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Why Eileen Fisher Exec Says Made in China Trumps Made in USA Sometimes

Many consumers, and especially the affluent, have demonstrated a love of organic products and local production—but sometimes that organic obsession can cloud a larger, more complex sustainability reality.

At the Fashion & Sustainability Summit at LIM College on Friday, Eileen Fisher vice president of social consciousness Amy Hall shared an example of how consumers perceive organic versus non, and Made in USA versus Made in China. Hall detailed the journey of an organic cotton stretch jersey garment. “Our customer would be so delighted that it’s made in New York and that it’s organic,” Hall explained. That garment starts with organic cotton grown in the Southwest U.S. and Israel, which is flown to Switzerland for spinning, then flown into Canada to be milled into fabric, and then finally travels by plane down to New York City to be manufactured into a finished product. “It’s organic, but it has a massive carbon footprint,” Hall added, “but it’s made in the U.S.” And sometimes that’s all the consumer wants to hear.

Meanwhile, “a lot of our customers don’t like Made in China,” Hall noted, which means they already may be biased against the “non-organic” silk georgette fabric that’s been very popular in Eileen Fisher’s collections. However, Hall highlighted the supply chain of one such georgette garment, which exists within a 250-mile radius. The silk is grown, spun, woven, dyed and sewn all in a “very tight supply chain” outside of Shanghai before being shipped “hopefully by sea” to the U.S., Hall added.

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So while the organic cotton apparel has a feel-good Made in America story, the Made in China silk georgette does far less environmental damage in terms of carbon footprints.

These kinds of everyday tradeoffs can be difficult for sustainability practitioners. “Which one is going to make your customer happy? Which one is going to make us happy?” Hall asked. “You have to give and take one way.”

When Eileen Fisher began making a big sustainability push, it began by mapping out why it had such a large carbon footprint. That effort uncovered what essentially was a snowball effect. Primarily, that carbon footprint was the result of high-frequency air shipping out of China, where much of Eileen Fisher’s manufacturing takes place. But the factories shipped by air versus ocean because they didn’t have sufficient time to use container freight—largely because the apparel company kept requesting last-minute production changes on quantities, colors, labels and more, and the suppliers were still required to deliver by specific date, Hall explained.

“We realized the suppliers get paid the same amount even if they’re doing all this work for all the changes,” Hall said. And with that glaring lack of transparency, naturally the factories subcontracted work quite frequently to less regulated facilities. That’s when Eileen Fisher realized it first needed to transform operations internally in order to undertake the work of fixing a broken supply chain.

Like many sustainability-minded apparel companies, Eileen Fisher decided to do something about a garment’s end of life, launching in 2009 a take-back program that has since reclaimed 950,000 pieces. “It’s a drop in the bucket,” Hall said, noting that Eileen Fisher manufactures 5 million garments annually. “The truth is our warehouses in Irvington, N.Y., and in Seattle are bursting at the seams.” After a gentle cleaning, about half of the take-back clothing can be resold for a much lower price at one of two Eileen Fisher Renew standalone stores, Hall said.

However, some take-back items might need mending, or be marred by a stain. Those often benefit from overdyeing using natural plants, Hall explained, and are sold through the company’s Resewn brand. Eileen Fisher has discovered that even garments not suitable for re-wear can be cut up into pieces and transformed into “replicable pattern pieces.”

“This started because we had an arrangement with the CFDA. We ran a competition and got three amazing design students graduating from Parsons,” Hall said, “and they created for us a whole design system where we could take this taken-back clothing and turn them into new clothing.”

Making those kinds of reimagined items requires fairly large pieces of fabric. Even the small, odd-ends scraps—seams that have been cut out, for example—can be transformed via a felting machine into upholstery-quality bolts of fabrics. “We could make coats out of those, but they would be very expensive, because this is a highly manual process,” Hall said. However, they made great, unique pillows—and Eileen Fisher will be launching a line of these home goods at New York City’s ABC Carpet & Home this fall.

“This is our first foray into marketing a new product using our taken-back clothes that’s taking us out of apparel,” Hall added.