Katharine Hamnett

WWD: How does a manufacturing-based business like fashion reconcile growth with sustainability?

Katharine Hamnett: First, it’s got to recognize that it needs to be sustainable to survive at all. A decade ago, Standard & Poor’s concluded that companies had to either go sustainable or lose their business. So first, businesses have got to work out what they can make sustainably, how they can make their existing product sustainably and make a profit before they even think about growth.

The industry impact is so bad, it is going to have to reinvent itself. It is going to have to work out how to coexist with life on Earth or it won’t have any customers. We are going to have to re-examine our definitions of success, both as businesses and as individuals.

WWD: So, full-on integration.

K.H.:  The thing is, you’ve got to be sustainable or lose your business. How to do it is the big question. We have to reexamine the business from top to bottom and where is our worst impact.

In addition to obviously changing to sustainably produced raw materials, we’ve got to look at our energy supply, how our energy is actually made. I mean, America has got such an incredible opportunity for solar. You’ve got acres and acres of desert. You could make 10 times the amount of electricity that America needs just from solar power. So you need to look at things like that. Companies need to commit to green energy. It’s very radical but it’s doable. That’s the key thing, it’s doable.

WWD:  I like that — radical but doable.

K.H.:  Yes. And it’s essential. It’s like, we don’t really have any choices.

WWD: Fashion thrives on new people coming in, young talent with fresh perspectives and creativity. But as more people come in, it’s more stuff being produced and likely more strain on the environment. How do we reconcile that?

K.H.: It’s a battle for the same space in the end. And if old industries don’t adapt — increasingly, the younger consumers are, the more they want sustainable. If businesses aren’t producing that, they’re going to go. It will be survival of the fittest. It will be survival of the most sustainable. But also, including all those other ingredients like clothes that you’d kill for, you know, fashion driven by design, etc. So it’s a battle for the space. There’s a young army of talented designers coming in and ultimately the older will give way to the new, unless the old world is up to it.

WWD: The fashion of fashion — that part has to stay strong. The urge to adorn oneself is as old as humanity.

K.H.: The urge to adorn, as you call it, is what drives fashion — our desire to attract or impress…Fashion is driven by desire, lust even. Sustainable product has to be killer, too.

WWD:  The consumer. A number of people I’ve spoken with have said that consumers, particularly younger ones, are driving this. They want to know about the supply chain, where the clothes are from and how they’re made.

K.H.: Fashion has a huge impact on climate. The greenhouse gas emissions from conventional cotton agriculture are horrendous. The clothing industry is contributing to climate change, unquestionably. It’s something young people are very, very concerned about, and rightfully so. Everybody should be concerned about it. The industry has to be concerned about mitigating its affect. It’s got to live in harmony with nature. Otherwise, you won’t be able to even get any raw materials because you’ll be dealing with desert where we were previously producing natural fibers. It happened in the Dust Bowl in America in the Thirties. It was due to overintensive agriculture. Farmland turned to desert.

WWD:  Is it realistic to expect companies, especially public big companies, to take a long view, to consider sustainability over immediate shareholder return?

K.H.: We’ve got to take a long view of everything, and we’ve got to take along view now. I mean governments. The fact that every four years we change, there’s no long view taken in politics. We’ve not only got to call elected representatives into account, but we’ve got to take a long view ourselves.

And what’s wrong with flattening out instead of it constantly going up, growth, growth, growth? You set up, you establish over a period where you want to be and you stay there, and you don’t expand it. A lot of people have gone to huge trouble recently with over expansion.

WWD: When it comes to profits and shareholder return, pursuit of the status quo is seldom an option.

K.H.: People are driven by the old maxim that you either grow or you shrink. But it’s not necessarily true. How about trying to stay the same? You write off all your investments, you pay it back, and you’d just be staying the same and becoming more and more efficient and making more and more profit. OK, maybe you’re not going to be rocketing through the roof. But at what cost are these profits made that the shareholders are so obsessed with? You need shareholder responsibility as well.

WWD:  Are you at all optimistic?

K.H.:  I’m terrified. I’m terrified that we’ve left it too late. But I am optimistic because I can see how we could change. I fly more than I should. I’ve flown from England over Germany, down to the southern tip of Italy, and I’ve seen just dry river beds. We’re heading for a massive drought in southern Europe this summer, and I don’t know where we’re going to get the water. This desalinization isn’t working. If you chuck the salt back in the sea, you get an over-salinated sea and you kill all the fish. It’s at a tipping point. We just hope it’s not over the tipping point.

WWD:  And yet you’re optimistic?

K.H.: Because I think people are waking up. I think industry is waking up, consumers are waking up. There is a will there. Maybe people can’t see all the solutions, but the solutions are sitting there. We’ve just got to take a bigger view. We’ve got to take a longer-term view. Unfortunately, we need legislation to enforce it.

WWD: I spoke with a scientist who agrees with you. She said self-governance doesn’t work.

K.H.: Totally. I’d like to see legislation that only allowed goods into our economic blocs that were made to the same standards outside as inside, which would mean that anybody who wanted to ship into the EU would have to be producing in compliance with REACH [Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and Restriction of Chemicals] and in compliance with EU labor laws. So chemical abuse and pollution would be cut massively, and workers’ wages and living conditions would be improved.

It would raise the bar in terms of [production costs] so it would mean goods made in Europe would be more competitive because goods made outside Europe would cost more. So it would create jobs within our economies. We are desperately suffering from the Western deindustrialization. We need to get that back. We need to look at the agreement with China that allows their goods into our markets without addressing their artificially degraded currency or the human rights or their environmental impact.

WWD:  What is the most important thing that could happen right now in terms of companies reconciling the growth with sustainability?

K.H.: I think you still can make profit with sustainability. You’ve just got to be more efficient. It’s a changing world, you’ve possibly got to be more vertical. You’ve got to invest in the bottom tier of your supply chain. I mean, there is nothing wrong with companies that make cotton T-shirts, investing in organic cotton agriculture. There are incredible opportunities now.

Now we’ve got a mountain in plastic globally; it’s ever increasing. These are incredible opportunities for new firms, companies, new processes, to set up and mine what is waste, what is landfill and upcycle it. It’s basically treasure, what’s left over from crude oil. You could be molding fabulous trainers with recycled polyester or you could be mixing tires, for instance, with a nontoxic binder to make shoe soles. How many millions and billions of pairs of shoes are made a year?

It’s just about being smart and using technology. It’s not Luddite, it’s not going back. It’s using advanced technologies now and inventing new technologies. People are at it, things are happening. It just needs to speed up a bit.

WWD: There’s technology involved, of course, and a lot of emotion.

K.H.: If we’re redefining success…the idea is [to work] for the good in all living things. But how do you measure success? Do we measure success in personal happiness? Is it job satisfaction? These are, I think, important things. I mean, it’s a miserable world. I’ve got loads of American friends and everybody is pill-popping like crazy because they’re so miserable with their lives. We’ve got to do a bit of a U-turn, looking at what really makes us happy. We have to redefine. The successful business has got to live in a symbiotic relationship with the rest of life on Earth.

I did the “Choose Love” T-shirt to help refugees. Asos picked it up, and they’re actually making the T-shirt and selling it at no profit. It’s a completely new business model. It pays off because everybody thinks wonderfully about Asos — “I love Asos; they’re so cool.” So I’d be predisposed to buy something from Asos. So an ethical policy — and it starts with the chief executive officer — can actually be a profitable policy. People think well of your brand and try to buy what you make as often as possible. I’m sure [the idea] will be shut down. But it’s doable.

WWD:  Anything else you’d like to add?  

K.H.: We haven’t got any time to waste. If you look at any writers on the environment, they always come up with this thing from Genesis, “man was given dominion over the birds of the air and the beasts of the land, the fish of the sea.” But it’s actually a mistranslation. It should be partnership, custodianship, guardianship.

WWD: In the beginning, there was a nascent sustainability issue. Thank you, Katharine.