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NEW YORK – In an effort to be 100 percent sustainable by 2020, Eileen Fisher is trying to break down silos at the company (design, sales, manufacturing, customer engagement) so various departments can connect and engage more effectively with each other.

“The optimization of the parts won’t get us to the value of the whole,” said Sara Schley, founder of Seed Systems and consultant to Eileen Fisher’s Vision 2020 at F.I.T.’s Sustainability of Fashion and Textiles program here Monday.  The company has been looking at the inter-dependencies, and the connection between the parts, she said.

Leading a panel discussion of Eileen Fisher executives that included Amy Hall, director of social consciousness; Liz Wisler, vice president of manufacturing and product development, and Inka Apter, facilitating manager, fabric development, Schley asked them about their vision, the current reality and how they’re addressing the gaps.

Hall, who has been with Fisher for 22 years, said originally her corporate social responsibility team worked on the edge of the company, and never felt they were actually in it. But after Eileen Fisher came back from a trip to China and the West Coast about three years ago, she had a new set of goals, was fired up about the environment, and was worried and deeply concerned about water.

“She threw a new gauntlet down,” said Hall, and wanted to move faster, and do better for the planet and people. After a Buddhist retreat, the company came together and created a communal vision. They sat in nature for an hour and had to write in a journal. The team agreed to create a road map, which includes four buckets on the environmental side and four buckets on the social side. On the environmental side? Material, chemistry, water and energy. On the social side: Conscious business practices, workers’ voice, fair wages and benefits, and worker and community happiness.

Wisler said she’s been leading the manufacturing and product development team for 12 years. The most exciting time has been the last year and a half. Among the initiatives she’s involved in are product, cost, fair wages, production planning, sea shipping, and reducing material waste on the cutting-room floor.

“We’ve been able to engage a lot of people in this work. We can’t do this in silos. We have to think about the business across all business channels. In sustainability, you can’t really shift too much unless the business model changes,” she said.

Earlier projections allow for more of a flow so they can do sea shipments. “We need to make a shift in how we work,” she said. “Our business model has been developed in a way that meets the customers’ demands. It’s a cut-to-order model. There are a lot of order changes, which has a negative impact on the sustainability approach.…We hope to get to a point of a larger percentage of projected orders that would be on a sea shipment timeline, and a smaller percentage that can react to the business demands. That’s a pretty big goal,” said Wisler.

Sea shipments have some negative impact with carbon footprints, but there are fairly significant cost savings.

They’re also looking at increasing production in the U.S. and in Peru.

“Transparency is a big priority. We’re thinking about supply chain operations in new ways,” she said. The company is setting up its systems to look at data in new ways and engage with other channels within it.

Apter said about 10 to 12 years ago, the company started looking at the impact on the environment of the natural fibers it was using. “We were surprised to discover some were having a heavy toll on the environment and the people who were making them,” she said. Fisher started using organic cotton, organic linen and recycled polyester. “We never used acetate or acrylic. We had to understand the impact of the materials.” They started to educate themselves and build their knowledge base. Wool rates pretty low as a sustainable fabric. “We have a wool task force. We have a viscose task force, and on and on it goes. We have to dig deep into our materials. We have to innovate and keep up our knowledge base,” she said.

The firm is always looking at ways customers can care for their products. “We try to educate the consumer about everything to do about clothing. The Green Eileen project is amazing. H&M has one and North Face has launched one as well. Our program is quite unique. The clothing is donated by our customers, and they get a small value back from their donations,” said Apter. The clothing is cleaned, sorted and can be sold, and it supports causes the designer cares about, such as the health and happiness of girls.

Customer engagement is also on the agenda. The company is trying to find the right person to spearhead a customer engagement team. “It [sustainability] is not an easy conversation with our customers. Our customers come in to look for great product,” said Hall. She said that a recent ad campaign called No Excuses about sustainability confused the customer, who wanted to see more fashion in the ads. “We took a step back,” she said.