Eileen Fisher’s Bold New Path
Eileen Fisher designs from her heart. Long before sustainability really got going as a business movement, this giant of the fashion world created clothes inspired by her love for natural fibers and her desire to make pieces that were timeless and long-lasting. As her company grew, she began educating herself on the environmental impacts of the fashion industry and decided to do more. For over a decade, Eileen and her 1,200 employees have gradually transformed Eileen Fisher Inc. into one of the largest sustainable fashion brands anywhere, yet the company’s frank marketing materials are the first to tell you that more action is needed. Focusing on six key areas – fibers, colors, resources, people, supply chain mapping, and reuse—the company’s Vision 2020 initiative promises that all of its styles will be sustainable by the year 2020, or it won’t sell them.
We had the pleasure of chatting with Eileen for several hours at her home in New York about everything from her personal story to the value that mindful breathing at meetings adds to her company. She also opened up about the struggles and sacrifices required to integrate sustainable practices throughout her company, the tension between minimizing her impact and selling products, and how her search for purpose led to success.
Can you tell us about the conceptualization of the Eileen Fisher brand? Was there a moment that you remember that you actually decided to really go for it?
Eileen Fisher: I started in 1984, so I’m going to say it was 1979 when the idea was forming. I’d been working in design and graphics at that time and actually doing some branding work—logo design and packaging and things like that. I had a Japanese partner and had the opportunity to travel to Japan, and while I was there, I got really excited about the kimono— the whole idea of a garment that they wore in only one shape for a thousand years. The whole idea of timeless clothing intrigued me. The simplicity in the whole Japanese aesthetic just really attracted me. So, this idea began to form and it was just about really simple clothes—simple shapes and natural fibers. I was into cotton and linen and silk at that time. It just had to be natural fibers. That was clear to me.
When I first decided to do it, I had a friend who was a jewelry designer. He took me to a boutique show where he showed his jewelry to small stores. I just remember walking around there and seeing these little booths and seeing other designers presenting their work and small companies presenting their wares to little boutiques around the country. I remember looking around going, “Oh, I can do this.” I felt like I could see my idea there and it felt whole. I could picture it.
I’m probably not a good salesperson, so I couldn’t picture going around to stores and standing in line at Bendel’s or Bloomingdale’s to talk to the buyer and then being rejected. That was too disturbing to me, plus I didn’t know if they would understand what I was doing. And I guess I never saw myself doing runway shows – I wasn’t that kind of designer. It was more like I wanted real clothes for me to really wear. It wasn’t about the show or red carpets or anything glitzy. It was simple.
Was there any fear involved in that decision?
EF: I think it was foolish non-fear.
I really had nothing and so I had nothing to lose. It was coming through me, this idea. It was clear to me. I was sort of uncomfortable and not a confident person, but a shy, introverted person. But this idea was powerful and I was confident about it and I was sure about it. I would talk to people about it with confidence. It was almost like I didn’t recognize myself because I felt so sure of myself in that arena. So I would say I had no fear—maybe foolishly had no fear.
Was it your intention from the get-go to make Eileen Fisher a sustainable brand or was that a gradual awakening?
EF: I would say it was gradual in
terms of deepening the work around sustainability. In the beginning, it was all about natural fibers, and I was under the impression that natural was biodegradable and natural was safe for the environment. What happened over the years is that I drew in a lot of people who had similar values and cared about natural fibers and probably even understood things that I didn’t. I remember this woman, Sally Fox, who was one of the first organic cotton people. She was growing organic cotton in these subtle, natural colors close to 20 years ago. People like that found us because they knew we were on the same wavelength somehow, even if we weren’t fully understanding organic yet.
I guess you could relate it to food. People who eat healthy just instinctively wouldn’t eat at McDonald’s because it just wouldn’t feel right or they wouldn’t want to eat a lot of packaged foods. They would eat real food. To me, it was real clothes. That was where I was coming from without fully understanding the difference between organic cotton and conventional cotton, and not understanding how damaging conventional cotton is to the planet.
So, we hired Amy Hall. We actually hired her to be an assistant at first and then she moved into being Director of Social Consciousness 15 years ago. She became passionate about some of the human rights work in the factories, how we monitored the factories, and how we ensured that our people were treated fairly. That was really how we entered social consciousness. We got involved with Social Accountability International, which does the SA8000 standards for operating in factories around the world. Amy is now on the board of directors there.
From there, things would just happen. For example, the first cotton I did, I just didn’t like the finish. The vendors told me there was some kind of chemical finish that they put on the cotton, and I didn’t like the way it felt. I had them not put the chemical finish on it, and I felt that the fabric just came alive. It was much more organic. It was just an intuitive thing that I liked it better.
Another time we got involved with this group in Peru that was doing organic cotton. We just fell in love with the yarn, but their capabilities weren’t great in terms of design. Even though in the beginning we were offering some products from them because we wanted to support this idea, the garments didn’t necessarily sell and they were more expensive. It was probably 30 percent more for the organic cotton at that time and we were troubled by that. Some of our designers got really excited about this yarn and they went down there and they started really designing into the product and working with the people down there to actually create what we wanted and making the product really compelling. Today this is an amazing project. It has some of my favorite pieces that I go to because they’re so beautiful and this cotton is just so compelling. People today will pay the price for those pieces, probably because the design value is there. It’s not just funky, hippie clothes. It’s something really beautiful and really special.
I think this whole thing has kind of been a building process over the years. A few years ago, we started doing organic linen and trying to bring in more organic cotton. We’re on a path to try to move more of our products to be more local—back to this country. We’re not there yet. We have a long way to go, but we’re trying.
I think there’s just so much passion and it’s so deep in the company. It’s not just that we have a Director of Sustainability or Director of Social Consciousness. Now we have somebody mapping the supply chain. That’s her whole job. We have a Director of Human Rights. We have these different positions. What’s actually happening is that throughout the company lots of people are really encouraged to be passionate about these things and are given permission to care. At our company meetings, we do things like talk about the water crisis and ask everyone what they might do, and get the company engaged.
Was there something that really inspired this shift?
EF: A few years ago, I got involved in the Gross National Happiness project with Otto Scharmer. I ended up going to Bhutan and the Amazon and started really thinking about purpose — my own purpose and the company’s purpose.
It’s interesting because we’re a clothing business, and although we’re not a typical fashion business, we are still caught in that thing where the customer wants new — she wants to feel special. We want her to feel great and give her something new, but we also want to create things that are timeless and that last a long time. These are weird lines that we’re walking.
I don’t think of myself as leading this company. I never call myself CEO or anything like that. It just feels like it’s such a collective, group effort. And a few years ago, when I started on this project, simultaneously there was work going on in sustainability and there was a whole team building around that asking, “What else can we do? How can we get rid of the plastic hangers? How can we use less paper? How can we ship more by sea rather than by air?” These conversations were happening everywhere and there started to be these large gatherings at off-sites.
So, after I started doing my own purpose work with the Gross National Happiness project, I was on a boat in the Amazon and I met this guy, Marcelo Cardoso, who blew my mind. He was talking about purpose and companies having a larger purpose and individual purpose and how that works together, and personal transformation. I was like, “Yes, I want more of this. How can you help me do this?”
I started bringing him in and we were doing these prototype workshops. One of them was around purpose and I had this really powerful experience. He does these exercises where you just sit in a chair and you embody your purpose. You sort of talk to yourself as your purpose, like, “What are you doing with your life? Why are you doing this? What really matters? Why are you forgetting about me?”
I had this really interesting experience in which I recognized that I just needed to be more fully me. Actually, I used the stools in my kitchen, and I found that when I would sit in this purpose chair, I was sort of embodying my purpose. I just started to take that into my daily practice of sitting on a stool and feeling that I’m in my purpose rather than just my ordinary me.
A year and a half ago, I had just come back from two back-to-back conferences and I was tired, but there was a company sustainability meeting off-site. You could feel a lot of energy building around all this great work that was happening. I was supposed to go. I thought I was going to go for the first few hours and just kind of set it off, give permission, and let everybody know that I supported this whole initiative. I was sitting in my purpose chair that morning and I thought, “I have to do this. I don’t care if I’m tired. This really matters.”
I went upstairs and packed my bag for the whole four days. I went and while I was there it was amazing the work that was happening. This is where the Vision 2020 came out. It was not my idea, but it came up that we should make a radical commitment that we would make all of our clothes sustainable by 2020.
And whoa. I just remember realizing that I could say, “Yes!” My name’s on the door. Even if we don’t get there, saying yes gives people permission. It was just this powerful understanding that there was a place for me to really use my voice and that this was an important area for me to do that. The work was already happening and it was maybe going to happen if I hadn’t said yes, but me saying yes that day was another, deeper layer.
Even though we’ve been doing this work for some time, we’ve been doing what I call “baby steps.” Just do another project. Just try to see if we can do a little more organic cotton and see how it goes. Take our bestselling pant and make it organic rather than just conventional cotton. It’s going to cost 15 percent more. Will it work? It turned out that people actually liked it better. It was a little softer and nicer. We were making risky decisions, but inch-by-inch in baby steps.
After that experience it was like, “Okay now we can step out. We can talk about it.” I’m a shy person and I’m terrified of being targeted. Yes, we’re doing 84 percent organic cotton. Someone might ask, “What about the other 16 percent?” 60-some percent of our linen is organic. “But what about the other percentage that isn’t?” “What about bluesign certified? How come everything isn’t bluesign certified? [Editor’s note: bluesign is an organization that certifies sustainable textile and apparel manufacturing.]
Ah! We’re trying, guys. We’re doing our best. Try not to target us for the places we’re not good enough because we know we’re not good enough. Nobody is good enough yet. There’s a long, long way to go, but I decided that I’m going to step out and use my voice. This is an incredible opportunity. So I’m really excited.
I went to this conference, a small group of 25 CEOs. John Mackey was involved through Conscious Capitalism and he said, “In running Whole Foods, we get so much flak. It’s just unbelievable.” That’s what I thought might happen to us, too, or to me. But at this point, I figure, “What the hell? I’m doing it anyway!” People will point out where we need to do better. What’s interesting to me is making that commitment and being willing to step out. It’s kind of terrifying, but what have I got to lose? It’s the same feeling as when I started the business, like, “So what? Look at the good work that Whole Foods does even if it does get crucified.” I remember just giving John a hug and saying, “It’s all good. You are great. I shop at Whole Foods all the time. It’s good. Keep it going.” It’s not perfect, but we have to keep doing it. We have to keep trying and do our best everyday.
Can you articulate your purpose for us in a concise way?
EF: Last week we did a purpose workshop for the company — an 80-person, two-day workshop. We were trying to articulate our company’s purpose. We had seven purpose statements that came out of it. It’s pretty much the deepening of what we’ve been doing, which is trying to serve women, make wonderful clothes, and now we want to make them sustainable and we want to make nothing but love the result of the work that we do.
My own personal purpose — I don’t think I can put it in words exactly. But for me, it’s just really about being as fully me as I can be, living as fully as I can, and just taking risks and being strong and going at it everyday — trying to figure out what I need to do to be fully alive and help, serve, and make the world a better place.
And that sounds really grand, but sometimes it’s just a conversation with my son or my daughter [laughter]. I make it sound really grand, but actually, sometimes it’s really small things like just showing up in a meeting or trying to guide things. It’s hard work.
When you started to look at the external impacts of your operations, was there anything that surprised you or that concerned you most and that you have purposefully worked towards changing?
EF: There were quite a few things. The one that really stands out for me is the water situation and how terrible the fashion industry is and how polluting it is. Are you familiar with the lm “True Cost” that came out at the end of May? It really exposes the fashion industry and the nightmare that it is, both for human rights and sustainability. We don’t see a lot of it because it’s offshore.
The water situation was just shocking to me though. To really, really understand how much water we use — producing one T-shirt takes 700 gallons of water — is shocking. The fashion industry is the second largest polluter in the world, second only to the oil industry. It’s just shocking. We don’t know it, even me. My name is on the door of a clothing company and I don’t actually know all of these things. I mean, I’ve been learning these things in the last few years, but it’s been shocking to me.
I learned other things when we started on this work. Ten or 15 years ago, we first started working with bluesign and other consultants. I remember being surprised about certain fabrics. I had always thought natural was good enough. It was really a shocking thing for me to realize that natural fibers are not good enough. One of the problems with synthetics is that they’re part of what’s in the ocean in the big plastic gyres. We think it’s only plastic bottles, but it’s actually fibers. That’s kind of shocking.
One of the things we’re struggling with is that we’re not a tiny company that can just start fresh and do only organic and only this and only that. We’re a company that’s trying to sort of take the whole ship and move it in the right direction. That’s an interesting place. We’re also not a huge company. We’re not like a mass fast-fashion company, so we have some leeway and a little more possibility.
We’re already known for our timeless clothes that are high quality so they last a long time, which of course brings me to the Green Eileen program [stores where you can purchase gently used, professionally cleaned Eileen Fisher clothes at affordable rates and the proceeds go toward supporting non-profit programs]. People really like the Green Eileen section of the store. Even my daughter shops there first. She’s so fascinated by what those pieces are. It’s so interesting to realize that this concept actually really does work, that the clothes do last and that the concept of the simple styling and the quality of fabrics work and that they last and that they’re still relevant and meaningful.
What is concerning you right now about the apparel industry as a whole?
EF: The massive pace, the fast fashion, and the moments we get caught in it scare me. We’re walking that line of, how do we grow but do it in a way that we’re calling “good growth”? How do we grow in a way that doesn’t do harm or in a way that we can feel really good about rather than just get caught in the spinning cycle of it all? We’re really trying to put the brakes on it a little bit — slow it down a little bit. We’re trying to reduce the number of styles. Like for fall, we reduced the number of fabrics, yarns, and styles we’re producing by 33 percent. Consolidate, offer less, do more of the things we feel really good about so that we can really get control of our supply chain and not be constantly running too fast — run fast on sustainability, but slow down in general.
So that’s the big concern about the fashion industry, just the pace of it. It’s like, “Throw it away, that’s last year, that’s out, buy new, new, new,” and then it ends up in the ocean or a land fill or they bundle it up and send it to other countries and destroy the craft markets of those countries. For me, it’s always just trying to stay true to the original concept, trying to grow in a way that’s meaningful and sustainable and protect the business and the people. We have an incredible staff and we want them to have opportunities, so there needs to be growth and people need to get raises, and that is a particular act of balance.
What’s been the most challenging part of trying to become a more sustainable company?
EF: Slowing down has been really challenging because it sort of flies in the face of what we’re doing, or what we think we’re doing. There’s a contradiction of the realities. We have to do our business, we’re feeling pressured to meet our goals, but now you’re saying we have to sell less. How do we do this? I’m just kind of sitting with those questions and trying to find the right path every day.
We’re also having marketing challenges. How do you bring the sustainable work to a really compelling place and how do we tell our story so that we can educate the customer without confusing her? She’s looking for clothes, but if we tell her our whole sustainability story first thing, she forgets to buy clothes! [laughter] So it’s kind of a funny thing. We’re walking that line of drawing her in, creating a compelling visual, and then making sure she understands this story. We educate her in the stores, and we educate her online.
But the marketing piece has been a struggle. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not the usual formula that we understood for how to sell clothes. It’s something else. But I think it’s important and I think we’re finding our way and I think it’s a huge opportunity to educate the new conscious consumer.
So, you have this challenge of slowing down the growth while simultaneously rallying everyone at the company to come around this shared vision — have you found any effective strategies or techniques to rally people around the vision?
EF: Yes. We’ve been doing off sites and we’ve also been doing a lot of work on our website to inform people about what we’re trying to do and to include people at company meetings. There’s a lot of engagement around the work. I think that’s a really important piece. And what’s exciting about it is that people get really lit up. I was preparing to retire and was like, “Okay, you guys are grown up now. It’s all good.” [laughter] I had started working with the Eileen Fisher Foundation, and I was kind of working a little bit on the side and then I was like, “Whoa, I’ve got to get back in there because my voice matters! I can make a difference, and because I’m so passionate about this and about getting the company to really be true to its roots because I think the whole concept is really what sustainability is all about — sustainability that is integrated into the products along with the timeless design and the quality fabrics.”
That, to me, is sort of the heart of the matter. All companies should be making products — whatever products or services that they’re offering — that have sustainability inherent in the products themselves, rather than making things or selling products that are garbage and then donating to the environment or donating to women and girls —that’s not the point. The point is, as businesses, we have an opportunity to really make the thing whole.
At the Eileen Fisher Leadership Institute, you’re nurturing young women in leadership roles. I’m curious if there are any insights that have come from that that you could share with other people who want to help young women and nurture them as leaders?
EF: The strongest learning is about competence and voice and how subtle the messages still are for women and young women. The world is different, but it’s not totally different. The messages are still really there with the movies and skinny models — we’re working on that, too.
I have a lot of confidence about my idea for the company and what it’s all about personally, but it’s been a huge struggle because I was taught as a child that my voice didn’t matter. In fact, it was better and safer to be quiet. I was told it wasn’t necessary for me as a girl to go to college. I know it’s different now. But there are still a lot of messages. We look at our businesses and how few women are on boards and yet when they have one woman on a board, everyone thinks it is better! There are a lot of good reasons to get women out there, but I guess I can speak to confidence because that’s the thing we work on — helping young women to feel confident and know they’re OK and that their voices matter and giving them that message the sooner the better so that they can go out there and make a difference and really be heard and seen in the world. Just keep telling girls their voices matter. They matter.
It sounds like the work you’ve done around purpose has been helpful for your own personal confidence. Have there been any other practices that you’ve undertaken that have helped you developed your own personal confidence?
EF: God, that’s been lifelong work! I’ve been in therapy for thirty years. I do yoga, I meditate. I do a lot of personal, spiritual mindfulness. I’ve been journaling for 25 or 30 years. It really helps me to kind of say, “Oh, here you are again, same place. You’re doing that same thing again,” and really see myself and check myself and try to keep working with myself. That’s what we all need to do. The confidence comes from within, doesn’t it? We have to know that it’s okay to find the positive voice in there. I still wrestle with it. It’s not easy.
Can you tell us about the most important part of your company culture and how you nurture that culture?
EF: I think the thing that comes up for me is authenticity — trying to support people to be authentic, to be real, to be okay to be who they are, and to not know. To talk about what isn’t working and then admit mistakes. I have this young woman at the company and she says, “No one’s ever been fired for making a mistake in this company.”
Tell us what you’ve learned from failure, professionally or personally, that has served you well either in your career or in your personal life.
EF: I think the biggest thing is to just go in and be with the failure or the things that seem to be not working or whatever’s going wrong and look at it, because in the middle of it is an opportunity. It’s the next opportunity. Right now, we’re challenged with how we do this “good growth” sustainably. What does this all mean? It’s a huge thing.
For example, right now we see our business moving to the Internet from the brick and mortar stores. Wow, that’s challenging. We have 60 stores. We have a lot of department stores we rely on. We’re seeing it move to the website, which is a huge opportunity because on the website, we can tell stories, we can educate people, we can teach them how to wear the clothes — there’s so much more we can do that will have a more global impact. Instead of being terrified, we look at it and go, “What does this mean that this is happening, and how is this a challenge and an opportunity?”
What role does mindfulness play in your business?
EF: We have one thing that’s a simple practice that kind of symbolizes it; we take a minute of silence before every meeting. We’ve been doing that for ten years or so and I think it just kind of sets the stage for stopping and being a little more thoughtful, leaving whatever else is going on from the last meeting or from home behind and just being with wherever we are and seeing what’s coming up and trying to be aware. There’s a lot of emphasis on self-awareness and well-being — things like yoga classes and mindfulness classes and people getting massages on the premises.
There’s all kinds of wonderful wellness things, but they are all part of helping people to stop and be a little more self-aware and question, “Why are we doing this and why does it matter to me and why do I care about it?” We also have a lot of practices on how we work together. Things like listening. I love what Marcelo said recently: “What’s different about this company is that people actually listen to each other. People don’t talk over each other.” We really try to listen and we’re a hugely collaborative company.
It is a double-edged sword though — like the fashion industry and sustainability. There’s almost a conflict in the center of it between collaboration and efficiency and simplicity and clear decision-making. They seem to contradict each other.
We want every voice in the room, and it’s a challenge, but it’s also kind of amazing how many people weigh in on things, are included in things, and have a voice. We’re learning to manage that in a way that’s efficient. We have a ways to go, just like with sustainability, but we’re on a path.
Can you identify the benefit that mindfulness plays to your bottom line, and also the benefit of your sustainable business practices and how those actually benefit your bottom line?
EF: There are places where you can really get efficiencies from sustainability, like reducing air shipment because it’s more expensive than boat shipment. But it has other impacts — you have to project your orders a month earlier, so you might not be as accurate and might get stuck with more inventory. You’re always weighing those kinds of realities.
In terms of the bottom line, aside from places where there are some efficiencies, I think there are a lot of goodwill benefits that are hard to calculate. I don’t think we’ve fully benefited from them because of my own fear of stepping out there like a lot of companies that do good things, like Whole Foods and Patagonia.
I’ve been a little on the shy side, and I think understandably so. We wanted to feel like we were in a place where we could feel strong enough about where we’re headed, because I have such a pet peeve about those companies that do one project, like, “We have five organic pieces of clothing, and the rest of our line is total garbage, but you know, we are on the path to sustainability!” I hate that. I’m not interested in any PR gimmicks or that kind of thing to try to just get the halo effect or the greenwashing effect. We wanted to wait until we were at a place where we felt like we could, with pride, say that we really are on a solid path. Not there yet, but on a solid path.
We have an incredibly loyal staff and loyal customer base and I think that sustainability will just build that loyalty over time. I think we’ll have good long-term value from it. I feel really confident about that. The retention rate is one concrete thing. We have a much higher retention rate of employees, so that saves concrete costs. It’s hard to measure customer loyalty, but I think that’s really solid. Our marketing people always say that we have the most loyal customers they’ve ever seen in the clothing business, so that counts. Relationships — that’s what it’s all about when it comes to business. That’s what matters.
We’ve been a highly profitable, successful company. It’s hard to say which parts of it correlate with what, but we’ve been doing mindfulness practices for ten years, and I think it makes us more thoughtful and more whole in our thinking, and we make better decisions when we do make them.
I think it is important to be successful and profitable in business, but I think what interests me is how meaningful life feels doing this deeper sort of work. I think companies that are engaged in this work offer something more to employees and to the world that we have to protect. We have to think about money — we have to protect that piece of the business — but it shouldn’t be the only driver. We should be seeing the whole picture and balancing it so it’s good.
What insights do you have about quality leadership?
EF: When I think of quality leadership, I think about authenticity, vulnerability, and creating an environment where you can really listen to people and where people can feel safe to tell the truth. As a leader, you have to be okay to not know and to not feel like you have to have the answers. I always try to speak last so that I can really hear what other people say, because the minute I speak, everyone starts to agree with me. So I let other people speak and then come in at the end and summarize or say, “Let’s think about that and see where we end up or see how we feel in the morning.” Go slowly.
What advice do you have for mission-driven entrepreneurs, or entrepreneurs in general?
EF: You need to listen, but one of the things I think a lot about was how, especially in the early days, I always would talk about what I was trying to do and I would listen to what people said, but I would always come back to my own reflections and intuition about what was right. People would say, “You need to have prints on your line,” or “You should do this, or open a store here.” If it resonated, if it rang true, if it felt right to me, then I would do it. Resource yourself, take the time to reflect and to feel good about what you’re doing. Stay true.
These mission-driven entrepreneurs are on it — they’re doing great things. I don’t think we have to worry about them. They’re so mission-driven, they’re going to stay true to what really matters. Keep going. It really matters. Keep going. There are a lot of stumbling blocks, but find support. Find peers. Find like-minded people to brainstorm with, to be partners, and to be a sounding board.
In the early days, I found myself in Tribeca around other designers and artists, and it was really helpful being at the shows. We helped each other. When I arrived at the first boutique show, there were no prices on my clothes. I didn’t even know style numbers. I was like, “Why do I even need to know style numbers? What do you mean prices?” It’s not that I didn’t think I was going to sell them, I just didn’t think about it. I was just trying to get the shapes right, get the clothes right, get them out there.
What is giving you hope for the future?
EF: What’s giving me hope is the young people. There’s much more consciousness coming up. I noticed when my daughter was in school they talked about recycling, and they talked about the planet and the water crisis, and she did a paper in fourth grade about cutting down forests in Indonesia and Canada and she was quite taken with all of that. We didn’t learn anything like that when I was in school.
I feel hope that this up-and-coming generation has a lot of passion and they’re creative and innovative and they’re going to figure it out. They’re going to save us from the mess. They’re going to find the solutions to carry us forward. It makes me hope.
This interview was originally published in Conscious Company, a bi-monthly print magazine for and about individuals, companies, and social entrepreneurs who use the power of business as a force for positive change in the world.