Business as a Movement A Conversation with Eileen Fisher
Eileen Fisher talks about changing the world, one garment at a time.
What do you mean by “business as a movement”?
I like the idea that a company can be successful as a business and also as an agent of positive change. That’s “business as a movement.” For me, it’s a daily effort to keep moving in the right direction.
We do make big decisions, and you would think with my name on the door that I’d be the one choosing to focus on the environment, or on women and girls. But actually, it doesn’t always happen like that. It’s usually that people in the company become passionate about something, and it starts to move and to build based on a number of smaller decisions.
Everyone needs to understand that the little choices they make matter. Our salespeople can make a customer feel a little more confident to walk out into the world, because they’ve found her the right garment, or maybe they’ve simply taken the time to connect with her. We have impact in all the ways we touch people. How long will the styles last? Are the fabrics sustainable? Does it cost too much? Will it sell? It’s this constant balance between making things work for the business, the customer and the environment. It’s about how we work with our suppliers. We have to agree on a price that works for us, but we also need to understand their costs because we want them to be able to pay their people fairly and get them the programs they need. It’s all the little ways we see ourselves as a community, as part of a larger whole, and knowing that our decisions do matter.
Empowering women and girls is part of the company mission, your personal foundation and the EILEEN FISHER Leadership Institute. How do you go about that?
One thing we’re doing with my foundation is our girls’ leadership institute, and this past summer we hosted girls from different communities and backgrounds. I think everyone learned there are universal struggles that don’t change based on your personal situation. We’re all dealing with similar things—how to speak up to someone, how to be happy in our daily lives.
The company also gives grants to women entrepreneurs and to nonprofits that foster leadership in women and girls. We define leadership pretty broadly—it’s about giving women and girls the confidence to take charge of their lives. We look for programs that help them find their voices, so they can act on what they believe in. We give grants to really different organizations. We’ve helped fund a photography program that gives girls a tool to express themselves freely, a program where women inmates train puppies to be guide dogs and an education program for sex workers and their children. It runs the gamut, because there are so many ways to lead. We learn so much from these women through their struggles and their successes.
How do your stores help bring women together?
Connection is so valuable. A lot of women today feel isolated. That’s a big issue in our country. We’re hoping to create connections through some of the programs we do in the stores. Each store team plans events based on what they feel is important to their customers. The events range from fundraisers for community nonprofits to wellness sessions and author readings. Some stores are also trying to serve as gathering spaces by hosting book swaps and knitting circles. We started the LAB Store in Irvington, New York, where I live, as an experiment for new ideas. We invited the author of Quiet, Susan Cain, in to talk and we’re holding craft workshops using our scrap fabrics. People are interested in recycling materials and working with their hands. I’m excited about the possibility of creating community through craft. It’s already happening, and we can be a little part of it.
Your company has a global presence. How do you work with people from different cultures in a way that’s meaningful?
We have to be really careful of the values that we project onto people in other cultures. We have to ask ourselves, what is our role? How do we understand what is really going on for them? How are men and women really being treated when they’re working on our clothes? What can we do to affect their situation, their lifestyle and their working hours?
We have a strong human rights program in place that sets the bar high—we follow the international standard called SA8000. It gives us a way to find out what’s really happening with the factorys’ workers. We also partner with local nonprofits to go deeper. In China, we’ve worked with Verité for ten years to train workers so they have the tools to advocate for themselves. In India, we’ve launched a study of the weaving community that makes our handloomed scarves to understand their needs directly. Our supplier in Peru is working with a nonprofit there to do a cell-phone survey with knitters living in the remote highlands.
You’ve created a different way of working that’s highly collaborative. Tell us about it.
There is something about the way we work, the openness. All of us make choices every day around how we respond to people. Do we choose the positive path? Our actions in those moments make a difference because they impact other people—and we try to be conscious of that. That’s why we encourage people to bring their whole selves to work. When I started the business, it took me a while to give myself permission to be who I am. But when you grow in ways that are natural to who you are, you light up, and that means you can be your best with others. We ran a long-standing ad campaign with employees in the pictures rather than models, and the message was “simply to be ourselves.” That’s a mantra for us. We also try to go into situations without assuming we know the right answer. It’s an important part of any creative process, but the bigger culture we all live in says we’re supposed be experts. When we’re in a murky place, that’s when I know the possibilities are percolating. We’ve learned to be more comfortable with that discomfort, because good things always come of it. I’m so curious about ways to engage the collective members of the company. We’ve adopted a practice from a book I recently read, The Circle Way, which allows us to hear many perspectives before moving forward with the energy of the whole group in mind. Learning from each other is the heart of it. Those of us who’ve been here a really long time listen to the younger generations, and they work with our wisdom. We’re looking for a fresh way of doing things. I love discovering things I wouldn’t have thought of, yet they’re so EILEEN FISHER. It’s a balance we find together.
Does your emphasis on relationships extend to your supply chain?
From the very beginning, it mattered that we work with ethical partners who share our values. I care about how we collaborate with the sewing factories, from how we speak to them to how we help them understand the flow of work. A lot of sewing factories have to build their staff overnight when they get big jobs. They’ll hire people for a week or two and then, when they have to scale back down, lay those people off. So we’ve created long-term relationships throughout our supply chain. We’ve built know-how in those factories by repeating core fabrics and shapes. We try to provide a level of consistency so they can depend on us. That kind of back and forth makes them want to partner with us.
What about the clothes themselves?
I always like to go back to the work that we do. We make clothes, let’s not forget that. The clothes matter. Sometimes I’ve thought we are doing a superficial thing. But when I’m wearing something that makes me feel good, I am more willing to contribute, more willing to speak. That’s what we’re trying to do for women. We’re trying to give them clothes that feel like an extension of themselves. That’s our core work.
Presence, of course, isn’t just about clothes, it’s the way we feel about ourselves. It’s something about the way we are in our bodies, and clothes help support that.
You’ve started a program to recycle EILEEN FISHER clothing. How is that working?
We have to be responsible for our products from the very beginning—how they’re made, who’s making them and how those people are treated, all the way until the clothes land back in the earth. GREEN EILEEN, our recycling program, is one of the things I’m most proud of. People are taking the time to clean out their closets and bring our clothes back to the store, where we clean them in an environmentally friendly way and resell them to someone else. All the proceeds fund programs to support women and girls. We try to make the clothes in a way that they keep their value, so they can be sold to other people. We try not to let them end up in landfills.
When we started this recycling program, I was honestly a little nervous. I thought, “Oh no, I’m going to start seeing stuff I’m not sure I want to see.” And of course, we’ve made mistakes, but it’s pretty stunning to see how much of it still works after twenty-eight years.
In 2012 your core silks became bluesign® certified, which is a big achievement. How did it happen?
For almost two decades we’ve been working with Chinese silk that is dyed at a small dyehouse. We’re their primary customer, so we thought, “Hey, this is an opportunity.” When we became bluesign® members in 2009, we decided to launch a project at our dyehouse. There was a huge level of trust because we were such longtime partners. They built a new facility and collaborated with bluesign® technologies to change the chemistry behind their dyes, as well as implement best practices for water and energy usage. Now our Organic Linen Jersey is dyed there as well.
Yours is the first US fashion company to earn bluesign® certification. Do you think the practice will grow?
We’re looking to improve as many of our processes and practices as we can and are sharing that information with other manufacturers and designers. We have a couple of channels for doing that. One is an organization called Business for Social Responsibility, which is made up of companies that come together to share best practices. We’re also a member of Social Venture Network, where like-minded company leaders share visionary ideas. It’s where we first met the vendor that makes our fair-trade organic cotton sweaters in Peru.
Of course, there are always pitfalls and struggles, but if we just keep on our path, keep moving in the right direction, every so often the ordinary steps we take turn into something that feels like a leap. That’s how we’re going to change the world, little by little.