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Stella McCartney on fashion’s steep environmental toll: ‘We don’t have 20 years to wait’

Stella McCartney is representing the fashion industry at COP26 and argues that governments need to start regulating her sector.

Stella McCartney on fashion’s steep environmental toll: ‘We don’t have 20 years to wait’
Stella McCartney and Prince Charles,Prince of Wales. [Photo: Owen Humphreys/WPA Pool/Getty Images]

Earlier this week, Stella McCartney sat down for a dinner at COP26 with people like Prince Charles and John Kerry. After a day of discussing the climate crisis, she was dismayed to find that steak was the main course. “Cows are a huge contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” she tells me. “We have so much work left to do here.”

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[Photo: courtesy Stella McCartney]
McCartney knows a thing or two about cows. Throughout her 30-year career as a fashion designer, she’s refused to use leather in her designs and has been sounding the alarm about fashion’s calamitous impact on the planet for decades, long before it was trendy.

At COP26, the United Nations’ climate conference, McCartney wants world leaders to recognize exactly how devastating fashion is to the planet. And since she doesn’t believe companies will clean up their act voluntarily, she’s asking politicians from around the world to regulate the industry and impose penalties that are common in other highly polluting sectors, like aviation and automobiles. But given the scale of the fashion industry’s pollution, the big question is whether policy change will happen quickly enough to avert the looming climate disaster.

A dirty industry

The global fashion industry—a $2.5 trillion sector that churns out 80 billion garments a year—is a significant contributor to climate change. McKinsey estimates it was responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018, equal to the emissions of France, Germany, and the U.K. combined. Over the past few years, fashion brands—from Gucci to Allbirds to H&M—have talked about moving toward more sustainable practices. But as a whole, fashion isn’t on track to meet the emissions targets necessary to avert the worst impacts of climate change.

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[Photo: courtesy Stella McCartney]
McCartney’s desire to make the fashion industry more sustainable came out of her passion for animal rights. As the daughter of Paul and Linda McCartney, both of whom were strong proponents of vegetarianism, McCartney grew up vegan and was well versed in the negative impact of the meat industry. As a fashion student in the ’90s, and later, as the founder of her eponymous label in 2001, McCartney refused to use animal products in her designs. This was a bold move in the world of high fashion, where leather and fur are prized as luxurious materials.

Two decades on, McCartney’s company is known for its sustainable practices. Her stores are powered with renewable energy and outfitted with furniture bought locally or at auction. She releases an annual “Environmental Profit & Loss” account, which maps out environmental impacts across the whole supply chain. She uses recycled cashmere, organic cotton, and viscose sourced from certified sustainable forests in Sweden.

It’s time to regulate fashion

When it comes to fashion, McCartney says there are several things governments can do. One important one is to set standards for how companies track their environmental footprint, and then require them to release annual reports—something that is required in some other sectors, like aviation. She says she had to come up with a way of tracking her own company’s environmental footprint from scratch, working with industry experts. But other brands use different measuring systems. “Before we can actually change anything, we need to measure our impact,” she says. “But right now, very few brands are doing it, and we’re not all using the same system.”

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McCartney also believes that governments can help prevent greenwashing, which refers to making false or misleading claims about sustainability. This has become an increasing problem in fashion; for instance, a brand might market an outfit as made from recycled polyester or organic cotton, when only a small percentage of the garment is made from these fibers. Much like there are regulations in place to prevent companies from making false claims about their products, she believes fashion brands should be held accountable for any environmental claims they make.

Taxation could also be a useful tool, McCartney says. Governments could impose higher taxes on the import of goods made from highly polluting materials, like virgin polyester or leather. They could also create financial incentives for using more sustainable materials, like fibers grown regeneratively. “Young designers and business students coming into the fashion world want to work in a clean business model,” she says. “We have to incentivize this next generation of fashion brands by giving them tax breaks for doing the right thing. This is how we create a sustainable future of fashion.”

Accelerate innovation

McCartney believes regulation is crucial, but she’s been invited to enough of these global meetings to realize that policy takes time. While this is her first time at a COP event, she has been to the G7 and Davos in the past and made some of these same arguments. “As I’m sitting here at meetings with world leaders, these are the conversations we’re having,” she says. “But getting the law changed can take 20 years. And sadly, we don’t have 20 years to wait around.”

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[Photo: courtesy Stella McCartney]
She believes regulation will come, but in the meantime, she thinks technology can play an important role. As a designer, McCartney is known for embracing sustainable-material innovation and incorporating cutting-edge textiles into her collections. Since COP26 attracts financial institutions and billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Bill Gates, she’s advocating for these business leaders to start investing in the emerging technologies so they can scale quickly. “These financial institutions have more money to invest in clean companies than any government,” she says. “They do not want to invest in dirty businesses.”

For the conference, she created an installation at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery called “Future of Fashion” where she’s highlighting sustainable new materials. At the center is a mossy mound of soil covered in mushrooms. McCarthy has been an early adopter of a leather-like material made from mycelium, a part of mushrooms. She has already used the material to create handbags and the first-ever vegan football boots, made in collaboration with Adidas. The exhibit also features nylon made from post-consumer waste and ocean plastic, along with regenerative cotton.

Of course, better materials aren’t enough on their own, McCartney acknowledges. It’s also important to reduce the waste and overproduction in the fashion industry and invest in new business models, like recycling and resale. “I’m very aware that I’m part of an industry that is contributing to overconsumption, and I’m constantly trying to reduce what I produce,” she says. “When I was young, I didn’t buy fashion; I basically bought vintage from charity shops and swapped clothes with friends. And now these are the business models of the future.”

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McCartney has been advocating for more sustainable fashion for decades. There are days, she tells me, when she feels disheartened by how slowly change is coming. But earlier this week, she met with John Kerry and Al Gore, who have been at many of the previous COP conferences. She says they were enthusiastic about COP26 because people around the world finally recognize that climate change is a global emergency and are calling for action.  “I have to keep hoping,” she says.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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