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Looking good is only part of the equation.

This story first appeared in the November 18, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

 

Beyond design, Eileen Fisher has put a concentrated focus on sustainability efforts across the board. Its most recent initiative, Sustainability 2020, maps the company’s goal to be completely sustainable by the year 2020 — a milestone the firm is well on its way to achieving. The initiative is overseen by Candice Reffe, co-creative officer, and Amy Hall, director of sustainability, and split among four main sectors: design, manufacturing, buying and selling, and engaging the customer.

“It’s where we feel we can have great impact,” Reffe said of the four areas.

Materials used are the largest component when changing design practices. “That’s where our greatest environmental impact is,” said Reffe, “We started out as a company that used a lot of natural fibers, but along the way we had an “aha” moment and realized that natural doesn’t always mean good. Now, we are looking at how we source materials.” As of 2014, 67 percent of cotton and 63 percent of linen used is organic. By comparison, in 2012, just 2 percent of linen used was organic. The team hopes to increase these numbers by 10 percent each year to reach the 2020 goal.

“Each of our stepping stones has an annual, incremental increase that we’re hoping to achieve,” explained Hall. “I would say most of them are conservative, so we’re likely to achieve them.” While cotton and linen have exceeded expectations, other materials, such as viscose and wool, will be more of a challenge to replace.

“We’ve already been working for the past two or three years on those projects,” said Reffe. “It’s slow-going — it’s not always easy to convert a fabric.”

The company is also advancing manufacturing at the factory level. “We’re looking at factories from a multilayered picture,” said Reffe. “Part of it is around the efficiencies of a factory, such as how it’s using water and energy, but it’s also very much about the people who work there.”

To promote the best overall practices, the company is currently looking into building its own factory within New York City. Factories are located around the world, with about 70 percent of manufacturing done in China, 20 percent in the U.S., and the remaining 10 percent split across India, Peru, Spain, Turkey, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Japan and Korea.

“We’re looking at [a New York factory] as an opportunity to create positive environmental impact that we might be able to teach our other factories about,” said Hall. “We are a worker-owned company and want to prototype that for the factory, as well.”

Added Reffe, “We have a vision of what manufacturing should look like in the future, and we want to try to realize it.  We know if we can understand it from the field level, then we can be much better partners to our manufacturers.”

 

The initiative reaches the supplier and factory level, as well. As of spring 2012, the brand’s silk offerings, which account for about 10 percent of all products, are Bluesign certified, signifying that the China-imported materials are dyed and finished with fewer chemicals, less water and less energy. Eileen Fisher was the first company to have Bluesign-certified silks, as well as the first American fashion company to become a Bluesign-certified member.

“It took us three years to get that dye-house certified, and it was a collaboration between Eileen Fisher, the dye house and several other people in China, all working together to make it a success,” said Reffe. “It’s another example of how we’re trying to keep ourselves up to a very strict bar. We chose Bluesign because it is the strongest standard out there right now.”

To understand the company’s supply chain fully, and how it might be ecologically improved, Reffe and Hall tapped Made-By, a U.K.-based nonprofit that works with fashion and textile brands that want to improve the full life-cycle impact of their collections, to map its supply chain. “It’s something that’s really hard to grasp,” said Hall. “We use about 45 first-tier suppliers in 12 countries, but beyond that, and all the way back to the farm, it gets murkier and murkier.”

The mapping exercise with Made-By led the company to  hire an on-staff supply-chain–transparency specialist.

The sustainability project is, above all, a collaborative effort — clients included. “It’s about raising [our customer’s] awareness,” said Reffe. “Some people walk through the door and know what we’re about, while others may not really know what it means to make a shirt or dress. We just redesigned our Web site, so that in the shopping area, the first thing you see is the environmental and social story behind the garment.”

One of the brand’s earliest sustainable strategies, Green Eileen, fits perfectly into that model. Green Eileen, a recycled-clothing program, is part of the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports various female-empowerment centers, institutes and programs. Through Green Eileen, customers trade in gently used Eileen Fisher clothing for a $5 gift card toward a future purchase. The clothes are then cleaned and resold at a discounted price at select locations.

“If you have something that you’ve worn and has meaning to you, you don’t really want to just get rid of it,” said Cheryl Campbell, managing director of the Eileen Fisher Community Foundation. “By reselling this, we’re keeping clothing out of the landfill, and we’re also using the process to help women and girls.”

Since its inception in September 2009, Green Eileen has accepted over 200,000 donations. “I thought I was going to have a little rack in the back of the store with these gently used clothes,” said Campbell. “It’s been beyond anyone’s imaginations.”

As the initiative maintains its popularity, Campbell hopes to expand the number of existing retail locations in which Green Eileen secondhand clothes are available. “It’s great having a brick-and-mortar Green Eileen store, but as we want to give the profits away, the more we can reduce our overhead by using existing Eileen Fisher locations, the better for us,” she said. “The goal is to make it more available.”

Added Reffe, “We’ve always grown very organically. At 30 years, we’re looking back and we’re looking forward. We want to put our stake in the ground. That’s why there is a year attached to our sustainability [targets]. We want to create some goals that help shape a different kind of future and create a paradigm shift for fashion as an industry.”