Eileen Fisher is looking at sustainability from the ground up. More specifically, the U.S.-based label known for its green take on fashion is setting its attention on healthy soil.
Much of the focus around sustainable farming has been centered on organic methods, but Eileen Fisher is among the eco-leaders taking a deeper look at how the cultivation of materials used in fashion actually impacts the planet.
Conventional farming methods are causing damage to land, including erosion, soil loss and reduced carbon stored in dirt. This land degradation has implications that stretch beyond apparel fiber sourcing, because it can also impact the viability of food crops. In contrast, regenerative agriculture seeks to counteract and restore the balance of ecosystems.
“Healthy soils allow for sustainable yields of food and fiber, while drawing down carbon and storing it, rather than releasing it to the atmosphere or in runoff,” said Amy Hall, vice president of social consciousness at Eileen Fisher. “Overall, it is a win for the climate, ecosystems and society.”
Eileen Fisher’s upcoming Fall/Winter 2020 collection uses merino wool sourced from growers in the Patagonia region of South America that are part of the Ovis 21 regenerative farming network. Livestock grazing can lead to degradation of grasslands, but Ovis 21 acts as a hub bringing together farmers to work toward land regeneration and restoration along with greater biodiversity.
“After realizing the profound positive effects that regenerative agriculture can have on an ecosystem, we knew that supporting fiber grown in a regenerative manner was one of the best ways for us to move toward creating positive environmental impact, rather than just minimizing harmful impacts,” Hall added.
This sourcing choice has come with its own challenges, as Eileen Fisher has had to change some of its procurement practices. Hall notes that it is not typical to have specific commitments to fiber producers, and this shift has required partnerships among all levels of the supply chain. For instance, to achieve this commitment, the spinner has to agree to acquire wool tops from a specific group of growers.
For this project, Eileen Fisher has prioritized transparency.
“When necessary, we’ll forgo certifications if they cannot provide complete farm to garment transparency,” said Hall. “We need thriving and resilient ecosystems if we are going to mitigate climate change, and fashion can support that effort. But it means a deep understanding of the supply chain and knowing how those fibers were grown.”
Ovis 21 worked with the Savory Institute to develop the Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV), which can measure indicators of how well an ecosystem is functioning. Early results from this methodology show the difference between conventional and holistic farm management practices, as the former’s EOV decreased while the latter improved their EOV.
A significant piece of the puzzle for reaching these land restoration goals is also collaboration, which is a pillar of the Ovis 21 network.
“As within nature, the regenerative and holistic management approach can be replicated across regions, with farmers learning from each other and constantly adapting their plans to realize greater results,” said Hall. “There are several people and organizations advocating and educating around regenerative agriculture and holistic management. It will take time for it to be pushed industry-wide, but I believe it can definitely be done.”
Aside from regenerative agriculture, Eileen Fisher is also reducing the impact of its fashion through a commitment to the circular economy. The brand accepts consumers’ previously worn clothing and gives it a new purpose through two programs. Lightly used Eileen Fisher apparel gets cleaned and then resold or upcycled through its Renew platform. Meanwhile, items that are not resalable in their current condition are either remodeled into new collections of resewn merchandise, or they are funneled into Waste No More, which puts fabrics through a mechanical felting process to turn them into textiles for home goods.
“We see tremendous possibility in the future for these circular initiatives,” said Hall.
What’s the most important issue the fashion industry has yet to address?
“The fashion industry needs to dramatically accelerate its sustainability efforts. We must reimagine every aspect of this industry if we are to contribute to a healthy planet in the future. This means assessing how much we produce and sell, how often we introduce new styles and collections, where every fiber comes from, how the items are made, and how our own purchasing practices and decision-making processes impact our supply chains.
It’s no longer enough to simply ‘do less harm’ each year; we need to look at how we can leave the places we touch even better than we found them.”
Sourcing Journal’s Sustaining Voices celebrates the efforts the apparel industry is making toward securing a more environmentally responsible future through creative innovations, scalable solutions and forward-thinking initiatives that are spinning intent into action.
See more of our Sustaining Voices honorees and their stories, here.