Sustainable Fashion …. Eileen Fisher’s journey of social consciousness … from human rights to environment and reuse

October 28, 2018

Eileen Fisher is a womenswear clothing brand that focuses on simple dressing through timeless designs and sustainable practices.

Amy Hall is Eileen Fisher’s Director of Social Consciousness. She sits at a desk with an amazing view, overlooking the Hudson River, but she spends a lot of her time in what she calls “the grey zone.” It’s a place between yes and no, between good and bad. A place that shouldn’t have Uzbek cotton, but might possibly.

Recently she received a letter from a nonprofit asking if we use cotton from Uzbekistan, where child and forced labor is common and where the Aral Sea is being drained to irrigate cotton fields.

“We think the answer is no,” says Amy. “We have a policy against using Uzbek cotton. But can we be absolutely certain that a bale hasn’t been mixed in by some middleman in our supply chain? Verification of fiber sourcing is extremely tricky.”

Back in 1997, when sweatshops were in the headlines and labour standards such as SA8000 were just being written, Amy took on the task of shaping Eileen Fisher’s “Social Consciousness” department. She chose the word “consciousness” to reflect a desire to raise awareness about these three values:

  • Practicing business responsibly with absolute regard for human rights.
  • Guiding our product and practice toward sustaining our environment.
  • Supporting women to be full participants in society.

Over the years, the Social Consciousness team has grown in size and scope, integrating its work into the warp and weft of the company. Today Social Consciousness extends across the company, from marketing to manufacturing, from design to finance.

Human rights are key, with a program to provide people with dignified work that will enhance their livelihood, empowering them socially and economically. “We want to ensure that workers have a voice and are treated fairly in the workplace,” says Luna Lee, Human Rights Leader. We start by choosing manufacturing partners who agree to follow our labor standards and follow up by conducting audits. We also empower workers by offering training sessions that help them understand their rights.”

Other social and environmental themes are equally important. “Our environmental vision is holistic,” says Shona Quinn, Sustainability Leader. “We believe in paying attention to what happens in the field, the dyehouse and our customers’ washing machines. Our goal is to design out negative impacts—and design in positive change.”

Eileen Fisher’s Vision 2020

  • Fibres: We pledge to use the most sustainable fibres we can lay our hands on. All our cotton and linen will be organic by 2020. And our core merinos will get an ethical makeover: We’ll use wool from sheep that are responsibly raised—on land that is managed with deep concern for the environment. We’re determined to wean ourselves off rayon—Tencel Lyocell has much better chemistry. And we’re taking a new look at polyester. If it’s recycled, we’re in.
  • Colour: At most dyehouses, hazardous chemicals go into your clothes—and out with the wastewater for treatment. What if we didn’t use toxins in the first place? Since 2009, we’ve been working with Bluesign  technologies to shift our global dyehouses toward responsible chemical, water and energy usage. We’re making progress: By 2020, roughly 40% of our product will be either Bluesign certified or using exclusively Bluesign-approved chemicals. But frankly that’s not good enough. We are continuing to reach out to other brands and work together to create demand for responsible dyes. It’s our bid for collaboration as the new industry norm.  
  • Resources: By 2050, the global economy is projected to consume three planets’ worth of resources annually. To change that trajectory, we’re committing to less. Leaving less fabric waste on the cutting room floor. Using less water, emitting less carbon. We’re investing in alternative energy and cutting our reliance on air shipping. By 2020, our US retail and office spaces won’t just be climate neutral. They’ll be climate positive.
  • People: Our clothes are not made by machine alone. They require the deft hands of thousands of workers, whom we value for their part in our brand. For more than 15 years, we’ve trained workers at our key suppliers in China to voice their rights. Since 2005, we’ve invested in an alternative supply chain in Peru that pays fair trade wages. In India, we’ve launched The Handloom Project, a six-year investment program designed to empower weavers in rural communities. And we’ve joined the Better Buying program to more fully understand how our purchasing practices impact our suppliers. These are some examples of how we’re committed to improving the livelihoods of the workers in our supply chain.
  • Mapping: It’s no small feat to map a global supply chain, but it’s a matter of integrity. We need to verify how every last fiber is grown and every last garment is dyed. We need to know that every factory, spinner and mill is following strict labor standards. When we began this project in 2014, we didn’t think that would be too hard. After all, we’ve visited a lot of organic cotton fields and talked with workers at countless factories. But going deeper means getting our suppliers to reveal their suppliers. That takes trust. And time.
  • Resue: At the end of the day, we make stuff. Where it ends up is our responsibility. We start by designing our clothes to last, so they’ll stay in your closet longer. And when you’re done with them we take them back to resell. To date, over one million garments have been collected and sorted. As for the pieces we can’t sell? They’re tomorrow’s raw material, to be reborn as new textiles or refashioned as new clothes. It may take longer than 5 years, but we imagine a future in which waste is a thing of the past.

On this last point, “Renew” is a great initiative from Eileen Fisher.

“We believe in clothes that stand the test of time. But nothing, not even your favorite sweater, lasts forever. That’s why we’ve created Renew, a take-back and reuse program that preserves the value of our clothes at every stage, in any condition. It’s part of our commitment to being circular by design.

Here’s how it works: you bring back your old Eileen Fisher clothes, and we find them another home. When your clothes can no longer be worn, we remake them into one-of-a-kind designs—and we save the scraps, because they’re tomorrow’s raw materials.

By taking responsibility for the lifecycle of our clothes, we’re patching up the holes in a flawed apparel industry and setting a new standard for sustainability. But we can’t do it alone. Every time you choose to bring your clothes back or shop Renew, you’re helping us design a future without waste.”

More on sustainable fashion

Stella McCartney was one of the first designers in the fashion business to embrace a sustainable attitude in her business model – from the production to the final collections. “I design clothes that are meant to last. I believe in creating pieces that are not going to get burnt, that are not going to landfills and that are not going to damage the environment. For every piece in every collection, I am always asking what have we done to make this garment more sustainable and what else can we do.”

Reformation founder and CEO Yael Aflalo shares how a ‘depressing’ trip to China sparked her company idea – and shares what other companies can learn from her journey. “We put sustainability at the core of everything we do. We invest in green building infrastructure to minimize our waste, water, and energy footprints. By providing on-the-job training and opportunities for growth, we also invest in the people who make this revolution possible.”

Patagonia, the outdoor clothing brand with an environmental focus, was founded in 1973 by Yvon Chouinard, who since 1964 had been manufacturing pitons (metal anchors used in rock climbing) that would not damage the rock. While insisting on offering the best quality, the brand has contributed toa sustainable society and natural environment by developing eco-friendly materials and returning 1% of its sales backto society. Patagonia has redefined the role of a company and it continues to inspire the outdoor industry and the world.

Everlane has gone further than most to bring transparency to the fashion world, highlighting the real costs of making clothing. “At Everlane, we want the right choice to be as easy as putting on a great T-shirt. That’s why we partner with the best, ethical factories around the world. Source only the finest materials. And share those stories with you—down to the true cost of every product we make. It’s a new way of doing things. We call it Radical Transparency.”

Positive Luxury’s mission is to inspire people to buy better and influence brands to do better. We award the Butterfly Mark to luxury brands that are committed to sustainability, helping consumers shop with confidence. Created by Diana Verde Nieto, it is a platform driving positive change in the luxury business, and a curation of the most positive brands for consumers. The Butterfly Mark is an interactive trust mark that identifies the brands in the Positive Luxury community of #brandstotrust. It offers brand transparency at the point-of-sale in a consumer-friendly way.

“The Next Black” is a documentary film that explores the future of clothing. Watch as we meet with some of the most innovative companies on the planet to get their opinion on clothing and its future, including: heroes of sustainability, Patagonia; tech-clothing giants, Studio XO; sportswear icon, adidas; and Biocouture, a consultancy exploring living organisms to grow clothing and accessories.


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