The Advanced Ethics of Stella McCartney

A look at the designer who’s always ahead of the game

Confession: I used to hate recycling. It sounds dated now, but when my local London council gave me my first ugly blue box in the mid-noughties, I only sparingly did my separating. I remember a friend visiting from the ever-progressive Bay Area being appalled that I was mostly tossing things in one big bin. But I’m into it now, because it does good, but also because it suddenly feels modern.

Modern is a word that Stella McCartney has always been keen to push when discussing her own ethical ways: “Being modern means evolving and discovering new ways of using alternative materials,” she’s stated. “Because we want to promote a cruelty-free and ethical philosophy. Because it means moving away from the old and creating the new.”

Sometimes we need someone to reframe the way we feel about something. When McCartney launched her leather-free and fur-free “vegetarian brand” in 2001, she was on a mission to alter our perceptions of ethical high fashion. It’s been gradual, but everything she’s been doing for over 15 years is chiming perfectly with the current moment. Hers is one of the few big fashion brands to make ethics integral to its appeal, and it pays: Business of Fashion say that in 2015, market sources estimated that annual global sales were between $150 million and $200 million.

The Stella McCartney website reads more like a manifesto than a fashion site, with the brand’s core values of Sustainability, Respect for Nature, Respect for People and Respect for Animals clearly mapped out. As well as celebrating their cruelty-free clothes and vegan fragrances, they’re also open about the ways they could improve (fake fur and synthetic leather also have an environmental impact because of dyeing processes and their non-biodegradability) and set themselves targets for the future.

She’s having an impact on the wider industry too. According to Business of Fashion, “McCartney’s faux-fur and faux-leather apparel and accessories helped to elevate the materials in the eyes of the consumer, serving as an example for other brands and a resource for Kering’s entire portfolio, which now also includes Balenciaga, Christopher Kane and Brioni.” And as well as luxury fashion, she’s making sportswear lovers aware of sustainability through her Adidas line. Not long ago, talk of opting for organic cotton, avoiding virgin cashmere, getting viscose from sustainably managed forests and switching to regenerated nylon would have been limited to eco warriors, but now fashionistas and gym-goers are increasingly aware of such materials and systems.

McCartney has said many times before that she was ridiculed for her ethical stances early on in her career, but now the fact that she refuses to sell fragrances in China (where government regulations require animal testing), has partnered up with Canopy (an NGO developing solutions to protect to the world’s ancient and endangered forests) and worked with Parley for the Oceans (to raise awareness for ocean conservation and to fight marine plastic pollution) makes her a thoroughly modern brand. McCartney has always been way ahead of the game, encouraging fashion lovers to set themselves free of any negative ideas they might have had about ethical fashion, showing us that you can look cool and feel good about the way you're doing it.

Words by Stuart Brumfitt

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