Home » Fashion’s Commitment To Sustainability: In Conversation With Designer Gabriela Hearst, The BFC’s CEO Caroline Rush And ELLE’s Editor-In-Chief Kenya Hunt

Fashion’s Commitment To Sustainability: In Conversation With Designer Gabriela Hearst, The BFC’s CEO Caroline Rush And ELLE’s Editor-In-Chief Kenya Hunt

Earth Month, the annual celebration in April when environmental issues take centre stage, is a time to reflect on the progress being made in the battle again the climate crisis and environmental challenges that dominate the world’s ever-escalating headlines. In recent years, sustainability has shed its reputation as a progressive buzzword and become a critical focus area for individuals, governments, and corporations across the globe as they increasingly recognise the importance of making permanent changes to slow carbon emissions and the pace of global warming. This has also sparked an era of reassessment for the fashion industry, which produces between 100 and 150 billion items a year (only 80% are sold).

For founder and creative director Gabriela Hearst, it’s her humble beginnings growing up on a ranch in Uruguay that introduced her to the importance of sustainable practices in fashion. ‘I’m not revolutionary, I’m just using practices from the past,’ the designer explained during her in-conversation with Editor-in-Chief Kenya Hunt, and the British Fashion Council’s CEO, Caroline Rush.

On Thursday night, the trio met at the London residence of the Honourable Ambassador Jane Hartley of the Embassy of the United States of America to discuss fashion’s commitment to sustainability and what big businesses can learn from independent small companies. The event was attended by numerous sustainability advocates, designers, and CEOs in the industry, including Completedworks jewellery designer Anna Jewsbury, Princess Eugenie, Torisheju, Tolu Coker, eBay’s pre-loved style director Amy Bannerman and more.

‘It’s going to take all of us working together to make a difference,’ Ambassador Hartley said of sustainability in fashion during her foreword at the event. ‘Globally, fashion is responsible for 10% of carbon emissions, more than international flights and maritime shipping combine… this means we have a big opportunity, in addition to a big challenge, to change.’


With fashion contributing 1.3 million jobs to the UK economy alone and worth around $1.7 trillion globally, Hartley – who wore a vintage green off-the-shoulder Gabriela Hearst dress from the online marketplace The RealReal for the event – noted that ‘changing trends in fashion will have a major impact across the world’. One such change comes with the Ambassador’s announcement of Hearst’s funding of two new scholarship positions at the University of Arts London and the London College of Fashion with David Carey, Hearst’s Senior Vice President of Public Affairs & Communications. ‘This is an issue very close to my heart because just as much as I was change, I believe that change has to provide a better future for young people,’ Ambassador Hartley noted.

Oliver Holms

Sustainability has always formed the bedrock of Hearst’s future-focussed ethos. It saw Hearst UK win the Sustainability Strategy of the Year 2022 title at the Newspaper and Magazine Awards. The London office, known as House of Hearst, uses 100% certified renewable energy with zero waste to landfill, and its HQ in NYC, Hearst Tower, is the first building to receive both Gold and Platinum LEED certifications. Moreover, 100% of the paper fiber Hearst Magazines and Hearst Newspapers purchase is sourced in an ecologically responsible matter.

Fashion designer Hearst’s uncompromising commitment to sustainability is as renowned as her namesake label, which she launched in 2015 before taking the helm at Chloé in 2023 – a position from which she stepped down last year. For years, her runway shows have been a shining example of the power of using dead stock fabrics and eliminating plastic, including her spring/summer 2020 collection, which became the first ever carbon neutral runway shows. Last month, the designer received the Time Earth Award, and last week the San Francisco Ballet premiered a female-first version of Carmen with costumes designed by Gabriela.

‘With privilege comes responsibility,’ Hearst began the conversation, noting her beginnings growing up in south America where her family would life off the grid and use one hour’s worth of energy from a generator at night. ‘I’ve learned to live in these two worlds… I have to go to work thinking of the realities of others and thinking that because of climate and conflict, we’re going to be relocating 125 million refugees, 50 of them being children, and over 450 million people living in conflict zones.’ Discussing the widely held and absurd view that sustainability is detrimental to creativity, she added: ‘You think it will became weaker, but it’s actually stronger – you don’t sacrifice anything.’

Rush, who became the BFC’s CEO in April 2009 and has welcomed the return of the likes of Matthew Williamson, Burberry and Mulberry to LFW during her tenure, explained that collaboration is fundamental in tackling the biggest challenges the fashion industry faces in sustainability. ‘The way that the fashion industry used to operate is that it was very much that you’d have your brand, you wouldn’t share knowledge, suppliers, anything. [The increased focus on] sustainability has really brought together the industry in terms of openings up its contact book, thinking about how it can do things differently and sharing case studies,’ she added.

a couple of women posing for the camera

Oliver Holms

With a ‘passion’ for renewable energy’, Hearst went on to discuss the opportunities that open with fusion, which generates electricity using heat from nuclear fusion reactions. ‘Nuclear has had bad PR,’ she joked, noting that Chloé produced a show powered by fusion energy in 2022. ‘The idea that you can deweaponise energy is remarkable and it gives me so much hope… it has the ability to really solve the big dependency that we have in fossil fuels. It’s not the only solution, but it’s one of them.’ She explained that one of her reasons for taking her former role as creative director at Chloé was thanks to the seven years of research and development she and her team as her eponymous label had invested which she knew would be invaluable to the Richemont Group-owned brand. ‘Chloé was in the perfect position because they were looking for change, and change only happens when a lot of people want it,’ she added, noting that by the time she left the brand, her sustainability team had grown from a one person team to a group of 13.

The idea that you can deweaponise energy is remarkable and it gives me so much hope

During the conversation, Hunt, Hearst and Rush also discussed the importance of ‘reverse mentoring’, whereby independent small businesses are helping to educate large businesses about sustainability. ‘The image you create isn’t only important, rather the message… I value efficient businesses more than big businesses,’ added Hearst, with Rush noting the financial benefits of improving sustainability in fashion. ‘If you maximise the utilisation of resources, you’re saving money,’ she explained, listing over-production and waste through design as big issues the industry currently faces.

Looking ahead to the future, Hearst noted that, as a designer, she believes she’s a ‘guardian’ for the next generation. ‘It’s their world not ours,’ she said, explaining her passion for ‘protecting women’ as a womenswear designer. Discussing the implementation of innovative uses of fabrics, for example silver linings in clothes that protect women’s reproductive organs from mobile phone radiation, the designer said: ‘I love dressing women, I love framing women, I love empowering women – I know the power of dressing a woman.’

fashion’s commitment to sustainability in conversation with designer gabriela hearst

Oliver Holms

I love dressing women, I love framing women, I love empowering women

Hearst and Rush agreed that, despite damning headlines about the state of the environment, they both find hope for the future through scientists, brilliant minds and ‘the human spirit’. ‘Every time there’s a cheap option of a lower price from a company, you have to remember that somebody else is picking up the bill now, or in the next generation,’ Hearst warned.

While it’s clear that society is aware of the environmental impact of carbon emissions and efforts have been made to improve investments into electric cards and transportation around the world, Ambassador Hartley is concerned the conversation about fashion’s impact on sustainability is lagging due to a failure to adequately communicate its vital impact and meaning.

‘On a micro level, people want to protect their environment,’ she told ELLE UK prior to last night’s event. ‘People are aware that there’s a problem, but I think in many cases individuals don’t really know what to do about it,’ she added, noting the importance of checking a piece of clothing’s label, investigating where companies are producing the items, and looking at their green efforts. Promoting sustainable fashion, she noted, involves two steps: ‘Understanding its problem, and understanding what individuals and groups can do to solve it.’

Hartley has been the United States ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Joe Biden administration since 2022, and previously served as the United States ambassador to France and Monaco from 2014 until 2017 during the Barack Obama administration.

The ambassador has long had an interest in fashion [‘I’ve always loved it… I had this hot pink coat I used to wear everywhere but now I tend to be more of a black or white person – black in the winter and white in the summer’], with a love for sartorial design running through her family. Her daughter Kate is the highest-ranking woman in the US for the Italian luxury brand Loro Piana. ‘When we look at fashion, it’s important to remember that fashion is a business,’ Hartley said of the industry’s economic-driving credentials, listing the way it creates jobs and enables the next generation of creatives to receive training.

When we look at fashion, it’s important to remember that fashion is a business

A fan of designers Tory Burch and Gabriela Hearst, Hartley is a champion of women both in and outside of the realms of fashion – an impetus that is needed more than ever. According to a study from the Pew Research Centre, the gender pay gap has barely closed in the United States in the past two decades, and in 2022, American women typically earned 82 cents for every dollar earned by men. Hartley recalled a time when she was on the board of directors at an executive firm and pushing her employers to invite more women to the table. ‘It means getting more women on boards, in top slots and in positions like CFO, CEO and CMO,’ she explained, adding: ‘When I watched their internal [hiring] process, it was clear it was meant to keep women out.’ During a hiring process for a new CEO, Ambassador Hartley recalled the ‘fairly narrow’ list of qualifications applicants required for the position], which resulted in around 98% of applicants being male. ‘If you’re willing to look outside of the box, you’ve got some fantastic women. People have to start thinking about leadership and pools of talent differently.’

From her own experience as the second female ambassador to France in over 200 years, and the second female ambassador to the UK (the last was 50 years ago), Hartley knows all too well the importance of giving women prominence in positions of power. ‘When I walk down the hall in the embassy there are portraits of all the ambassadors and I think “we can do better than this… we have to do better than this”.’

Ensuring young people, especially women, receive adequate training is vital in ensuring growth, Hartley added. ‘Companies have a responsibility to do well, but they also have a responsibility to do good,’ she said. ‘Young people are being left behind with an underemployment problem, and many of those people are women because they might have left the workplace for family responsibilities and might not have kept up with their skills… having a good income and a good future is really important, especially as we move towards AI, we have to make sure people are trained.’

princess beatrice attends fashion's commitment to sustainability

Oliver Holms

As a woman in politics who all too well recalls the misogyny 2016 US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton faced (‘she was delivering speeches that were critically important on NATO and people were talking about her suit’), Hartley says while she loves fashion as a statement and an industry to improve economies and provide jobs for people, she isn’t immune to feeling frustrated when journalists comment on her appearance over her politics. ‘When I was in France, there was one person – who will remain nameless – who was constantly talking about my hair. “Oh, she got her hair cut… her hair is a mess”, they’d say. It drove me nuts because no one would ever say that to a man.’

Companies have a responsibility to do well, but they also have a responsibility to do good

Ahead of the 2024 US presidential elections, Harley noted the importance of sustainability for the Democratic Party, noting it’s ‘going to be a big issue’. ‘I think a couple of the constituencies that care deeply about sustainability are going to be critical to swinging the vote, whether it’s young people or women in the suburbs.’

‘When Joe Biden campaigned in 2020, climate was one of his key initiatives. It’s always been something the Democratic Party has cared about, but it’s hard putting “meat on the bones” because you have to go up against a lot of vested interested,’ she said, referencing the President’s Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) of 2022, which made the single largest investment in climate and energy in American history and put the US on its path to create a net-zero economy by 2050. The Inflation Reduction Act provides at least $4 billion from the Advanced Energy Project Credit to projects in areas that have seen the closure of a coal mine or retirement of a coal-fired electric generating unit. ‘I think we’re going to see IRA-type [initiatives] in other countries, which means incentivising and putting green technologies on a much faster path.’

As we’ve seen with the European Union, which is rolling out 16 pieces of legislation that will crack down on fashion waste and greenwashing, and the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, which is currently pending in the New York assembly and will require companies selling in the state to report on their impacts and reduce carbon emissions, Hartley explained that ‘you need political action, and then government action’ to make a change. ‘Because government action is the only way you’re going to get the big picture, otherwise it’s too individualistic,’ she explained.

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