The fashion industry is considered one of the most wasteful in the world. The EPA estimates that 84% of unwanted clothes end up in landfills.
Fashion designer Eileen Fisher has made it her mission not to add to the problem, even while continuing to produce her signature cashmere cardigans and wool ponchos. For the past seven years, Fisher has offered a buyback program called Green Eileen, through which customers can mail in unwanted items from her line and in return receive $5—along with the satisfaction of knowing the garment will be put to good use.
When she launched Green Eileen, Fisher hoped to simply clean, restore, and resell the items at a lower cost. But only about half of the garments the company received were salvageable; the rest were stained, damaged, or worn beyond repair, leaving Fisher face-to-face with the growing mountain of scrap that she had hoped to avoid.
"We wanted to take responsibility holistically," said Fisher, speaking at her 5th Avenue boutique in New York during an event for the Fast Company Innovation Festival. (She also spoke on a panel about positive habit change.) "It’s massive, the mess we’re making. As designers, we became more aware of our responsibility to take care of the planet and not to do any harm."
To help her conquer the growing pile of leftovers, she sought the help of three graduating fashion students from Parson's—Teslin Doud, Carmen Gama, and Lucy Jones—who had been recognized for their commitment to sustainable design. Working alongside the recent graduates, Eileen Fisher designers began to break down the damaged items. They used felting machines to weave fibers together into a new, dense material, treated stained items with natural dyeing techniques, and stitched together usable patches of fabric from badly worn pieces.
"This is the only way forward to making clothing," said Doud. "Consumers are demanding a more sustainable product. If we can effect change just by putting clothes on in the morning, I think that’s a powerful way to express our voices."
The transformed clothes became part of a new limited-edition Eileen Fisher label, Remade in the USA. The first 500 items were sold over two weekends earlier this year in a pop-up shop in New York. Each garment is unique; each tag tells an origin story.
Fisher said that through the recycling program, her company sold $3.5 million in repurposed clothing last year, employed 30 people, and generated $500,000 in additional profit, which they donated to charities that support women and girls—all without putting any new product into the world. "We have a policy that we call ‘good growth,’" said Fisher. "We don’t want to grow if it’s not sustainable, if what we’re doing isn’t good. We’re proving there’s a business case for this."