HBS Cases: Stella McCartney Combines High Fashion with Environmental Values

Fashion designer Stella McCartney is the subject of a recent case study by Anat Keinan showing that luxury and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive.
by Brian Kenny

Many people equate luxury with excess and folly. Stella McCartney is not one of those people. A lifelong vegetarian and prominent player in the green fashion movement, the designer has shown that luxury and sustainability need not be mutually exclusive.

Harvard Business School professor Anat Keinan looks at McCartney from a brand perspective in the case study Stella McCartney, co-written with Sandrine Crener. In the Cold Call podcast, a transcript of which is presented here, Keinan discusses how McCartney has built a luxury fashion brand while maintaining environmental values. (Hosted by Brian Kenny, Cold Call features Harvard Business School faculty discussing business cases they’ve written and the broad lessons they impart.)

(Edited for length and clarity)

Brian Kenny: Set this case up for us. What is this case about?

Anat Keinan: I wrote this case as part of a new course I’m developing on luxury marketing. The course aims to address the most current challenges and opportunities for luxury brands. One of the topics I wanted to highlight in the course is sustainability, especially because luxury and sustainability are often viewed as conflicting, as contradicting. When I thought about the case, Stella McCartney came to mind because she’s the most prominent player when it comes to the green fashion movement. Her story is very inspiring. She broke conventions. She challenged the system. She introduced a different approach that proved to be successful and profitable.

Q: There were multiple dimensions as I read the case. You mentioned it’s part of a new course. Explain a little bit your thought process about how this would help you achieve what you were trying to in the course.

A: Sustainability is a very important topic, and I knew I wanted to discuss it in the case. And the context of luxury is just fascinating because on the one hand they seem very contradictory, luxury and sustainability. Luxury for many people is all about excessiveness and waste.

“Such products do not feel luxurious to more ethically and environmentally concerned consumers of today.”

It’s not exactly the image we have when we think about sustainability. We think about much more rational and thoughtful consumption. So you could see why these two concepts would seem contradictory. And people would ask me: why are you making such a big deal about sustainability in a luxury class, what does sustainability have to do with luxury?

But if you think about it, what this case shows is that luxury and sustainability share similar values. Luxury is all about being the best, having the very best. Products that cause misery or environmental damage now or in the future are no longer considered to be the best in class. Such products do not feel luxurious to more ethically and environmentally concerned consumers of today. I think the luxury industry in general has historically had a big impact on how we dress, how we look, how we consume, how we live our lives, how we spend our leisure time, how we shop. So in that sense, if you create a sustainable business within that industry, you’re much more likely to have impact because it’s so influential.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the fashion industry.

A: Fashion is one of the most polluting industries, not just in the amount of dyes and chemicals and water that you use to produce the items, but also the waste. People throw away 90 percent of what they are going to buy in the next two years. So it’s just amazing. In the US and in the UK, people throw away about 30 kilos of clothes every year. So it’s a very fascinating industry to focus on when we talk about sustainability. It creates a lot of debate in class. This is an industry where you can really make an impact because there is so much to do.

Q: Tell us about the way Stella tried to infuse these values throughout the organization.

A: What is the most inspiring about her leadership style is how humble she is and how she repeatedly says, “I’m not perfect.” This is a message that I want to convey to students. You don’t have to be perfect. When you think about sustainability, people are typically very intimidated and even paralyzed by the thought of all that you have to do in order to create a sustainable practice. Her philosophy, her message, is very motivating and inspiring because what she says is every small step you take is better than no action at all.

Q: She has a company commitment to sustainability. You have exhibits in the case where you are sharing basically the manifesto that she uses to create this ethos within Stella McCartney.

A: Yes. I think she does not communicate her initiatives as much as we would have thought. First of all, it was interesting to see in class that many students know the brand. They love the brand, they love the designs, but they were not aware of all these initiatives that you’re talking about. So, one of their main recommendations to the company was to be much more proactive in conveying these initiatives to consumers. That was a big “aha” moment for the senior management who came to class.

Q: When you’re discussing the case in class, what kinds of comments or ideas emerged that surprised you? Did it go in directions you didn’t expect it to?

A: For me, what was most surprising is that many students were not aware of her sustainability philosophy. They knew the famous bags. They knew the designs. They were aware of her and her brand, but did not realize the extent to which this company is making an impact and doing so much to protect the environment. And actually, many people don’t even know that Stella McCartney does not use fur and leather in her designs.

Q: They thought it was real.

A: The funny thing is that there’s Stella McCartney counterfeits of her bags. She has this famous Falabella bag, very kind of iconic design, and the counterfeits are made of leather. So you can buy like a leather Stella McCartney bag, but it’s fake.

Q: If there’s one lesson that you’re trying to impart through this case, what is it?

A: There are three main messages that I wanted to convey in the class.

The first one was is that it is possible to be profitable, commercially successful, and build a prestigious and desirable brand while being environmentally and socially responsible.

The second is that being environmentally responsible does not necessarily require complex changes and additional cost. Quite the opposite. Many people, as I mentioned, feel intimidated and paralyzed when it comes to taking sustainability initiatives. So that’s why it was very important to me to emphasize Stella’s philosophy, which is all about taking small steps in the right direction, not pretending to be perfect, just being honest, doing the right thing, a very simple message. Any positive initiative is better than no action at all. Any small step you make for protecting the environment is worth taking.

And the third lesson is specifically relevant to our students, but also business managers in general. It’s about patience and persistence, and it also relates to the millennials who expect everything to happen fast, immediate gratification, to be successful fast. Stella McCartney was determined to follow her values and make a difference. But as you see in the case, it wasn’t easy. Even with her education and background and all the right connections, it took time until the industry took her and her ideas, the sustainability ideas, seriously.

That is an important lesson for our students. She showed it is possible to design and create these beautiful objects that are also very sustainable and do not harm the environment. And why is this so important? Because at HBS, we try to inspire our students to be leaders who make a difference, make a positive impact in the world. But I think it’s also very important to emphasize that it takes time. It requires persistence and patience. So that’s why I think this case gives a very positive and motivating message to students.

About the Author

Brian Kenny is chief marketing & communications officer at Harvard Business School.

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