Editor’s Note: This story is one of two covers of Fast Company‘s November 2017 Tech + Culture Issue.
Consider your favorite T-shirt. Maybe it’s soft and worn, or fitted and new, or a recent pickup from a Kanye West or Taylor Swift tour. Whatever the style, chances are good the shirt contains polyester–a significant environmental pollutant that takes 200 years to degrade. If you don’t want the shirt to spend those years in a landfill, you could try passing it on for seven generations; maybe in two it would be fashionably retro. Even then, as you wash Kanye and Taylor (though never together), they will be shedding synthetic microfibers into the oceans. Now think about all the people in the world doing the same thing–humans consume 80 billion pieces of clothing a year, as reported in the 2015 documentary The True Cost–and you get a sense of how the apparel industry has become one of the most polluting on earth.
Thoughts like these keep designer Stella McCartney up at night. The lifelong vegetarian has never used leather, skins, fur, or feathers in her products, a remarkable achievement given the hefty profits made from accessories and clothing created with those materials. That was a radical stand when she landed her first big job, heading the French house Chloé, at just 25 years old, in 1997, before sustainability was even a topic in fashion–and an even bigger one when, in 2001, she launched her eponymous label, a 50-50 partnership with Kering, one of Europe’s two powerhouse fashion conglomerates. Two years later she introduced organic cotton to the runway, which quickly evolved to organic silks and wools, regenerated cashmere, and recycled polyester. Today, roughly half of every collection is made with sustainable materials, something no other top label can claim. When it comes to sustainability, “Stella is currently running laps around the other luxury designers,” says Nicole Rycroft, the founder and director of the environmental nonprofit Canopy.
She is looking ahead again. McCartney’s latest venture is a collaboration with Bolt Threads, an eight-year-old startup that has created a product called Microsilk, which is bioengineered to mimic the chemistry and strength of real silk created by spiders in nature. The resulting material will be a triple win if it can be produced at enough scale to be used in fashion: No insects are killed or harmed, the use of petroleum is limited, and manufacturing it does not require resources like land or water.
But rather than leave other labels in the dust, McCartney wants to bring them along with her. She knows that by developing and using environmentally friendly materials in her own collections, and talking about it, she can apply pressure to luxury fashion and all apparel to follow suit. Ultimately, her goal is to make real cultural change in the world.
A month after arranging the Bolt collaboration in July, McCartney is still visibly elated. The London-based designer and her family–husband Alasdhair Willis, the creative director of rain-boot company Hunter, and their four children–are spending their annual summer holiday in the Long Island town of Amagansett, New York, at the sprawling compound owned by her father, Paul McCartney, who is, of course, the former Beatle. An earlier downpour has foiled her plans to eat at a favorite outdoor food joint, so we’ve settled, instead, at a restaurant that bills itself as a “Bohemian eatery,” the menu stocked with the requisite kale salads and avocado toast.
McCartney is dressed entirely in her label, from her olive green jacket down to her 100% eco-rubber platform sandals. Stella McCartney, the brand, is known for its signature mix of feminine and masculine, soft and tough. McCartney the person is no different: unfussy, with a disarming warmth and quick sense of humor that slices through pretense. “I wouldn’t even have five minutes of things to talk about if this interview were about fashion,” she tells me soon after we meet. “I can’t think of anything more fucking boring. ‘Oh, my God! Yellow!’ ”
She’s fond of saying that fashion isn’t modern. “I have great respect for the history and the craft of what I do,” says McCartney, who, in addition to studying fashion design at Central Saint Martins, interned at age 16 with the luxury designer Christian Lacroix, and later with her father’s tailor on Savile Row. “That’s my career foundation, in that most medieval format, and I love it. But the way things are done, the fabrics used—they haven’t changed in a century. Silk has been made the same way for 6,000 years! There’s a resistance to innovation. I’m not just a fashion designer. I’m a businesswoman. In some ways, I feel more connected with architects and product designers.”
McCartney doesn’t get much opportunity to indulge her passions for science and technology with fashion journalists, who “mostly thought I was a fool for being a vegetarian designer,” she says. “I mean, what kind of idiot does that?” Which is one of the reasons she waited to announce the Bolt collaboration until the yarn was advanced enough to resemble the refined, ethically sourced silk she already uses. “I’m not interested in proclaiming newness just for the sake of it, or to be the first—that’s not what motivates me,” she says. “This is not about public relations. My intention is to create real change in an industry that desperately needs it.”
Recalling her November 2016 visit to the Bolt Threads factory in Emeryville, California—where large vats create a protein-based microbial goop that is then stretched and rolled into fibers—the 46-year-old designer assumes the wide-eyed look of Veruca Salt at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. “It blew my brains!” she says. McCartney offers a touch of her beige, loose-knit tank top, handmade with the silk she currently uses for her label. “It felt really close to this. It’s so kick-ass,” she says. “Everything about luxury fashion comes down to touch, how something feels. And God knows what Bolt can do next.”
Microsilk might not end up being the fiber that transforms the fashion industry, but McCartney’s effort represents a new wave of thinking about apparel, just as the rise of Whole Foods signaled a new attitude toward food. And the possibility of scientists mimicking every known material or developing entirely new ones has her falling in love with fashion all over again. “A shift like this,” she says, “it’s massive. . . . The reality is that if Bolt and other companies like it can replace silk or wool or cotton, we have a planet.”
“In the beginning, we were just dudes in an office full of spiders trying to make silk,” says scientist and Bolt Threads CEO Dan Widmaier. Spider silk is one of nature’s toughest substances, combining the pliability of rubber with the tensile strength of steel, and significantly tougher than that created by silkworms. It doesn’t take a bioengineer to understand how those qualities might appeal to manufacturers of everything from machine parts to clothing—pretty much anything meant to last. The problem: You need a lot of spiders to produce enough strands to create fibers. Live spiders tend to kill each other; so much for mass production. Bolt’s solution: a synthetic version, molecularly the same as spider silk, made of genetically modified yeast fermented in sugar and water.
If it pans out, the result could be as revolutionary as DuPont’s discovery of nylon, the first artificial fiber, in the 1930s, which led to the petroleum-based polluters of today—Lycra, polyester, Kevlar. “We were in stealth mode for roughly five years,” says Widmaier, who cofounded Bolt in 2009 with fellow scientists David Breslauer and Ethan Mirsky. “It’s only in the last two that we even [acknowledged] what we were working on.”
The Bay Area–based company is at the forefront of a handful of bioengineering startups developing eco-friendly textiles (including Spiber, in Japan, and Modern Meadow, in Brooklyn, which is creating a bio-fabricated leather out of the protein collagen). “Considering the magnitude of the problem of evaporating resources, the number of people working to change the material we put on our bodies is shockingly limited,” says Widmaier.
Bolt emerged from its stealth mode in June 2015. That fall, Widmaier received a call from Claire Bergkamp, Stella McCartney’s head of sustainability and ethical trade. It’s Bergkamp’s job to ensure that the label’s garments are environmentally and ethically accountable across the supply chain–from human toll to environmental impact–and monitoring and developing innovation in areas such as synthetic biology.
Bergkamp hails from Montana, where she grew up with environmentally conscious parents. After finishing a degree in design technology, she worked as a professional shopper for the TV and film industry in Los Angeles. “I literally drove around the Valley to different malls buying clothing. I was involved in consumerism in a way that no human should have to be,” Bergkamp says with a laugh. “You could say my interest in sustainable fashion is a reaction to the malls of L.A.”
Seven years ago, she heard about a master’s program at the London College of Fashion, which includes the Centre for Sustainable Fashion, one of the few places in the world with a research hub dedicated to the topic. When Bergkamp graduated in 2011, sustainability wasn’t a career option in fashion, but she didn’t have to wait long. McCartney had recently created the first job in luxury devoted to it, formalizing initiatives that her company had been working toward since the label’s inception, and she hired Bergkamp in January 2012. Soon, the two had developed a sustainability manifesto.
What excited Bergkamp about Bolt was the company’s commitment to ethical practices in solving performance and sustainability problems. “Most tech that existed before now, that was not part of the conversation,” she says. “It was just, ‘Let’s create something new! Who cares how many resources it takes!’ ”
Widmaier had been quietly hoping for that call from Bergkamp. “The second you go down this path, Stella quickly filters to the top of the mind,” he says. “She sees possibility where many would not.” By the time Bolt unveiled its first finished project using Microsilk–the Boltspun tie was unveiled last March at SXSW and quickly sold out in limited quantities on Bolt’s website at $314 apiece–Bolt and McCartney were already working together. Their debut project, a prototype Microsilk dress designed by McCartney and handmade by Bolt’s knitters, was revealed in October at New York’s Museum of Modern Art as part of an exhibition called Items: Is Fashion Modern? (open through January 28). Widmaier expects Microsilk to be available to consumers within four years.
Slideshow: Here’s how Stella McCartney is incorporating innovative new fabrics into her runway collections.
Jamie Bainbridge, Bolt’s VP of product development, calls scalability “the bugaboo of bioengineering.” A lot of people can make things in a test tube, and not a lot of people can take them beyond that. The challenges include manufacturing and durability. “The yarn is very delicate,” she says, “so there are issues in handling it through machinery and how it’s going to be cared for–can it withstand use, and is it a washable product?”
Bolt landed $50 million in funding last May. Two months later it expanded into an 11,000-square-foot fiber-spinning facility and acquired the Best Made Company, a Manhattan-based outdoor-apparel retailer. (Bolt is also collaborating with Patagonia on an undisclosed product.)
Bainbridge says that McCartney was involved at every step in the creation of the MoMA prototype, behavior familiar to Adidas’s VP of design, Robert Lee, who has worked with McCartney over the course of her 12-year collaboration with the sportswear company. “Stella creates the initial concept, all the way down to the last fitting,” he says. “She’s in every meeting, seeing the product through to when the consumer gets it. That’s more than I’ve ever witnessed in our [other] partnerships. It’s the sort of attention creative teams love–they thrive off her energy.”
For a long time, “Adidas were the only people I worked with who were as turned on and invested in technology as I am,” says McCartney. “If you’re working with an Olympic athlete, you have to have cutting-edge technology, the clothing has to perform. It’s just different from other clothing.”
She gives Adidas credit for schooling her in sustainability. The company made her aware of the dangers of PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, also known as vinyl, widely used to coat handbags and outerwear. “I didn’t know there was anything wrong with PVC, but there’s a lot wrong with it, and many fashion businesses happily work with it,” she says of the world’s most toxic plastic (among other things, it’s a human carcinogen). “Sequins are generally made with it, and any time you see a clear heel or a clear bag, that’s PVC.”
Adidas’s development team introduced her to engineered knitting, injection dye, and the reuse of waste products. After the company released its Adidas x Parley shoe, a 2016 collaboration with the Parley Ocean Plastic Program, which creates textiles from ocean waste (roughly 11 recycled plastic bottles per pair of shoes), McCartney went on to create a running outfit for Adidas using Parley’s material for the fall 2017 season. And she’s applied what she can to her luxury line.
The sportswear company is also where she first learned about synthetic silk. Last year, Adidas partnered with AMSilk, a German outfit that produces a synthetic spider silk called Biosteel. The result, the Adidas Futurecraft Biofabric shoe, released as a prototype in November 2016, can be dissolved in your sink after two years of high-
impact use. A lightweight, durable shoe that you can then return to the earth (with the help of an enzyme solution) is about as big a sustainability win as you can get. But the material for a sports shoe doesn’t have the refinement or suppleness necessary for high-end clothing. “The tech has got to get to the point where consumers don’t mind it at all,” says McCartney. “In luxury, you can’t accept downgraded quality.”
Adidas, meanwhile, has benefited from McCartney’s ability to turn technology into covetable design. McCartney spearheaded what is now the norm in women’s sportswear: high-performance garments fashionable enough to wear outside the gym. “Stella created a market,” says Lee. “She has a real sense for what makes women feel comfortable.”
Designer Tom Ford recognized this ability of hers early on. It was he who encouraged her to leave Chloé in 2001 and start her own brand alongside him at the Gucci Group (which later became Kering). McCartney “speaks to women in a way other designers don’t,” Ford says. “You instantly feel that what she is saying is honest and true.”
“After all the years of being ridiculed, I’ve finally arrived at a place where I can be the first person to access Bolt’s product,” says McCartney. She picks up her coffee cup, and with a wicked eye roll adds, “It makes it almost worth it.”
The derision—for being a vegetarian and for her cruelty-free clothing, particularly when she aligned herself with PETA at the outset of her career—was at times punishing. Not that the hostility surprised her: As the second-youngest child of Paul and photographer Linda McCartney, she grew up with it. Her parents chose to raise their four kids, in part, on a rustic farm in Scotland. Environmentalism was a dinner-table topic, the dinner was made from vegetables grown in the garden, and the horses were treated like family members. Her mother, an animal-rights activist, who died of cancer in 1998, was parodied mercilessly. “She got more flack because she was a woman, because she was married to my dad, because she wasn’t afraid to speak out on behalf of animals in a time where people didn’t have any care whatsoever for animals’ lives or well-being,” says McCartney. “And she was willing to sacrifice part of her privacy, part of her confidence for that. It wasn’t nice, she didn’t enjoy it, nobody likes being ridiculed. But she didn’t let it penetrate her skin.”
When I mention to McCartney that, after researching this story, I now feel guilty about every article of clothing in my closet, she grabs my arm: “But I don’t want you to! Something my mum used to say, that I think is sort of my mantra, is, ‘It is allowed.’ It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s okay.”
Her response is kind, if somewhat disingenuous. McCartney is plenty irritated with people who should know better, particularly politicians and government leaders who benefit from thwarting evidence or undermining environmentalism. “For example,” she tells me, “Stella McCartney gets taxed as much as 27% more when we bring nonleather accessories into America. What the fuck is that about? Because I’m not cutting down trees or killing your animals, I’m punished for making a superior product? Who benefits from that?”
At one point, we get into the topic of China, a market McCartney entered in 2015. Overall, she’s impressed by the country’s openness to sustainability—”it’s an important conversation for them”—but she refuses to bring Care, her 100% organic beauty line, into the market, potentially forgoing millions of dollars in revenue, because Chinese law requires animal testing. “Nobody talks about this, but every single beauty brand in the world that is sold in China is tested on animals,” McCartney says. She flicks her hand dismissively. “That’s everyone.”
Her frustration can extend to consumers as well. She gestures to the people outside the restaurant. “You walk out there,” she says, “and nobody has a clue. It takes your breath away.” A moment later, though, she takes a businesslike view. “Someone told me recently that by 2050 there could be more plastic bottles in the ocean than sea life. Part of me thinks, What a horrible stat!” She dramatically clamps her hands to her head. “I don’t want that in my brain! But the other part of me sees opportunity.”
In 2011, Yvon Chouinard, the cofounder of Patagonia, published an ad in the New York Times. It was Black Friday, the opening bell for Christmas shopping, when companies can make their biggest single day of profit. The ad, which read “Don’t Buy This Jacket,” was Chouinard’s way of bringing awareness to the global crisis of overconsumption.
Chouinard is something of a god within the sustainable universe. “Patagonia walks the fucking walk,” says McCartney. He reminds her of her mother, especially in his nonjudgmental approach. (“Another thing she used to say,” McCartney relays: “ ’It’s not should, it’s could.’ ”) Certainly no company has done a better job at transparency—of gently educating consumers about textiles and explaining that impact doesn’t end with the fabric used to make their fleece vest; it extends all along the supply chain.
“Stella doesn’t have quite the same approach,” says Bainbridge, “but she’s not in the same business as Patagonia. She’s not serving the mass market.” McCartney’s audience is smaller and demands aesthetic excellence; you might buy hiking pants that aren’t fashion forward, but you won’t spend four figures on a dress unless it will make an Instagram statement. But her environmental efforts could have an even deeper impact: Clothes like hers set an artistic standard. “I don’t think you should compromise anything for sustainability,” says McCartney. “The ultimate achievement for me is when someone comes into one of my stores and buys a Falabella bag thinking it’s real leather.”
Fast fashion offered an opportunity to spread her gospel wider. When McCartney’s wildly successful 2005 capsule collection for H&M—made with sustainable and organic fabrics—quickly sold out, the Sweden-based company began to introduce its own sustainability initiatives. In 2014, H&M partnered with McCartney and international textile labeling organization Ginetex for the Clevercare labeling system, which educates consumers on how to lower impact when caring for a garment—two words: less washing—so that you can keep them longer. (Other brands, such as Agnès B. and Esprit, have since signed on.)
McCartney doesn’t have much good to say about her fellow luxury designers. She can’t think of other labels that are “putting their money where their mouth is,” as she puts it, in the way that Eileen Fisher, Adidas, and, of course, Patagonia are. “I’m obviously proud to say that Stella McCartney is the only fashion house working this way. I’m also disappointed.”
The 50-50 partnership she negotiated early on with Kering, which wholly owns its 15 other luxury labels, allows her the freedom to pursue her mission. Stella McCartney currently has more than 700 employees and 51 freestanding stores around the globe, but the label’s rise is steady rather than exponential. Kering’s superstars are Gucci, Saint Laurent, and Bottega Veneta; their combined earnings propelled Kering to record growth in the first half of 2017. A bulk of the profits from those labels comes from the prices they can attach to goods like the python handbag Gucci sells for $5,900. (Gucci made 72% of its revenue from leather shoes and accessories in 2016; Kering formed the Python Conservation Partnership in 2014 to improve serpentine trade.) McCartney’s best-selling bag, the Falabella, which tops out at $1,200, is made of vegetarian leather and lined with a nylon made from recycled bottles.
“She sells fewer handbags because of those materials,” says Karen Harvey, the CEO of Karen Harvey Consulting Group, an international firm that works with luxury fashion labels (though not Stella McCartney). Until there is a leather equivalent of Bolt’s Microsilk–something that duplicates the rich textures and durability of animal skin–sustainable designers will be at a disadvantage. “That’s a choice Stella’s made,” Harvey says. “On the other hand, her voice and vision and beliefs–that’s what makes her influential and popular. She has a very specific but perhaps even broader following than Gucci.”
Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault does care about sustainability. He has made it a core tenet of his business. Kering also owns Puma, whose former CEO, Jochen Zeitz, pioneered the Environmental Profit & Loss (EP&L) account in 2011. The initiative put a direct monetary value on the negative and positive impacts Puma was having on the environment. These costs had nothing to do with net earnings; they simply offered stockholders and the business a way of monitoring their footprint. “Even those concerned only about bottom lines–and not the fate of nature—must now begin to realize that the sustainability of business itself depends on the long-term availability of natural capital,” Zeitz said in 2011.
Kering adopted the EP&L, first with Stella McCartney and Gucci in 2015, and later across its brands. It has removed all the PVC from its collections, built a material-innovation lab, and launched the Kering Award for Sustainable Fashion (in which winners, from the London College of Fashion, receive funding for eco-friendly concepts and the possibility of an internship at Stella McCartney or Gucci). Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, used Aquafil’s Econyl, a regenerated nylon made from abandoned fishing nets and other waste, in his fall 2017 men’s outerwear collection and recently announced that the company would ban fur beginning with its spring/summer 2018 collection. And Saint Laurent recently announced the launch of an annual sustainability-focused couture program. Kering has also promised to reduce the environmental footprint of all its labels, including greenhouse-gas emissions, by 50% by 2025, and to focus on animal welfare. “Stella has really acted as a role model,” says Kering’s sustainability officer, Marie-Claire Daveu, demonstrating “how you can be sustainable and profitable.”
The conglomerate, which was recently ranked the most sustainable luxury-industry company by Dow Jones for the third year in a row, has yet to publicly embrace another McCartney issue, however: Trees. An enormous number of them, 120 million a year, are cut down to make the highly absorbent rayon known as viscose, much of it sourced from ancient and endangered forests. McCartney was the first major designer to sign on to Canopy’s initiative to ban such sourcing in fashion in 2014. She was also the first to cancel a contract with a viscose producer. Canopy CEO Rycroft sees a direct line from McCartney’s participation in the effort to the commitment by 90% of global viscose producers to stop sourcing from endangered forests. Now, 105 brands (including H&M, Levi Strauss & Co., and Marks and Spencer) have signed on, promising to work only with conscientious suppliers, which represents about $130 billion in revenue annually. “That’s a relatively quick shift of the dial—three years,” says Rycroft, and proof of McCartney’s influence across the industry. “But obviously we’d like to see Kering join McCartney in making the same pledge. They are key to shifting the luxury space.”
Sometimes McCartney worries that by being such an outspoken environmentalist, she’s scaring other luxury designers away from the cause. “Our industry, like most, is fiercely competitive. So if someone has ownership of an area, like sustainability, does that prevent other people from wanting to do it? Does it then become ‘too Stella McCartney’?” Such an attitude, she says, defeats the purpose of innovation. “This is a time where you can’t be competitive.”
The onus, of course, isn’t just on designers or fashion brands. “Consumers need to own this,” she says. “They need to bring the same holistic mind-set to fashion that they brought to food and health.” That includes learning how to properly care for garments to extend their lives, how to read labels (as critically as they might a can of soup), and how to pressure manufacturers about the sourcing of materials. And, if the answers are unsatisfactory, pressing brands for change. “Once companies see an impact to their bottom line,” says Bergkamp, “sustainability won’t be adopted briefly, as risk management, or something to appease stakeholders, or a way to stay relevant. It’s not necessarily that companies will be rewarded if they adopt sustainability, but that it will be more of a punishment if they don’t. Luxury is getting wise to that.”
It isn’t lost on McCartney that it’s mostly younger consumers–millennials and gen-Zers–coming up to her on the street, “thanking me for being the only designer who cares about animals and the planet, for giving them an alternative,” she says. “They’ll tell me they love my [clothing], and whether they can afford it or not isn’t part of the conversation. It’s what I represent for them that they appreciate.” With 4.3 million Instagram followers, McCartney is clearly connecting with that younger audience, many of whom consider her a bigger star than her father. Paul who?