Eileen Fisher, founder of Eileen Fisher, Inc., speaks on a panel at the Aspen Ideas Festival in June.
By Judith Samuelson, vice president, founder, and executive director of the Aspen Institute's Business and Society Program
As a reprieve from the antics and egos of certain executives, turbulence in capital markets, mergers imagined and challenged, it’s refreshing to hang out around a business woman with quiet confidence and the belief that a business can be built, grow and create value for both customers and employees, by keeping the eye on the quality of the product.
Enter Eileen Fisher.
Women’s fashion may not be on the critical path to saving the planet, but if we all adhered to Eileen Fisher’s standards and values, we would be doing a lot less harm. We would even be testing and proving out the principles of human rights and sustainability at scale, i.e., fully embedded in the business model across all product lines.
One of the highlights of the Aspen Ideas Festival this summer was an early morning conversation between Eileen – founder and CEO of the eponymous company which she began in 1984 – and Maureen Conway, who oversees the Aspen Institute’s work on jobs, economic opportunity, and workforce development. The Economic Opportunity Program covers an area of growing interest within the Institute’s portfolio of programs – which are all designed to develop leaders, and map change in the institutions they lead, through policy and practice, catalyzed by research and dialogue.
Eileen Fisher is an earthy sort, a designer at heart, who seems to care for her company much like she would tend a garden – cultivating ideas, people and relationships in pursuit of a quality product, while weeding out invasive agents, much like a gardener cares for the soil.
Asked about how she has handled offers to sell her company and its valuable brand over the years she has been in business, she says simply, “once I figured out that the buyer [a major women’s wear player] really didn’t care about the clothes, I said no. I haven’t entertained an offer since.” Instead, she began to distribute stock to employees, who now own about 40% of the company.
Fisher lives by organic growth. (Actually, she favors organic everything, especially including cotton and other fibers that define the brand.) In other words, she has built her company by reinvesting her profits, building market through a growing number of branded retail stores, on-line sales and through vendors, from Niemann Marcus and Nordstrom to the on-line retailer, Garnet Hill. She has never raised debt, thus has never needed to compromise product quality or the company’s core values to satisfy an outsider.
Eileen never stops innovating. In addition to investing in wearable fibers, she has pioneered concepts like the circular economy – which has begun to move us beyond the industrial model of take, make, dispose. Companies that take sustainability seriously – among them companies certified as B Corps like Eileen Fisher, Inc. – work to recapture and recycle the value after the first use, rather than tossing the product in the landfill. This is a tall order in an industry where buy cheap, wear a few times and toss, has become the norm for a generation trained to expect uber-low prices.
At a factory in Irvington, New York, Eileen Fisher is experimenting with repairing, reusing and “renewing” previously worn clothing for resale. She does this at scale, including a “Renew” line of products introduced by designers as a regular part of next season’s line. Eileen’s commitment to sustainability and the circular economy is enabled by two key ingredients – customers so happy with the product they can’t bear to just throw it out, and fabrics of sufficient quality to last a life time and command premium pricing, even the second time around.
Even then, you have to ask, why bother?
Eileen Fisher’s MISSION: We make ethical, timeless clothes designed to work together, wear effortlessly and be part of a responsible lifecycle. Our purpose is to inspire simplicity, creativity and delight through connection and great design. Design products that delight the spirit and simplify life.
Which takes us to the heart of what makes Eileen Fisher tick – a clarity of purpose that guides decisions up and down the food chain. The company states its mission this way: “to make ethical, timeless clothes designed to work together, wear effortlessly and be part of a responsible lifecycle.”
Can companies like Eileen Fisher shape the behavior of the mass market?
Eileen Fisher is not the only company investing in organic fibers and sustainable manufacturing practices. Levi Strauss obtained the patent for its signature jean in 1873, and is many times the size of EF, but it also continues to innovate. It is known today for high labor standards, but also its “waterless” jeans, and a new process, called Project F.L.X. that eliminates most chemicals in the finishing process. Patagonia is another example of a premium brand with a strong following. The company invests heavily in organics and encourages recycling of its products. It’s worth noting that all three of these companies are privately held.
To move the market they will need the help of millennials, whose spending power is already greater than the boomers. The good news is trendsetters are demonstrating some interest in the “less is more”, “slow fashion” aesthetic that enables Eileen Fisher to design for more than just the pocketbook. One of the most successful fashion startups of recent years, Everlane, embodies this spirit with its focus on back-to-basics style that can be worn regardless of passing trends, and its commitment to radical transparency into the conditions at factories where the clothing is produced. The brand has also been called a “millennial fever dream,” and has doubled sales each of the last three years. Data points like these suggest an encouraging outlook.
In the meantime, Americans toss out around 80 lbs. of clothing per person, per year – a small percentage of which is recycled by the industry, with a massive amount ending up in land fill. The constant churn of style and color that defines so-called “fast fashion” – comes at a prohibitive cost in both human and environmental terms. Will the business model of low-cost retailers adapt to a different reality?