A Delicate Balancing Act: Sustainability at Stella McCartney
Interview Azra Sudetic
Claire Bergkamp, Head of Sustainability and Ethical Trade at Stella McCartney, grew up in Montana. The northwestern state is sparsely populated and nicknamed the “land of the Shining Mountains” after its lush nature. It is home to a corner of Yellowstone National Park. From the shining peaks of Montana, Bergkamp moved on to the shiny shopping malls of Los Angeles, sourcing costumes for popular TV franchises. Quickly fed up by the vapid consumerism and waste epidemic, she flew to London to pursue a master’s degree from the Fashion Business School at the London College of Fashion. There, she delved into the issues surrounding sustainability, and three years later, put together the sustainability department at Stella McCartney. We approached Bergkamp to find out what it takes to run a successful fashion label while being environmentally conscious.
What is your definition of sustainability?
It is having a balance: trying to find a way of giving back as much as you take. We’re not there, but that is our target. I use the mitigation hierarchy, which is something that conservation biologists use. The principle is to avoid, then to reduce, then to mitigate, then to offset. We always want to do our best to avoid impact where we can, but if we can’t avoid it, then we try to reduce it. When we’ve reduced as much as we can, we try to mitigate, to see if there is a way to regenerate or restore. And always as a last resort, we look at offsetting. Sustainability is about finding a way to do as much good as we do bad, and to reduce as much bad as we can.
“Sustainability is about finding a way to do as much good as we do bad, and to reduce as much bad as we can.”
What distinguishes Stella McCartney from other brands’ sustainability strategies?
Sustainability has always been a part of the brand’s DNA. I think that’s the difference. Having someone like Stella in the business is the real competitive edge that we have: having a creative director that genuinely is interested in these topics, and wants to build a business that doesn’t do unnecessary harm. This is not a marketing exercise, this is not us just trying to be part of the sustainability conversation. From day one, Stella was interested in being a disruptive business. When she made the decision not to use leather, at the beginning of the company, people thought she was insane. That fearlessness, and ability to stand up for what we believe in, is our difference.
So, do you think that ultimately the creative directors hold the power to make a change?
Businesses embrace sustainability for different reasons: there is a risk management aspect to it now, which is why a lot of companies are engaged with it. I don’t see that going away: trying to be more responsible is part of your right to be a business, and your consumers will start to punish you at a certain point if you are not. There is that element, but to be through and through committed to a topic, you need to have your top people on board. If it’s a creative business, it’s your creative director or CEO. But not all fashion companies are completely led by a creative director, so it could be a board of directors or stakeholders. So yes, having the people at the top of the business, whoever they are, believing in this is crucial.
“We all share the same supply chains in luxury. If we can do it, anyone can do it.”
Did Stella McCartney have an advantage because the company was founded with these ideals from the get-go? Is it perhaps more difficult for older companies, that have an established supply chain, to shift their methods?
I don’t think so. We all share the same supply chains in luxury. If we can do it, anyone can do it. Actually, the bigger business, and the more control they have, and the easier it becomes. It’s more difficult for a company of our size because we are not the majority of production, a lot of times. So, we are asking a manufacturer to change the way that they work for the minority of their business. We have to make a very good case for change, but if you’re a company that has a lot of control, you’re in a stronger position to work with factories to make changes.
And what about the consumer’s influence?
Consumers have a lot of power. The more consumers ask for something, the more companies will respond. I think that consumers have a responsibility to educate themselves about these issues; they have to ask harder questions and demand better answers. We as companies have to promote sustainability, but I also hope that consumers will become more interested in actually realizing that wool comes from a sheep, cotton comes from a field, and viscose comes from a tree, and start to understand that whole story.
“We are never asked about raw materials.”
What are some hard questions that we should be asking?
We are never asked about raw materials. We made this great achievement concerning viscose, but nobody asked us about it. Raw materials are a personal obsession of mine: I believe that if you know where your raw materials come from, you know everything else. So, for example, you could ask companies about using organic cotton versus conventional cotton. Or, if they are using a lot of synthetics, why they aren’t using recycled polyester. It’s about looking at what types of materials they use and then asking about those materials.
Where do your raw materials come from?
Viscose mostly comes from Sweden, from a supplier called Domsjö. We use majority organic cotton, and we are trying to get a higher percentage. Our cotton comes from India, Turkey, the U.S., and Greece, and supporting organic cotton in any of those places is extremely important because the difference in soil health between organic and conventional is crucial; the amount of chemicals used in conventional cotton is horrific, especially for the people growing it. We use recycled polyester wherever we can and are engaged in getting plastic out of ecosystems by removing them from oceans, by using recycled water bottles and supporting clean up efforts. Our wool comes from New Zealand primarily, and some of it comes from the UK.
And can you talk a little bit about the dying process?
We’re lucky that almost all of our fabrics come from Italy. The regulations in Europe are stricter than a lot of other places in the world. As part of the Kering group, we have an active plan to ensure the complete removal of anything that could be considered hazardous by 2020. We’re also working with ‘Cradle to Cradle’, which is a closed-loop, circular economy organization. We’ve been working with them a lot on developing safe, biodegradable dyes, by trying to ensure that any of the dyes we use through one of our key suppliers are completely non-hazardous. We want our dyes to be considered biological nutrients so that at the end of their life they can degrade and create healthy soil. Dying chemicals are a significant part, but it’s also about the amount of water and energy that is used. For four years now, we have been a big supporter, advocate, and user of the ‘Clean by Design’ program developed by the NRDC (Natural Resources Defence Council) in the US. It focuses on water and energy reduction.
What are some of the hurdles the design team need to overcome in order to remain sustainable?
It’s hard. We work very closely to try to find a balance between what we need to do as a business to continue to make progress, and not putting so many constraints on the design team that it wrecks the creative process. It’s a very delicate balance: sometimes we go too far one way, and sometimes we go too far the other way. We are still a design-minded business, and the quality of the design of our product is our number one priority. We also are very conscious of what people consider sustainable fashion. There is a real interest in our company to prove that sustainable fashion doesn’t have to look any different, that it can look just as beautiful, luxurious and exciting as anything else. So it has to be collaboration.
“There is a real interest in our company to prove that sustainable fashion doesn’t have to look any different, that it can look just as beautiful, luxurious and exciting as anything else.”
What are some of the biggest feats that the company has accomplished?
We’ve been really focused on fixing existing supply chains. One of our biggest successes was our work around viscose that we did over the past 3 years. We made a commitment with an NGO (non-governmental organization) called ‘Canopy’ to make sure that none of our forest-based materials, primarily viscose, come from ancient or endangered forests. We were successful in setting up a fully traceable supply chain, where we knew the actual forest, that it was sustainably certified and we also knew that the viscose supplier was chemically responsible because that’s a very significant concern with viscose. Viscose is not an innovative material, but the method in which we’re able to get it and know where it comes from is a huge innovation for us. We’re the only company that has that, anywhere. We’re also focused on new innovation in fibers, but none of them are scaleable or commercially available, yet. We are very committed to supporting those innovators, but it’s still going to be a few years before they’re commercially available. It took us two years to get our viscose supply chain set up. It takes time.
Whether they are looking into starting their own business or working in a business, what do you think is important for students to remember?
That the things that are most removed from us here in our office are where the biggest impacts are, both on humans and on the environment. I always tell people just to meet the people in their supply chain. If you have a fabric supplier or manufacturer that you like, get to know them, figure out what you can achieve together. The people we have contracts with should be as important to us as the people in the main house. When that happens, you almost always bring your own values to them, and you can start building up projects. If you don’t have a huge amount of business power, it’s about finding people who are like-minded, and who want to do exciting things.
Many people can’t afford a sustainable luxury. How can they still shop consciously?
Not everyone is able to afford luxury clothing, but even on the high street, people need to stop treating clothing as disposable. It doesn’t matter about how much something costs, it matters how many times you wear it.