When Eileen Fisher started her clothing company from a Tribeca loft 30 years ago, she was likely more eco-conscious than most, using organic cottons and lasting fabrics in her timeless designs.
She's long worked toward sustainability in fashion, and in 2009 she started the Green Eileen initiative, a recycling program for gently worn Eileen Fisher clothing.To date, customers have sent back more than 300,000 garments to the company headquarters in New York. And there are two stand-alone Green Eileen stores, one in Seattle and one in Yonkers, N.Y.
Now, with her new Vision2020 campaign, Fisher is going even further, pledging to make all of her products environmentally sustainable by the year 2020 and to make her company's U.S. operations not just carbon neutral but carbon positive within five years. Fisher wants to help reverse the trend of fashion over-consumption, build supply chains that manufacture responsibly and adhere to fair labor practices and reach out to other fashion labels to create demand for non-toxic dyes as an industry norm.
"It's really about two words," she says. "No excuses."
As we neared Earth Day on Wednesday, we talked with her about the campaign:
How did the Vision2020 campaign come about?
For about 10 years a lot of people in the company have worked on sustainability, and a couple years ago I dropped into a vision meeting around our future. At one point this idea of Vision2020 came out: that we would commit to all of our products being sustainable by the year 2020.
[Our] whole vision from the beginning was about timeless clothing, so sustainability is embedded in the original concept. Over the years, as a company we've taken what I call baby steps at creating more sustainable products. So, I'd say we started with baby steps, then we started to walk and now we're starting to run.
It then became "Can we really do that, and what does it actually mean?" I realized I could say yes, and even if we don't get to 100% sustainability in everything by 2020, it makes a goal that there are no exceptions. We have to try. Otherwise, it becomes, "Oh, well, that's our bestselling fabric, so we can't remove that one." This means we're going to try in every area that we can. Realistically, are we going to get to 100%? There are going to be some possible problems.
How did your personal awareness for the campaign's need develop?
A shift came after I went to Bhutan a couple years ago and got involved with their Gross National Happiness project and learned about their concept of "purpose work." I tried to understand what my own purpose was and what can I actually do, me, in my own life. What came up was my own personal belief about sustainability and how I can bring my voice into my own company and then out to the world. That was a compelling revelation to me.
With supply chains so complex and vast today, why were they not mapped first as you went along — why do it now in reverse?
Logically, you'd think we could map this as we go along, but we as an industry have not set a common pattern of mapping our supply chains. That's a very new direction for us in the apparel industry. Because of that, suppliers are not necessarily forthcoming with information. A lot of it is proprietary information they hold close to their chests, especially around dyeing, the chemistry of the dyes and the formulas, and even the fabrics themselves.
And just the pace with apparel companies now, we have different fabrics coming out all the time and to map all of them takes a lot of time. It's quite complex. Some garments have two and three fabrics to map. Also, suppliers who buy in bulk can't actually trace where their bales of cotton come from, which farm(s) did it actually come from? Or someone might just do the spinning. There are all these sub pockets.
Can larger companies such as yours get together and use some muscle to get suppliers to dig down and then open up?
Yes. One of the dye houses we use we've a long-term relationship with so they're more willing to share information or they're not going to get the order — and it's a good percentage of business. So we do have some leverage. Even so they still think of this dye as their secret sauce and feel it's proprietary information — or maybe they don't want us to know what's toxic or not in it.
Won't such an industry sea-change involve collaboration across brands?
I remember in 1997 there was a lot of news around sweatshops and we thought, "Oh, my God, we have never really seriously considered the working conditions of the people in those factories." I was interested how other companies were going to respond. I think we all learned from each other about what was going on and customers were asking, "Why don't you know this? Why don't you know that?"
People do know a lot about where their food comes from. And your website is excellent and quite educational in a similar way for apparel. I quickly learned one stand-out fact: it takes 700 gallons of water to make one T-shirt. Why don't we as consumers know these kinds of basic facts?
I think there's a huge disparity about what you put in your body and what you wear. People have a visceral reaction about not eating something because it might cause cancer. But we have a long way to go before we make that connection with what we wear.
What do you mean when you say you are a clothing, and not a fashion, company?
We try to follow the trends but also look at what we're producing and question: "OK, this belongs to this moment. Will it belong to the moment next year? And will someone want to keep it in five years?" We always ask ourselves those kinds of questions. We have to keep people interested so we can keep doing the good work. Give them something that excites them and yet keep it sustainable.
We have different goals than some companies who are just selling the latest thing and then it all ends every season.
What do you mean by "business as a movement?"
I believe as a business we can be a voice for change; that business can be more than about just making a profit and putting more stuff out there. We can use business to change the world, literally. We can be a force to develop and grow people, make better products, have an impact on sustainability.
The fashion industry is portrayed as something light and luxurious when in fact it's a massive, complex industry with profound power all over the globe. It really rivals agriculture in the demands that it puts on the world and its environment.
We want to get the word out to the consumers to demand the creation of different kinds of clothing, following the thread to where the clothes come from and how they're actually made. The more consumer awareness, the more demand will come and the companies will be forced to change.