Ethical Futures with Eileen Fisher
As a brand, we have been continually learning about ways to measure and lessen our impact on the planet, and we are so grateful for the community of industry leaders on these topics who have been willing to share their insights and expertise with us. In October, our team was fortunate enough to sit down (virtually, over Zoom!) with members of the EILEEN FISHER team. EILEEN FISHER is one of the pioneers of environmental responsibility, circularity, and the role of fashion and business in creating a more ethical future: Since 2015, the company has been certified as B Corp, making it one of only about 3,585 companies worldwide to voluntarily commit to high standards, measured by frequent auditing and certification processes, for environmental and social practices. Their ongoing work -- built by a series of commitments and long-term goals, such as their Horizon 2030 strategy -- has been extremely influential to apparel companies, paving the way for a different direction that puts planetary and public health and wellbeing at the center.
As a woman-owned business, we were also encouraged, inspired, and awestruck by the generosity of both speakers. Amy Hall, Social Consciousness Strategic Advisor, and Cynthia Power, Director of EILEEN FISHER Renew, openly and unsparingly shared their insights, experiences, challenges, and incredible expertise in their respective departments, as well as impactful and pivotal moments and initiatives within the company. It proved, to us, that together, we can work towards something new: A collective effort powered by the entire industry, with something much larger than ourselves at stake, led by women -- and impacting women around the world.
Read on for a condensed version of our October conversation, with additions from Shona Quinn, Director of Social Consciousness at EILEEN FISHER!
Can you share a little bit about your title and what your role at EILEEN FISHER is in a nutshell?
CP: I oversee the takeback and resale program at EILEEN FISHER, which basically means I’m responsible for the operations of taking back, sorting, cleaning, and reselling EILEEN FISHER product. We have 2 warehouses, 2 freestanding resale stores, a website (www.eileenfisherrenew.com), and we sell our products in a handful of EILEEN FISHER stores and at pop-up events. I work with the warehouses and stores on a daily basis to strategize, ideate, and troubleshoot -- it’s a team effort!
Can you describe the Renew program — how it started, and why it’s so important to EILEEN FISHER?
CP: The Renew program started in 2009 as part of one store; employees brought back their EF clothes to be cleaned and resold. The idea was a hit, and the program took off. Currently, anyone with an EILEEN FISHER garment can bring them back to one of our US stores, or send it to one of our warehouses, and they will receive a $5 gift card for each piece regardless of condition. We sort, clean, and re-merchandise everything, reselling what we can -- and recycling, remanufacturing, and donating what cannot be resold. We have two freestanding Renew stores that sell only used EILEEN FISHER garments; I am so proud of these stores! They prove the quality and beauty of our clothes: Racks and racks of amazing fabrics in simple shapes. It's so fun to hunt for something that’s perfect for you -- it might be a wool sweater from last year, or a silk top from 10 years ago. The program underlines what the larger company stands for: Quality, simple, timeless clothing.
Doen is a much smaller — but growing! — brand. What can we learn from EILEEN FISHER’s path?
CP: Try to make the best decision you can and take baby steps -- that’s what Eileen says. Follow ideas that spark excitement and passion. Start small and see where it goes. As a smaller company, Doen has an opportunity now to be more nimble and set the direction for the future of the company -- do it! It gets harder as you get bigger.
How and when did EILEEN FISHER make the conscious decision to pioneer ethical and responsible apparel practices? What are the key parts of the environmental impact efforts internally? (i.e. Renew, Horizon 2030, bluesign, B Corp status, etc.)
CP: Our company has always tried to make the best decision possible at each moment in time, but I would say our big commitment came in 2015 at an offsite when our founder, Eileen, made it clear that she and the company were ‘all in’ for sustainability. That was a turning point where we really changed course to make sure everything we did was as sustainable as possible.
AH: In some ways you can compare it to the current state of Renew. [Cynthia] and the Renew Team are moving forward but there are always some hurdles along the way. From an environmental perspective, the Social Consciousness, Design, and Sourcing and Materials Teams focused on raw materials first, then moved to dye houses as key hotspots that needed attention. It’s been a 15+ year journey -- that continues. The sustainability work received the full support of Eileen and key leaders in 2015, which helped elevate the work and create more alignment among departments. Some companies start their environmental strategy at apparel manufacturing because that is the closest connection within the supply chain to their business. That wasn’t our strategy – we started where there were the greatest impacts and joined (or helped to create) strategic industry initiatives that supported the work. Two graphs that share some of this info are:
ECO PREFFERED MATERIAL PROGRESS SINCE 2004
What are the challenges facing environmentally responsible fashion companies?
CP: Well, many times the sustainable choice is a more expensive choice. For example, paying a sewer a living wage is the right thing to do, but that means the product they are sewing will cost more money to the consumer. A huge challenge is the consumer mindset. Do consumers understand what rock-bottom prices usually mean for workers in that supply chain? And are they willing to pay more for a sustainable product?
SQ: The fashion treadmill and new product must be on the selling floor or website every week. The challenge is how do businesses break this cycle and disrupt the norm? Renew is helping us with this.
Can you share some examples of tangible action steps that you encouraged your teams at EILEEN FISHER to take in order to integrate their values into their everyday practices and routine processes within the company? Have you been able to track and benchmark the impact of these practices?
AH: Employees from relevant departments need to be a key part of the conversation and goal setting. Ask team members to take part in filling out assessments – like the Sustainable Apparel Coalition's Higg Brand Retail Module (BRM) and the B Corp Assessment. Individuals will be more invested and begin to take ownership of the progress (or lack of progress) the company is making.
For more information on DOEN’s ethical practices, environmental impact, and more, please read our 2021 Resolutions Report! We are so excited to continue to offer educational panels and speakers for our internal team on these topics -- this year, our goal is to offer at least two environmental education events for our team in close collaboration with our employee-led resource group on Corporate Sustainability. By bringing in expert voices from all areas of the supply chain and our industry to speak to us and hold an open dialogue, we can collectively learn how we can make the most meaningful changes for the current moment and for the future.