Behind the Label: Is Stella McCartney a Sustainable Brand?

Has Stella McCartney earned her place in the sustainable-fashion spotlight?

The mainstream media often labels designer Stella McCartney the “queen” of eco-fashion for her incorporation of sustainable practices and her refusal to use fur and animal skins in her designs. As a spokesperson for PETA, McCartney frequently speaks out against animal cruelty in the fashion industry, and as a participating designer in Livia Firth’s Green Carpet Challenge, she has outfitted a number of red carpet celebrities in environmentally-friendly garb.

But when you take a closer look at McCartney’s practices, you begin to realize that her sustainable and ethical commitments are not nearly as fervent as the media hypes them up to be. In this week’s Behind the Label, we examine whether Stella has really earned her spot in the eco-fashion spotlight.

The Good

As the daughter of former Beatle Paul McCartney, Stella has always been considered a type of British royalty. She developed an interest in fashion at an early age and honed her skills interning for Christian Lacroix and Sevile Row tailor Edward Sexton before going on to earn a degree in fashion design from Central St Martins in 1995. Just two years later, McCartney was appointed Creative Director of Parisian fashion house Chloe, a move that forced critics, including Karl Lagerfield, to attribute her success to her father’s fame. But McCartney proved herself with critically acclaimed and commercially viable designs, and in 2001 she launched her own eponymous fashion house under what is now the PPR Luxury Group.

From the start of her fashion career, McCartney’s long-standing vegetarianism led her to publicly boycott fur and animal skins in her designs. She regularly states that sustainability and environmental awareness are cornerstones of her brand, like in this interview conducted by Charlotte Casiraghi for Above magazine:

For me, it’s about the basic principles: Sustainability is important, as is recycling. Everyone can do simple things to make a difference, and every little bit really does count. That said, my job is to make desirable, luxurious, beautiful clothing and accessories that women want to buy.

On the materials side, Stella says that she tries to use organic cotton — but “can’t always afford to or get enough of it” – and low-impact dyes. On the production end, the brand works primarily with manufacturers in Italy, particularly on shoes and bags that require factories specializing in non-leather production.

The Bad

But although Stella McCartney does most of her production in Italy, the designer was recently linked with sweatshops due to her high-profile partnership with Adidas to provide U.K. team uniforms for the 2012 London Olympics.

According to a March article in the Observer, workers at Bangladeshi factories for Adidas, Nike, and Puma are “beaten, verbally abused, underpaid, and overworked” under sweatshop-like conditions. And earlier this month, anti-sweatshop group Play Fair released a report called Fair Games?, which calls out Adidas for using sweatshop labor in supplier factories in China, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines.

Adidas tells a different story in its 2011 progress report, also released earlier this month. In it, the company states that all London 2012 Adidas products and services are being sourced and manufactured according to the guidelines set forth by the Olympics organizing committee. Adidas also released a 10-page response to the Play Fair report, disputing most of the claims and reasserting its commitment to supply chain transparency.

Regardless of who is “right” in this debate, Adidas has long been scrutinized by human rights groups for its ethical and environmental practices, and Stella McCartney’s long-standing partnership with the brand, both for the Olympics project and with her Adidas by Stella McCartney collection, calls into question her own commitments to ethics and sustainability.

The Questionable

McCartney is to be applauded for her personal commitment to animal rights issues, but has her sustainability work really earned her the title of eco-fashion industry “queen?” In the media, she often rejects the label, like in this quote from Styleist:

“It’s not very sexy sounding, is it,” she retorted recently at a Neiman Marcus shopping event in San Francisco when it was suggested that she is the face of sustainable luxury. “We’ve never shouted about it, and until recently no one has really mentioned it except for journalists. If anything, people would ridicule us when it came up!” 

Other times, she seems to embrace it, like in this quote from Thread NY:

Eco-friendly fashion is something I’ve always felt strongly about. You have to create demand so the customer base will grow. We’ve been doing organic for years in my own collection, in my lingerie and with the Adidas collaboration. We touch on it across the board. I think it’s a bit more sincere to do that. It’s part and parcel for us as a brand.

But on the Stella McCartney website, the language around sustainable practices is limited and vague. Under a short section titled “Stella McCartney & the Environment,” the company says that it uses a clean energy provider in its stores, offsets its carbon footprint using, and books its taxi journeys through an environmentally friendly car service. Compared to the corporate social responsibility sections of other major fashion brands, these seem like token efforts. And while making a bag out of faux leather instead of real leather is certainly kinder to animals, is it necessarily a more sustainable approach? We’re not sure.

Whether or not Stella fully embraces her place in the eco-fashion limelight, her name and celebrity give her the unique position of being able to affect industry-wide change, particularly in her partnerships with Adidas and the 2012 Olympics. Stella frequently says that her business is not perfect: “When we can make things better, we do… (but) if we were too extreme it would get in the way of my job,” she told Above.

To many in the eco-fashion world, statements like that sound like somewhat of a cop-out, especially coming from someone with as many resources as McCartney. What this world needs is an eco-fashion spokesperson who will step up to the plate and commit to sustainable and ethical principles in a more legitimate and all-encompassing way.


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Behind the Label: TOMS’ One for One Campaign

Behind the Label: Puma’s Vision and Clever Little Bag

Behind the Label: Anthropologie’s Made In Kind

Read more Behind the Label here.

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.