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Renee Farris headshot

Eileen Fisher’s Journey to 100 Percent Sustainability

By Renee Farris

When Eileen Fisher was a kid she was shy, had crossed eyes and mentally spaced out a lot. No one knew she was speaking to them because she didn’t look directly at the person to whom she spoke. She wasn’t exactly someone you would picture as being the future CEO of a leading fashion company. But she did it, and she spoke about her journey to 100 percent sustainability at the 2016 Sustainable Brands conference.

During Fisher’s early career as an interior and graphic designer, she struggled to find clothes that she felt comfortable wearing. She would literally get sick when she had to shop. Then, one trip to Japan changed her life forever. She fell in love with the kimono, a garment that's over 1,000 years old. It was simple, timeless and comfortable.

Five years later, Fisher began to create garments modeled after the kimono. “I was an uncomfortable person so I needed comfortable clothes,” Fisher said at the conference in San Diego. She didn’t think of herself as an entrepreneur, and when she showcased her garments at a New York fashion show, she didn’t even put price tags on the clothes. Other people thought otherwise, and at the next show people lined up to buy her garments.

Later, Fisher took two trips to Bhutan to learn about gross national happiness and to favelas in Brazil to see how people experience life. During this introspective time, she realized that she needed to be more present in her actions. People often fill their lives with meetings and activities without ever really stopping to ask, “Why am I doing this? Does it matter? Will it make a difference? How can I use my work to make the world a better place?”

This realization led her to designate a stool in her kitchen as a “purpose chair.” Every morning, she sat on the purpose chair and asked herself, “Okay, what matters today?”

When Fisher intentionally integrated purpose into her day, she became more vocal about sustainability. She said CEOs don’t want to be interviewed about sustainability because it’s a scary topic and because, despite a lot of effort, whatever they’re doing is not enough. The fashion industry is one of the worst polluters in the world. For example, it takes 700 gallons of water to make a T-shirt. There are ways to use less water by cleaning the water throughout the process, but the technology is not prevalent. There’s a lot of work to be done.

During a sustainability offsite, someone suggested Eileen Fisher become a 100 percent sustainable company. “Yes!” replied Fisher. She then created Vision 2020, an audacious goal to help the company get to 100 percent sustainability. This goal has since been embedded in the company, and it is meeting its milestones with impressive success. Company worth has risen along with sustainability implementation, and Eileen Fisher is now valued at almost half a billion dollars.

It was then that Fisher had another realization: Even if the company can meet its Vision 2020 goals, it wouldn't accomplish much unless the rest of the industry came along for the ride. So, she delegated some employees as 'sustainability ambassadors' to work with other companies and share the knowledge and practices at Eileen Fisher.

From the “purpose chair” to Vision 2020 to sustainability ambassadors, Fisher proves that when we act thoughtfully and collaborate together, we can change the world.

Image courtesy of Eileen Fisher

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Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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