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How Eileen Fisher thinks about sustainable consumption

“We actually think maybe we don’t have to sell so many clothes.”

How Eileen Fisher thinks about sustainable consumption
A seamstress at Eileen Fisher sewing together pieces of old clothes in order to make a new garment. For a story about the reuse of textile waste to make new clothes at Elieen Fisher. [Photo: Vincent Tullo/The Washington Post/Getty Images]

For a clothing company—or any company that makes physical things—the most sustainable product is often something that lasts so long that a customer doesn’t have to buy a replacement for years. That’s a challenge, of course, for businesses that rely on selling more products to make money. And it’s something that Eileen Fisher, the founder and CEO of the eponymously named clothing company, often thinks about.

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Eileen Fisher [Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images]
“We actually think maybe we don’t have to sell so many clothes,” Fisher says. This holiday season, the company plans to begin selling a small line of bags and pillows made from material felted from old clothing that it takes back from consumers, one example of a way that the brand can reuse materials. The company, which designs clothing to last as long as possible, has been taking back clothes for a decade to resell to other customers; it’s now exploring ways to use the textiles from clothes that can’t be resold. If a given customer doesn’t need to buy many clothes, the brand still has a new source of revenue that doesn’t rely on making new materials. Materials are its largest source of environmental impact.

The company’s website explains its philosophy:

At the end of the day, we make stuff. Where it ends up is our responsibility. We start by designing our clothes to last, so they’ll stay in your closet longer. And when you’re done with them we take them back to resell. To date, over one million garments have been collected and sorted. As for the pieces we can’t sell? They’re tomorrow’s raw material, to be reborn as new textiles or refashioned as new clothes. It may take longer than 5 years, but we imagine a future in which waste is a thing of the past.

“From the very beginning, the idea about my clothes was that they were not wasteful and timeless, and you didn’t have to throw them away,” Fisher says. The brand’s designers continue working to improve the sustainability of the line. By next year, all of the cotton and linen it uses will be organic. The company is working with ranchers who use regenerative practices to raise sheep, such as grazing sheep in rotation, something that can help sequester carbon in the soil of the ranch and potentially make wool carbon negative. It’s beginning to use recycled plastic bottles to make dresses and shoes. It works with dyehouses to shift to responsible dyes. And it’s also working to improve other parts of its operation, such as limiting air shipments.

[Photo: Eileen Fisher]

“I think that what’s exciting is that customers are waking up and are interested in supporting companies that are trying to do this kind of work,” Fisher says. In an ideal world, she says, businesses would be regulated globally so that workers were always paid fairly and manufacturers always used processes that were safe for workers’ health and the environment. In the meantime, companies like hers can try to push the industry forward, including questioning brands’ reliance on continual sales of more clothing. It’s something that other clothing companies are also thinking about, like Patagonia, which repairs old clothes to sell to new consumers and famously ran an ad seven years ago on Black Friday asking consumers not to shop. The North Face and other brands are also focusing on giving second clothes a new life, recognizing that they have a larger responsibility than simply selling more clothing.

“The future of business is not really just being able to make a living for people, and make more money, and go public, and all those kinds of things,” Fisher says. “But it’s actually the possibility to make a difference in the world.”

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About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley, and contributed to the second edition of the bestselling book "Worldchanging: A User's Guide for the 21st Century."

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