Eileen Fisher on building her brand on sustainability and the dangers of “fast fashion”
Fashion contributes to about 10 percent of global emissions — and uses more energy than aviation and shipping combined. Enter Eileen Fisher. Ever since she created her company back in 1984, sustainability has been part of her bottom line. That dedication has only increased as the company has matured.
Eileen spoke to Wake-Up Call about sustainability as a main pillar of her brand, her thoughts on “fast fashion,” and how she thinks the industry needs to band together to help the environment.
Wake-Up Call: Eileen Fisher has been sustainable before being sustainable was cool. Tell us why you decided to make this a priority for the brand all the way back in 1984?
Eileen Fisher: It was in my blood from the very beginning — the whole idea was that clothes should be timeless. I hated to throw things away, and I was inspired by the Kimono, which is a garment that people in Japan have worn for over 1,000 years and is such a simple shape. That shape really inspired me, and I wanted to design really simple things. The simpler something is the more things it goes with, the longer you wear it, the longer it lasts in your wardrobe. That is something that is core for us, along with good quality materials. So that is embedded in the design itself.
For years we focused on natural fibers — these are fibers that break down naturally in the environment. The problem we found later is that there were many pesticides and chemicals used in the dyeing process. As we became more committed to environmentalism as a core value of the company, we hired someone to head social consciousness. About six or seven years ago, we decided that by 2020 we wanted Eileen Fisher to be 100 percent sustainable: working inch by inch, seed by seed, farmer by farmer. Unfortunately, we learned that’s not exactly doable, because clothing production will always require energy use and nobody has conquered those issues yet. But we ended up laying out what our sustainability goals were. That included using eco-preferred materials and all organic cotton and linens.
What plans do you have going forward to continue your goal of keeping the brand as environmentally friendly as possible?
We made tons of progress in the past decade, but we didn’t get to exactly where we wanted. So when we hit 2020, we reported on where we were and laid out another round of goals for 2030. Now, we’re aiming to figure out ways we can actually have a positive impact on the environment, rather than just getting rid of what’s bad or harmful in our production process. Can we clean the water we’re using as we go? Some of our factories already do that — how can we do more of that? We also want to work with other brands because this is a big industry and it needs to change in so many ways. And we can’t do it alone.
Cotton uses a vast amount of water and it’s still the most used material. The dye process takes a lot of water as well. It’s possible to produce clothes without using as much water, and we’re doing that as much as we can. We have close-loop technology now to recycle and reuse water, but not many factories are doing that. We helped one of our factories years ago change over its dye process to be Bluesign certified, which is much less toxic. At that time, which was ten or fifteen years ago, they were having trouble getting other clients who would pay the premium that came with that. So the connection is so important. We’re connected with other brands like Patagonia who are also trying to do this work and do things better. But as customers become more aware, there’s reason for hope.
Have you seen your consumer base care more about this?
I think that over the years, most of our customers didn’t even know about the sustainability work we were doing, because we didn’t blast it out there too much. Now that it’s so important we’re talking about it a little more. I hope that people vote with their dollars, so to speak and search for companies that are more sustainable.
What are your thoughts on this “fast fashion” craze, where people can just order clothes for close to nothing on Instagram or Amazon? And how do you reconcile that with the emphasis Gen Z and millennials have placed on environmentalism?
I think it’s the cost of things. If you think about something like organic food — you used to only be able to get it at specialty food stores. Now that there’s much more awareness about it, it’s become much more broadly available and affordable. I think the system has to change. It’s up to us as manufacturers to help educate the customers. Maybe you don’t need to buy so impulsively — maybe you can clean out your closet and shop more consciously and think about what you really need, love, and really wear. Most of us find ourselves wearing the same things we love over and over again. So I want to try to help educate the next generation of people who think they can’t afford to shop sustainably. Because I understand that. People complain about our prices, and I don’t blame them! But at the same time, there’s a lot of thought and care that goes into making those clothes consciously.
But I have a lot of hope. Over the last year the search for sustainable apparel has gone up exponentially. I think the awareness of climate change is much more front and center, certainly with young people.
What is the Eileen Fisher Renew program?
We realized that our customers have a lot of clothes, so about eleven or twelve years ago we ended up starting this recycle program where customers can bring their clothes back, and we resell the clothes. There’s a lot of profit to be made in that area.
After we resell, we take anything that can’t resell because it’s damaged, and that’s where we upcycle, with projects like Waste No More. We just launched a collection of bags and hats and they almost sold out the first week! That idea of upcycling — that you can take what would be trash or headed to a landfill and make it into something even more valuable — really intrigues me.
What do you want your legacy to be?
I don’t usually think about legacy! I always tell the story of how when I first started my company, I wanted to call it something else, and I was wracking my brain for another name. Somehow, at the last minute, I ran out of time. I figured I’d just let them write the checks to Eileen Fisher. I’d like to stand for a simpler life — the idea of simple clothes made of good quality materials, that work together to help a woman dress simply and have a little more time in her day
This interview has been edited and condensed.
This interview originally appeared on Medium.