Climate Change


Climate Podcast: Does the earth have to be a fashion victim?

Does the earth have to be a fashion victim? This week host Mark Maslin chats with Juliet Russell, Head of Sustainability at Stella McCartney and Max Bittner, CEO of Vestiaire Collective about all things fashion.

We’re discussing the fashion industry, from to greenwashing to fast fashion and how you can shop more consciously. Join Juliet Russell and Max Bittner as they discuss the current problems in the industry and what needs to change.


UCL Minds  0:01   

We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. 


Juliet Russell  0:09   

brands can honestly almost get away with anything they want to do. There's no consistency in government regulation around the world. 


Max Bittner  0:18   

platforms like Instagram, which created a culture of, you know, obsessive sharing what you do, and what you wear and what you eat. 


Juliet Russell  0:28   

Consumers actually choosing to buy less and buy better. You've probably heard it all before. 


Matt Winning  0:34   

The only people that can be asked that question our actresses on the red carpet, and Hannibal Lecter. 


Mark Maslin  0:41   

This is generation one from UCL, University College London, turning climate science and ideas into action. Hello, good morning, good afternoon, and good evening form wherever and whenever you are. I am Mark Maslin. And in this episode, we're talking about fashion, fast fashion, greenwashing, sustainable fabrics, renting clothes, these have all become hot topics over the last few years. And the fashion industry is having to deal with increasing challenges to the way they operate. Our question today is, does the Earth have to be a fashion victim? Stay tuned as we discuss the impacts of fashion on the earth, what we can do to reduce it. We'll also be hearing from some incredible exciting guests. But firstly, we're joined by my friend and colleague, Matt winning. 


Matt Winning  1:35   

Hi, how are you Mark, 


Mark Maslin  1:38   

I am still exhausted from cop 26. 


Matt Winning  1:41   

So I'm still not really quite quite back to normal after that. And I also have had a book come out as well. So it's been a busy time. 


Mark Maslin  1:48   

Oh, I have to say that your book is amazing. For anybody who doesn't know about this. It's called hot mess. And it talks about both these crisis of the climate, but also Matt's own crisis of having a young child and it beautifully interplays the small scale personal and the huge crisis we're facing for the planet. I'm plugging Matt's book, go out buy hot mess, as soon as possible. There you are Matt, I've done it for you. 


Matt Winning  2:15   

Thank you very much. I can't do that myself. So we're talking fashion today, I wanted to start by asking you who you were wearing, 


Mark Maslin  2:24   

you're absolutely right to ask what I'm wearing. So I am wearing a carbon negative merino wool jumper. So this is produced by sheep Inc. I have a tag on it, which means I can even track the actual sheep that it came from in New Zealand. And because I'm a UCL boffin, I went through all of their sustainability and their carbon stuff to make sure that really is carbon negative. 


Matt Winning  2:51   

That's pretty incredible. It's a weird question that I was fine. When people say, you know, who are you wearing? The only people that can be asked that question are actresses on the red carpet, and Hannibal Lecter. 


Mark Maslin  3:03   

I think the pandemic though, has really changed people's views. Because I think before that we're all so busy about trying to get as many T shirts as many cars as many shoes, you know, suddenly this was all really important, then cause the pandemic happened, we suddenly realised that the things we really missed was family, friends, hugging, touching. And suddenly, I think there was a mind shift that people realise that all this stuff doesn't necessarily make you happy. 


Matt Winning  3:33   

Yes, yes, indeed. But yeah, that's that fashion is I think it's something that people like to talk about, because cause sort of represent who we are. And, you know, part of our as part of our personality almost. So it's, it's, it's part of us and if we're being judged on you know, how sustainable our cause that kind of feels like How sustainable are we and it's quite a personal choice as well. So I think it's a really interesting topic to dive into. And I'm glad that you're doing it, as you know, the most trendy professor I know. 


Mark Maslin  4:04   

Oh, thanks, man. I'm gonna go and dine out on that for years. Thanks, man, great. 


UCL Minds  4:12   

You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action. 


Mark Maslin  4:22   

Every year, the fashion industry generates 10% of the world's total global carbon emissions produced from materials needed to make our clothes and shoes we wear materials like propylene, a common ingredient in fabrics and plastic is created using harmful fossil fuels. It is why UCL scientists have pioneered a new method using chemical catalysts to create propylene in a much cleaner, greener way and help cut the carbon footprint of the clothes we manufacture. Today we are asking ourselves Does the earth need to be a fashion victim? I'm assuming we're all aligned on this answer. But let's discuss. I'm joined today by two brilliant people, Max Bittner a UCL luminary and CEO of Vestiaire Collective. And Juliet Russell, who is the head of sustainability at Stella McCartney. I'm going to start with Juliet. Juliet, what I think I'm excited about, and what I think listeners will be interested in is, why corporate sustainability, what was your journey? And how did you get to where you are now? 


Juliet Russell  5:34   

Hi, Mark, thanks for having me on the podcast. So it was when I was back at UCL actually, that I started to learn all about the climate crisis and environmental degradation and the effects that we as people and society were having on the planet, and how intrinsically linked that was, and therefore we of course, have the power to be turning that back around and reversing the problems that were causing today, actually a conversation I'd had with you Mark, where you had told me at the time that I needed to do a master's degree. So I then went to Imperial and did a degree in environmental technology, but specialising in business in the environment. And that was the first time that I was actually exposed to the problems that exist in the fashion industry. That was where I realised that it was something that I love in my day to day life. And actually, I could marry up the passion that I have in trying to reverse some of these issues with something that I love, kind of engaging in daily, but never thought I'd be able to, because, you know, I never thought I'd be a creative or a designer or anything like that. So then I did my master's thesis, looking at innovative materials and worked with bolt threads on their Milo mycelium leather, and really found that actually, there were these disruptive ways that the fashion industry can be doing better when it becomes more aware. And when these kinds of materials can be scaled. 


Mark Maslin  6:50   

I have to say, I'm so glad that my lectures never put you off. Now you're out Stella McCartney, I'm really interested. What do you see as the biggest problems facing the fashion industry? 


Juliet Russell  7:02   

Gosh, okay, so there are many, as we know, but we're working to try and combat them. So for me, things that I see in this space are that there's a massive lack of transparency right now in supply chains for consumers. So I mean, a lot of brands themselves will not know where the raw materials they're sourcing are actually coming from the journey they're taking from that sourcing location through to their finished product. If you don't know the journey that's taking place, and maybe potentially even what some of these raw materials are, there's no way that you can understand the impact that those raw materials are having or that production process is having. So that's one of the biggest things, that's the baseline kind of understanding what the impact is. And then of course, brands can work to mitigate that footprint and reduce it as much as they can. Another thing that stellar always really likes to talk about as well, actually is the lack of regulation in this space. So brands can honestly almost get away with anything they want to do. There's no consistency in government regulation around the world with how you know how brands have to produce, how brands can talk about environmental credentials, what the definition of sustainability should be, and whether they can put green or more sustainable labels on clothing, which then means that consumers are left really confused. And a lot of the time, you know, thinking that they're buying into something, which is incredible, but actually, maybe there's only one small portion of that supply chain that's, well, you know, all that product material that's actually done responsibly. 


Mark Maslin  8:28   

So I'm gonna bring in max here, a max, welcome. Can I ask you why his best year tackling this issue? And how do you see your mission? 


Max Bittner  8:41   

Yeah, very happy to be part of the podcast. Thanks for inviting me, you know, overall, vestia collective has been around for more than 10 years. And the vision has from the beginning really been about how we can transform the fashion industry for a more sustainable future by empowering our community to drive this change. And the concept is really been built by the founders originally, around the idea that all their friends, they themselves had just endless amount of clothes lying in their closets, unused, unworn, some of them even, you know, still with tags. And they questioned themselves and said, shouldn't someone's trash be someone else's treasure and they've started building this community of people who try to start a trading these products with each other. So so we really see ourselves as a massive marketplace, where people trade the products that they might not love as much as they used to do it with someone else who does and have really built a global community around it. You know, we really see our mission to educate consumers around the fact that especially these more luxury products are assets, not consumables, we educate them about the fact that they have a residual value. So when they think about purchasing products, firsthand, they just think about the fact that it will also have a second hand value at which they can sell it, and educate them thus to shift their consumer behaviour to quality, not quantity. 


Mark Maslin  10:14   

I mean, I think it's amazing that you are driving the circular economy within the fashion industry, I noticed that you've recently announced your B Corp certification. Do you want to explain to the listeners what that means and how you think that's going to pave the way for other reselling platforms? 


Max Bittner  10:32   

Yeah, we felt that in the fashion industry as a whole, the extent of greenwashing that was being done to alleviate in some sort of way consumers bad conscious of pretty significant impact their times absurd consumer habits would have by putting quite a green spin on it. But as we started to become more vocal about some of these topics, we realised that as Julian said, a lot of our consumers are just incredibly unaware of the impact that their own behaviour has. And instead of kind of piling on to this kind of green spin on everything we do, we said, hey, let's make sure that we hold ourselves accountable to the highest external standard out there. And that is B Corp, you know, both on environmental, social and governance topics. So we embarked on this journey to become a B Corp. And we achieve that, you know, three, four months ago, and are incredibly proud of it, you know, that we put pedal to the metal and got the certification to now hold ourselves accountable and continue improving our own B Corp score, but also become vocal to the industry as a whole, to adopt themselves to this very high standard. 


Mark Maslin  11:48   

I think that's absolutely amazing that you are pushing the boundary of fashion, and you're actually trying to make sure that people understand and see the transparency. And I think this is Juliet, this is one of the things that I constantly hear you saying, How is Stella McCartney being transparent, but also how is the company influencing other companies to be more transparent, 


Juliet Russell  12:12   

we have something called an environmental profit and loss that we use to actually calculate the environmental impact of our material sourcing in monetary terms. So I think one of the ways that we really tried to influence and inspire other fashion brands actually is through our engagement with innovation. And what we're doing there is I mean, there are so many of these innovators out there who are doing these things incredibly, but on a very small scale right now and need the funding and need the exposure. And so we try to work with these innovators and test them and basically just test that it works in the market prove to the company themselves and to brands like ourselves and to consumers that these things exist. And these things actually work to enable them to then be elevated, scaled, and allow other brands then to take part as well and more broadly than just our own company. 


Mark Maslin  13:06   

We have a brilliant question from one of our postgraduate students shell Lee, 


UCL Minds  13:13   

I wanted to hear your opinions on how we can keep the ball rolling with encouraging sustainable fashion. Obviously, in the past years, we've had quite a lot of progress, and increased awareness about sustainable fashion. But I was wondering what you think that big businesses could do to contribute to promoting sustainable fashion, and not just use it as a trend or a strategy to encourage more customers to buy from their brand? 


Mark Maslin  13:39   

Max, do you want to kick off with that one. 


Max Bittner  13:41   

But what we're seeing right now is a series of business led initiatives, both ourselves and I think also Stella McCartney has been petitions of a recent smi initiatives led by Prince Charles and one of the key topics that the group committed to was assigning themselves to implementing digital IDs of some sort or another, to the products that they sell. This digital ID should give much bigger transparency about the materials that had been used for production and the impact that it had from the source and location where these materials has come from. And these informations not only provide transparency to consumers, but they also then make sustainability and circular actions like secondhand much more easy if every product that we would have on a platform has some sort of a digital ID, it would make the actual listing process much much faster. And we would have a guarantee that this product is authentic. So I think this is one of the ways that we see businesses right now trying to push the sustainability agenda. So do I think it's enough and should big businesses do more? Yes, if not, you know, governments and consumers will need to vote with their feet 


Mark Maslin  14:59   

perhaps Say I think that's a really important point. I mean, coming out at COP 26 was the fact that we need to reduce our carbon emissions in the next nine years by 45%. And so again, how is the fashion industry going to be able to do that? So I'm going to pass the question over to Juliet as well. What do you think big business can do to help promote sustainable fashion, or just become sustainable? 


Juliet Russell  15:26   

So one of the things for me that I always like to think about, actually, is that there are three main actors around pushing ourselves towards sustainability as a society, there's business big and small. There's the government system, and then there's also society, I don't think we can expect to put so much onus on society and on the consumer themselves to as we do today, you know, to make those right decisions. As Max and I've both mentioned, government regulation is going to be a key thing here to both help, I mean, help bring the industry I think, to to an equal and level playing field. There are a lot of companies like both Stella McCartney and of course, vestia collective who wants to do the right things for the right reasons. And compared to many others, were pretty much ahead of the game. However, without government regulation, a lot of the laggards aren't going to bring themselves up anywhere near to our level to ensure that, you know, the whole industry is heading towards this common place. 


Mark Maslin  16:25   

One of the other questions that comes up time and time again, when we're talking about sustainable fashion. And this is also when you do question airs with the public is around cost. And the issue is that, of course, fast fashion is also cheap fashion. Where as sustainability, and sustainable fashion is always seen as more expensive. So Max, you're really pushing the circular economy. Do you feel that that's going to help us get out of this cost issue? 


Max Bittner  16:56   

Partly, yes, partly, you know, I think I'm, you know, as we speak, Black Friday, there's an app called Shein, coming out of China these days, I think they're now doing 10 billion of revenue, and they're only four or five years old. And as I look at the app, you know, the items are priced somewhere between five and 10, or 15, euros, resale, and circularity can fix certain problems, but it cannot fix this problem, you know, these items, which are low quality, and really not made to be worn multiple times. And definitely probably from an from an economics perspective. And also, from an carbon footprint perspective, it is really hard to justify sending a one or two year item in the mail or post between, you know, different locations, and thus creating a new, you know, footprint itself. So, you know, to address some of these clearly, highly polluting, low quality materials sourced items. I mean, a massive amount of regulation needs to come in, whether it's taxation, whether it's consumer warning, like you have on sacred packages, where you you know, put a big sticker on the impact that this current action has on yourself and the planet is absolutely required. And apart from that, I think I'm very much in the camp Juliet, less is more quality over quantity. And this is where I believe in secondhand and circular fashion, much, much more is, the higher quality. The item is in here, we really like highlighting the craftsmanship that goes into a product like a product from from Stella McCartney is just a completely different one in this kind of throwaway fast fashion. And this makes these items assets, not consumables, and really educating consumers on the fact that it makes sense to pay more because you know, you can resell this item once you're done wearing it, but at least someone else can take on that product. And so there's both regulation education that needs to happen to really make people understand how significant how terrible the impact is on some of their very short term thinking consumer decisions. 


Juliet Russell  19:06   

I think one of the big things here is actually around, consumers actually choosing to buy less and buy better, you've probably heard it all before, but honestly, that's a huge thing. So one of the biggest things you can do to increase the life of a single garment that you have is to make sure that you know if it becomes a little bit damaged, then you repair it, you're not going to want to pay 20 pounds to repair a five pounds jumper that you might have bought on one of these fast fashion retailers naturally in a way that our higher price points as a luxury brand kind of lean in more that customers are more likely to pay that then small price in comparison to the original price of the garment to make sure that they can continue to love that garment for years and years and years. Because you're not engaging in this take make dispose linear system over and over and over again, but just in that one kind of extended lifespan 


Mark Maslin  20:00   

I have to say that beautifully segues into my last question. Thank you, Juliet. It's almost like we practiced this. So I'm going to ask you the final question, which is, if you had a magic wand, which piece of government regulation would you most want to have in place as soon as possible to actually help lift the fashion industry into a more sustainable role? Max, let's go with you. 


Max Bittner  20:26   

Know, I think one of the key government transactions, I would hope would have been enacted backward looking, is quite a spiritual point of view, which is the incredibly negative impact that has been caused by social media, you know, Instagram, specifically, on just promoting absurd amount of overconsumption, because everything you do, everything you wear, is seen immediately by, you know, not just two or three people you meet on that day, but the hundreds and 1000s of people that follow you on these social medias, some sort of a spiritual reminder, and you know, almost shaming into overconsumption on social media would be really what I would hope for, in hindsight, 


Mark Maslin  21:13   

I love that answer, Juliet? 


Juliet Russell  21:16   

I've got an entirely different approach and a little bit more scientific. So you're going to love it Mark, what I would love to see happen actually is a government or governments across the world coming together to agree that actually, there would be perhaps a tax on imports, and or exports of materials based on their environmental footprint. So this would require a tonne of back work, of course, around lifecycle assessments of materials and things like that. But a lot of brands today are not going to pick those lower impact materials, one, because they just don't even understand at this point, what those you know which materials have what kind of impact associated, but also they're not motivated to financially at all. So if you pull in this kind of tax or incentive system, the cheaper materials would be the ones that are, of course, verified being better for the planet. However, the more expensive materials would then be the ones that are the most polluting, so that, you know, you get that economic incentive, and you're driving those brands who might not be motivated by sustainability, or by trying to do the right thing, but actually your cut capturing those who are economically motivated, that, for me, would be a really big thing, I think we've seen significant changes there. 


Mark Maslin  22:29   

So that's changing our relationship to fashion. So we can actually wear things multiple times, even on Instagram, and also making the fabrics and what we actually were much more sustainable, and to use the financial tools like taxation, to change the materials that actually companies have to use both brilliant answers, we have a bit of a fun section on our podcast called The Climate time capsule, where we ask our guests, what would you put into a time capsule now, this could be something that you want to disappear and have never existed? This is something you may want to have invented to actually help us, all of which has to do with dealing with climate change. And I'm going to start with Juliet, what do you want to put in your time capsule. 


Juliet Russell  23:21   

So mine is going to be a bit of a strange one, probably. regenerative agriculture is something that I believe is going to be key for the fashion industry, but also any industry that sources natural raw materials really so really wide spread and wide reach here, it's a way of basically growing crops in ways that reduce the amount of soil erosion and actually increase the amount of carbon that gets sequestered into the soil. And these schemes also have been proven to actually improve local biodiversity and local land cover. And it involves intercropping, which normally actually means food crops are woven in as well. So there are many ways that actually that can have a positive impact on the planet and help to fight through numbers, their climate crisis and improve their biodiversity situation that we have on the planet today. So that for me is something that I would love to take forward with me. 


Mark Maslin  24:16   

That's an amazing answer. And, hey, I'm so glad you listened to some of my lectures. So Max, what would you like to put in your time capsule? 


Max Bittner  24:27   

I think what I would put in a time capsule is social media full stop, you know, especially platforms like Instagram, which created a culture of, you know, obsessive, sharing what you do, and what you wear and what you eat. And I think you know, in the past, wearing a piece of clothing could go a long way because you would only see a limited amount of people. On any given day today. Wearing a piece of clothing is seen by 1000s of people or however big you think your friendship group needs to be. I think social media has driven so Many bad behaviours across society, that they're toxic in their own right. So I would definitely put that in there. 


Mark Maslin  25:06   

I can see Juliet waving at me, she's desperate to get into that time capsule. Go for it, Juliet, 


Juliet Russell  25:11   

I just wanted to add in that I completely agree with everything that Max has been saying. But it's a tricky one in that, I think there is actually a lot of good that can come out of social media too, particularly around the point of education. We can't take for granted that you know, the education we have, and have had, not everyone on this planet can read your experience, or maybe they didn't even want to follow a similar path that we've followed to get to the point we're at now. And so social media, for me, is used as an important tool to get these messages that are really important out to consumers or the public who might not have otherwise engaged in this kind of conversation. So I mean, it's tricky. There's there's definitely pros and cons. And maybe there are other ways we can do that engagement. But 


Mark Maslin  25:54   

I'd love to say incredible, thank you to both I guess, who are amazing, obviously, because they come from UCL originally. But again, I think what gives me hope is we've got people like Max, and we've got people like Juliet who are out there who are trying to change the world for the better. And they are tackling one of the hardest areas, which is fashion. So I'd like to say a big thank you, for myself and from the listeners. 


UCL Minds  26:23   

You're listening to UCL generation one, turning science and ideas into climate action. 


Mark Maslin  26:33   

Welcome to the Climate news, my eclectic collection of different climate change news stories from around the world. Let's start with some good news. The three parties in Germany have agreed to quit coal by 2030. That's eight years earlier than previously agreed. If we look elsewhere around the world, Nigeria has committed to annual carbon budgets. And this is because they announced at COP 26 that they were going to go net zero by 2016. In India, which announced that they were going to go net zero by 2070. The Indian Council for Environment, Energy and Water with the centre of energy and finance, have done a report looking at the cost of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable and suggests over that period of time, they will need investments of over $10 trillion partly to replace fossil fuels, but also because of the huge increase in the energy demand of India over the next 50 years. But it's not all good news, a proposal for the shipping industry to adopt a target of net zero emissions by 2050. Looks to have been rejected by the member states of the IMO Marine Environmental Protection Committee. That means the official target is still only 50% by 2050 raises the question, who is going to be mopping up all that pollution by 2050 If the marine industry isn't going to clean itself up, so this is Mark Manson signing off from the climate change new section of generation one. 


That's it for this episode or generation one from UCL turning climate science and ideas into action. If you'd like to ask a question or suggest a guest that you'd like to hear on generation one, you can contact us at hashtag UCL generation one. Otherwise, for more information about UCL work in the climate space, and for what our staff and students as well as our researchers are doing to make sure that we don't just talk the talk, but we walk the walk to a more sustainable future, head to UCL generation one website or follow us on social media hashtag UCL January generation one