Stella McCartney, Burberry, and Kering Forge a New Kind of Sustainable Partnership

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Unity has been the theme of the week, with most of our attention focused on the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. We heard messages of harmony in their speeches and saw it in their clothes, Harris’s Christopher John Rogers violet coat (a mix of blue and red) being the most obvious nod to a new era of bipartisanship. But even outside of politics, we’ve begun to recognize that a better future depends on collaboration, openness, and connection—from our personal experiences to the way we do business.

How does that apply to fashion, an industry so rooted in exclusivity and competition? Just a few years ago, you’d be hard-pressed to get a designer to share their factories or outline their supply chain. They were expected to work alone, protect their sources, and generally avoid transparency. That’s understandable when it comes to design and intellectual property, but it simply doesn’t work if you’re trying to make better choices for the planet.

Despite the consumer’s growing interest in sustainable fashion and designers’ individual efforts to do better, studies have found that progress isn’t happening fast enough. In 2019, the Global Fashion Agenda estimated that the global apparel industry will grow by 81% before 2030, effectively undoing any improvements we’ve made. It inspired a few game-changing industry partnerships, like president of France Emmanuel Macron’s Fashion Pact, a coalition of CEOs who are working toward shared environmental goals. Led by Kering, the Pact’s other signatories include PVH Corp, Ralph Lauren, Capri Holdings, Adidas, Nike, Nordstrom, Farfetch, Inditex, and H&M—also known as fierce competitors. “The results [of working alone] don’t work,” Kering CEO François-Henri Pinault said. “We really need to define targets together…and commit to working towards them together to find solutions. I’m [confident] we will reach a level that none of us individually could reach by working alone.” (The old proverb comes to mind: “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.”)

Today, the Apparel Impact Institute is announcing another project with Burberry, Stella McCartney, and Kering (the parent company of Gucci, Alexander McQueen, and Bottega Veneta, among other brands). Informally called “The Italy Project,” it’s focused on improving the environmental footprint of Italy’s luxury fashion supply chain. The top-line goal is to “establish a platform for manufacturers to coordinate, fund, and scale environmental programs with measurable impact” following AII’s scientific guidelines. The brands will then collaborate with each other and with the factories to implement the best practices (centered around energy, water, and chemistry) and continue “unlocking” solutions together. “Fashion brands have always been a little quiet and secretive about their supply chains,” Lewis Perkins, the president of AII, said on a recent call. “With this project, Burberry, Stella, and Kering are coming to the table and publicly collaborating across a shared supply chain. It’s really exciting to see that even in the pandemic, these brands were so willing to get behind it.”

Sustainable fabric from Kering’s manufacturer in Novara, ItalyPhoto: Courtesy of Kering

Kering, Stella McCartney, and Burberry already had long-standing relationships with AII, but understood they could make a greater impact by joining forces. (McCartney has been pushing for designers to “link arms” for years: “If I could have more people join me in creating solutions, and there’s more demand, then we’re going to succeed,” she said in 2018. “I need a few more colleagues linking my arm and standing shoulder to shoulder with me.”)

“There’s a lot of work to be done to achieve the industry’s aspirations, and it just doesn’t make sense from a resourcing standpoint—especially in the current economic environment that we’re in—for every organization to take on these challenges on their own,” explains Kurt Kipka, AII’s vice president of programs. “In a post-COVID world, it’ll be even more important to ensure that every resource is applied in the most effective, efficient way possible.”

The project will take place over the course of months and years, starting with 20 Italian facilities. Perkins says they intend to partner with a local nonprofit organization to build the long-term program, with an ultimate goal of “decarbonizing” the entire Italian supply chain. “These types of projects are the ‘gateway drug’ for increased transparency and the ability for [brands and suppliers] to do more,” Kipka adds. “It’s a matter of dipping your toe in the water and [seeing that] being transparent can actually be really liberating, not constraining. One thing that’s clear in a post-COVID world is that strong brands are going to rise to the top, and the smaller, poorly managed brands won’t. It’s going to be much more difficult to survive, so it’s ultimately becoming table stakes to be involved in projects like this. That feels quite promising to me.”

Stella McCartney’s summer 2020 campaign photographed inside Brunello, one of her factory partners in ItalyPhoto: Courtesy of Stella McCartney