Eileen Fisher’s culture was like none I’d ever witnessed in my quarter-century of working with corporations. The leaders, including VP of Manufacturing, VP of Sales, CFO, and more – the classic white male categories — were ALL women. And not just women. Not the “devil-wears-Prada” stereotype of New York City fashion preying mantis eat-your-head-off kind of women. But nice. Mid-western nice — where Eileen is from. They brought chocolate and strawberries to meetings. “Can I get you a Tea or Coffee,” Sara? “Here let me move those tables for you. Did you need anything else?” I was in disbelief. Was this really a successful half-billion-dollar business? In addition, Eileen was famously a devoted meditator. Mindful Magazine had recently had her on the cover sitting lotus style with a caption “the iconic clothing designer on why kindness is good for business.” The trend – made chic by Google in CA — was moving from the fringe to center in some businesses. By the time I got there, EF was starting every meeting with the chime of a Tibetan bell and the invitation to spend a few minutes paying attention to your breath. There was a bell in every room in the building. So, the soil was rich to grow a different culture in our Sustainability Design Team. What would you call a good perfect storm? Eileen’s culture of the feminine, plus reflection, plus experimentation would converge to allow us to take risks that other businesses up til now would not allow. I was already a big fan of EILEEN FISHER. My very elegant Mom decided the T Shirts and ripped jeans that were my fashion go-to at the time, would not do it for my professional work attire. She began sending me EILEEN FISHER outfits, and perhaps, to her surprise, I loved them. They were elegant, comfortable, easy to look great in, and allowed for light packing on the road. EILEEN became my signature professional look and long before I met her, I began calling myself the “poster girl” for EILEEN FISHER. Prescient perhaps? I had no idea…. Fast forward to circa 2005 when I first “met” Eileen herself – along with about 1000 other people in the audience at a “Women in Power” conference in New York City. Like for so many others, it was love at first site. Eileen was humble, warm, lovely as she supported socially conscious women business owners and NGOs addressing women’s and girls’ empowerment. I’d met very few women CEOs and even fewer who were kind-hearted and dedicated to social justice. I was already smitten with EILEEN FISHER – the brand and the woman — and would walk barefoot over coals to partner with her. I naturally jumped at the chance to work with Amy Hall, Vice President of Social Consciousness for EILEEN FISHER, to help create a regenerative enterprise. We took a radical systems approach—from concept to closet and back again—to become a model for the apparel industry and to champion socially and environmentally conscious business for fashion industry leader EILEEN FISHER. When I worked with EILEEN FISHER we took a dramatically different approach from that of more conventional companies. In most companies, environmental and social sustainability goals are typically determined by corporate responsibility teams who have little clout or influence in the business and then are checked off one by one leading only to incremental change. Powerful business leaders in the system take little or no active involvement. By contrast, at EILEEN FISHER we took a systems approach and fully engaged its leaders of design, supply chain, business operations and social consciousness teams to co-create the vision and actions they eventually called, “Vision2020.”
The Eileen Fisher Sustainability Journey: Vision 2020
Vision2020 was driven by bold, aspirational goals, known as the “Riverbanks.” The banks of the river evoke a metaphor defining boundaries in material waste, toxic chemistry, carbon emissions etc. The flow of the river symbolizes the intensity and vitality of the effort. The stronger the banks, the more powerful the flow. Seven years later, EILEEN FISHER dramatically “hit” many of those goals. From 67% to 99% organic cotton. An increase from 39% to 78% of eco-preferred materials. And the development of a rigorous social product score for every item in its inventory. We are facing the battle of our generation that will determine the fate of our species. Scientists tell us we have 10 years left to reverse the conditions that have led to global warming. Droughts, floods, fires, and other extreme weather events threaten the viability of all life. Numbers of species, freshwater availability, soil health, are all trending precipitously in the wrong direction. And the apparel industry, in particular, continues to demonstrate unchecked growth in waste, carbon emissions, unlivable wages, and more. Solving these problems requires collaboration and cooperation, not competitive, siloed approaches. This article provides a compelling example of a way forward based on systems thinking in action and cross-functional coordination. A story both audaciously visionary and eminently practical. A model that businesses in any industry can use. Contrary to popular opinion, EILEEN FISHER’s much-lauded sustainability story isn’t just about the iconic leader, the visionary employee, the conscious customer, or the ethical supplier. It’s about how the entire system came together to create something better than any one of us could do alone. This is a story of the transformation of a system from several disconnected parts to a single, focused entity.
The Early Days
In 1993 EILEEN FISHER was still a small business, just beginning to have a major growth spurt. At that time, our product was known for its timeless design and natural fibers. It was a big deal when we tried our hand at undyed wool sweaters or fleece jackets made of recycled water bottles. These were one-off ideas inspired by the design possibilities, not by a collective vision around sustainability. In 2004, we started using the term “Social Consciousness” to describe the set of values consisting of human rights, women and girls, and environmental sustainability. Social Consciousness (SC) was meant to convey the sense that these values are not ours alone to be responsible for but rather owned collectively by all internal and external stakeholders. From my vantage point in the company, the newly named Social Consciousness department (eventually consisting of two environmental sustainability experts, two human rights specialists, and two philanthropy facilitators) held the reins to these commitments. We built cross-functional teams to think together about “eco-product” and corporate giving. We initiated partnerships with groups like Textile Exchange, Native Energy, and Ceres/BICEP. And we created a “Fiber Ranking Tool” to help our designers make the best choices around materials. But we didn’t yet have goals in place around fibers, carbon, or living wages. It’s important to note that, up to the 2010s, we hadn’t gained a company-wide directive from Eileen (Fisher). She knew intellectually that this work was important, but she long felt that we should build consensus from the ground up rather than impose it from the top down. This meant that concepts (like responsible dyeing, organic fibers, or supply chain living wages) were largely introduced by the SC team, often facing resistance from colleagues who may not have shared the same passion for environmental sustainability or social well-being. Actualizing these concepts was often a time-consuming and frustrating endeavor.
A Turning Point
In 2012, Eileen did something she’d never done before and hasn’t done since. She traveled to two parts of our supply chain: Los Angeles and China. Perhaps she was interested in learning more about how our clothes were made, or maybe she had become more concerned about global warming. Whatever it was, change was in the air. Eileen had been in business for 28 years and had built a strong team of creative leaders, whose opinions she valued greatly. She traveled with them to gain new insights into how our product was created, beginning at the fiber source. In China, the team visited the factory to see the people who make our silk garments. And, they traveled to a farm to see where the silk originated. Eileen was struck by the stories she heard from the silk workers. And she was even more riveted by a stark fact – that the world’s demand for water would exceed supply by 40% in the year 2030. Without sufficient water, farms would not be able to produce our fibers, and the fabrics could not be dyed. For Eileen, water scarcity shifted from a humanitarian issue to a business call to action. When Eileen returned from that supply chain trip, she felt a new calling. It was no longer good enough to chip away at our environmental and social commitments. We needed to radically change our approach and accelerate our work if we were to have a business at all by 2030. After all, our product relies on water – to grow the fibers, to process the materials, and to nourish the people in our supply chain. And, it relies on the well-being of all involved at every stage of the production process. This marked the birth of Eileen’s now-iconic phrase, “Business as a Movement.” Business could do more than making a profit; it could galvanize all stakeholders – suppliers, customers, employees, and industry peers – for positive environmental and social change. This fresh approach would have to re-energize the company around a bold sustainability vision.
There’s nothing like a challenge from another team to get the ball rolling. In this case, it was the head of Design who said, “If Social Consciousness can help us set goals and specify the work, then we’ll do it.” And that’s how the seed of what would become the “Riverbanks” was planted. In an interview before the offsite with Jacqui Hoffman, the head of Design, I shared what Darcy Winslow — then global director of research, design, and development for footwear and sustainability at Nike — did in the late 90s to inspire her team. “I decided to set stretch goals for the entire division, and especially the very competitive designers at Nike,” she had explained to me. “I challenged them not only to fulfill the traditional design demands of world-class aesthetics, high performance, and low cost, but also to create zero waste, use zero toxic chemicals, and design 100% closed-loop systems.” At the time, this was like asking an airline pilot to fly to the moon. After sharing Darcy’s story, I asked Jacqui, “Would something like what they did at Nike, be helpful for your EILEEN FISHER designers?” “Yes!” Jacqui said. “We don’t have those design constraints and aspirations. It’s all very grey. We need to define our sustainability goals to understand where we want to be and when. If we all know where the finish line is, we’ll be much more clear about how to get there.” Our intention to create clear constraints and aspirational goals would later give birth to “The Riverbanks,” a framework that would prove to be crucial to our success. We named our stretch goals “The Riverbanks” a term that stuck. The term is a metaphor for the sturdy banks of a river that prevent destructive floods while allowing the current to flow with power. The framework was inspired by Rabbi Nadya Gross who shared her Grandmother’s wisdom: a powerfully flowing river requires equally powerful banks to contain it. The Riverbanks included our limits and our aspirations. For example, “Zero Toxins” was a Riverbank: a boundary we would not cross. 100% Organic Cotton was also a Riverbank: a creative challenge we aspired to. The Riverbanks gives us the path. It sets the plan in motion. And there will be no backsliding. This is it. We’re here. We’ve begun. We make exquisite clothes. And it’s a toxic business. We have to do our part to shift that. We are going to be on the ground floor of transforming materials and how the industry makes clothes. Something I didn’t see as part of my career path 18 + years ago. So yes, I will continue to say this work has a deeper purpose. It drives our creativity. It’s the right thing to do.” Another pivotal moment as Eileen describes it, at one point I turned to her and quietly asked if she was ready to commit to going for the big vision, what she had begun calling 100% sustainability. She stood up and announced to the whole room. “Yes! I am all in.” The next step was to turn ideas into action. X amount of time later, we created the Sustainability Design Team. We needed representation from key areas of the entire product system in order to carry the work forward. We identified 10 such individuals, one each from Design, Business Operations, Manufacturing, and Product Development, our 2 co-creative officers, and 4 from Social Consciousness. Our goal? Sustainability transformation for the company. How would we do it? One key element: our Sustainability Design Team (SDT). Plus some secrete sauce we’re about to let you in on.
We decided on a three day off site to create a sustainable EF, we knew we needed to bring the “System in the Room:” the system of people who created the current model of how they did business, from “concept to closet” together. From Systems theory (see sidebar) we knew it wouldn’t be enough for Amy and her colleagues from Social Consciousness to do the work alone. We would need the leaders of Design and Manufacturing and Business Planning and more in the room. We would also need the CEO, Eileen herself. In most companies these are not the folks who typically show up for sustainability leadership. At EF they were invited and they came. Won Dharma is a couple of hours north from New York City EILEEN FISHER headquarters. A calming, beautiful Amtrak ride along the Hudson River, where as you go north, the population density eases as the Catskill mountains emerge from the landscape. Won Dharma was a Buddhist retreat center, spacious, airy with an exquisite perfect sunset view of the mountains to the West. It had trails meandering through the woods, an abundance of deer and other wildlife, organic vegan meals, daily buddhist sunrise meditation. The room where we were to meet had floor to ceiling massive glass windows to catch that sunset, fresh wood floors, and a state-of-the-art sound system. Turns out Won Dharma was funded by the Samsung family. They knew technology and mindfulness! The place was perfect. he DNA of Won Dharma included Systems Thinking, Vision, Accountability, the stretch goal Riverbanks, all while building a community of relationships. These themes, conceived during those three days, were developed, nurtured and implemented via the SDT over the next five years. And it was the SDT, in turn — to borrow a metaphor from the sea — that set the compass to true North, kept their eyes on the horizon, hands at the helm, and heart in the journey. We chose four on the environmental side: materials, chemistry, carbon, and water. And four on the social side: conscious business practices, fair wages + benefits, worker voice, and worker + community happiness. This work took about 18 months, during which time we gathered as many as thirty people from across the company at a time to receive their input and feedback on things like whether or not we would really be able to shift all of our cotton and linen to organic by 2020, or what realistic goals we could set with regard to shipping logistics, chemistry and many other areas. We quickly discovered the power of having all the experts present to tell the full story. By the time we got to Won Dharma, Environmental sustainability lead Shona Quinn had already established decreasing Carbon foot-print, as a major goal. She knew they couldn’t get there by changing lightbulbs alone. What would it take? Can you identify what the biggest impact on Carbon footprint might be in an apparel company like EF? Maybe it’s too much of a hint to mention that most of their clothing is manufactured overseas? they realized that the biggest leverage for impacting Carbon was Air shipments versus Sea shipments. Air used obscene levels of carbon compared to sea. So why not just ship by sea? Well of course Air is much faster, customers want the hottest styles on demand. To maintain EF’s reputation and pride in being customer responsive, flying is the only way to go. Or is it? If the company was to achieve its stretch Carbon goals and ship by sea instead, it would require a whole new approach to their business model and planning. And changing Commits would require the enthusiasm and buy-in of most everyone in the EF system. Could it happen? Could they do it? Could their commitment to being part of the solution re Climate Change happen? It would take the whole system of players involved to get there and that would have an impact on just about everyone in the company. Amazing how starting with an idea about Carbon footprint ends up requiring the entire company to make it happen. This was the conceptual framework, the breakthrough transformation, and the creation of the improbable team that made it happen. Sustainability today is a part of EILEEN FISHER’S DNA—though we’re not perfect, and there is still that tension between cost and values.