still charging $2K for a bag that might not last as long as one that uses animal products. Traditional luxury retailers justify that sort of price because the materials they are procuring are both rare and (when taken care of) will last for years, which does not seem to be the case here. As companies innovate on the quality of faux leather and others continue to use real leather, do you think she will still be successful while charging such prices and relying mostly on her brand name to sell them? In order to avoid that but to also not get involved in something that isn’t a core competency, I am wondering whether going forward she would consider relinquishing some control over the sourcing. It might make more sense to partner with start-ups like Modern Meadow (a company that is focused on replicating the cell make-up of real leather in an artificial way) to produce her products. Otherwise it seems like a hard sell going forward as more companies become sustainable and find better alternatives!

    http://www.purseblog.com/clutches/can-someone-explain-to-me-why-stella-mccartneys-bags-are-so-expensive/

  6. You highlight a critical point – that consumers shouldn’t be differentiating on sustainability but rather design and quality. In my mind, this is how we integrate sustainability into everyday life rather than a fad or novelty. I’d be curious to see if Stella McCartney or the parent company receives any government subsidies or benefits for their practices. Again, while I believe in good intentions, I also believe that economic incentives will be critical to driving behavior of companies.

    Would also like to understand what measures Stella McCartney takes with its suppliers to improve its carbon footprint.

  7. People generally consider leather as a by-product of meat production and discount the environmental implications that animal farming and leather tanneries produce. Given the fact that leather tanneries are one the most polluting industry, it was a relief to read this article that alternative materials are being marketed not under some “eco-” label but purely on the basis of design and fashion value.

    The next questions I would be curious about is how to scale it up for more general use, by increasing durability and color / texture options? Innovation in marketing? Increasing quality and similarity to real leather?

  8. I think that one of the main legacies that Stella may leave to the world of fashion is the way she was able to make sustainable products “fashionable”. You have pointed out that Kering, the second largest luxury conglomerate in the world, has embarked on a very serious long term campaign to make its business model more sustainable, and you hint that this may have been influenced by Stella, whose brand was acquired by Kering few year earlier. It would be incredible If Stella had actually been able to influence Kering, and it would represent a very interesting model that could occur in other industries: small brands could become sort of labs for large corporations, used to test out new sustainable models, before going full scale.

  9. I had no idea about Stella before I read this! Thanks for the informative article. Stella’s seemed to have developed such a strong reputation in the fashion industry and it’s an interesting second order solution to the effect of livestock production’s impact on climate change. Rather than assume people are paying luxury prices to primarily support the environmentally friendly company, I agree that quality and design play an even more important part in the value proposition for consumers, especially if the underlying material (i.e., faux leather) is not typically used for luxury items. I’ve heard that plastic is one of the hardest materials to recycle and it was awesome to read how Stella is using it on shoe stoles. I wonder if any other design innovations are in the works and other actions Stella is taking to develop a reputation beyond just artfully-used faux leather where Stella would become THE name for any luxury fashion item made from a variety of sustainable goods.

  10. Thanks for the interesting post! True to Stella’s quote, I had no idea so many of her products were vegan or sustainably sourced. I found it strange and somewhat contradictory that Stella would be willing to do a public campaign with PETA, but wanted to hide the sustainability / environmental friendliness of her product. What do you think it will take for Stella to come out more publicly about the sustainability of her products? is it a matter of eco-consciousness becoming more mainstream or do you think there is too much risk to her branding?

  11. I wonder how Stella McCartney price her faux leather products relative to other luxury brands. Given that leather jackets are fashion essentials and investment pieces for some people, how do customers justify buying faux product which are perceived as having inferior quality compared to real leather? It would be interesting to learn more about other strategies that Stella McCartney have taken to change this perception that real leather is of higher quality than faux leather.

    In addition, many fast-fashion brands like Topshop and Zara usually get “inspirations” from high-end designers like Stella McCartney, how does Stella McCartney differentiate its faux leather products from these fast-fashion brands?

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