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How Eileen Fisher is Helping Fashion Nip Its Waste Problem In the Bud

Eileen Fisher spends a great deal of time thinking about textile waste: where it comes from, where it ends up, and most important, what to do about it.

“I could go all the way back to my mother saving every scrap of fabric and making quilts and things like that,” the designer told Sourcing Journal.

Her eponymous brand was one of the first to establish a clothing take-back program in 2009. Garments in great condition are fixed up, cleaned and resold. Those that are not are transformed into pillowcases, acoustic panels and one-of-a-kind art installations.

But sometimes it takes a while before garments are re-homed. As warehouse after warehouse filled up, Fisher quickly realized the enormity of the issue. If a company that employed high-quality, long-lasting materials such as cashmere, silk and linen was scrambling to deal with its castoffs, how much worse was the predicament elsewhere?

“It made us understand that the problem is so much bigger than us as one company,” said Fisher, who is transitioning away from her role as CEO but will still guide much of the brand’s creative direction. “We realized we could do it all perfectly, we could figure out what to do with our things, but it wouldn’t solve the problem.”

It was around that time that Eileen Fisher the woman and Eileen Fisher the foundation commissioned innovation consultancy Pentatonic to craft a report about fashion’s waste crisis and how an accelerated shift to a circular economy can nip it in the bud.

Based on interviews with more than 50 cross-sector stakeholders, the research underpins a new digital platform, dubbed Hey Fashion!, that breaks down the topic into tangible actions, from scaling collection and sorting infrastructure to reducing production and consumption.

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Behind Hey Fashion! (heyfashion.org) is the conviction that the industry cannot achieve its net-zero carbon ambition without dealing with its waste first. Eileen Fisher doesn’t have the resources to solve the problem on its own, Fisher said, but it can engage others so their collective action can have a bigger impact.

Eileen Fisher and Pentatonic didn’t want to whip out another white paper that got lost in the shuffle. Directed toward a broad range of perspectives, the platform is designed to be both accessible and academically rigorous. It’s also meant to be a living organism that will evolve to deliver new content.

“Sustainability is almost like talking about the economy,” Johann Boedecker, CEO of Pentatonic, told Sourcing Journal. “You’re bound to face different levels of understanding and education, yet you need to educate these stakeholders in a way that they want to be educated.” Right now, he said, people have no idea where their used clothing is going.

There is no silver bullet, Boedecker said, and fashion’s attitude of everybody for themselves isn’t helping. All three Rs—reduce, reuse and recycle—must be wielded with equal care to form a “constellation of solutions.”

Still, the most important thing brands can do to prevent textile waste from being created in the first place is simply to produce less, Fisher said. Making fewer clothes doesn’t have to mean making less money, either. When Covid-19 first reared its head, Eileen Fisher’s production levels plummeted by 40 percent. It “looked at everything,” from streamlining its design process to reevaluating its markdown strategies. Even now, as it builds its inventory back up, the firm’s profits have bounced back to pre-pandemic levels.

The whole idea of decoupling growth from production is to “make less, make better, do it more thoughtfully,” Fisher said. “Slow it down and it can actually work better. I think we’re proving that to ourselves, and that’s exciting.” And if everyone else figures this out, then she’ll have a better answer to a question she gets with increasing frequency: “Well, what do I do with clothes that aren’t Eileen Fisher clothes?”