Eileen Fisher, president and founder of Eileen Fisher
Calling Planet Earth
From Eileen Fisher to Reformation, we’re partnering with eco-conscious brands that are revolutionizing the industry from the ground up.
By Emma Zaratian
As we become increasingly aware of our effects on the planet, it’s only natural we want to be a part of the solution. So we recycle. We buy organic. We take mass transit. We even carry our own reusable bags and water bottles. But what about the clothes we wear?
It’s no secret that manufacturing clothing is tough on the environment. Consumers have the power to change the industry—and clothing companies are listening. In fact, some of the biggest brands in our closets are transforming product manufacturing at a grassroots level. That means starting with the plant fibers grown for fabric—from organic cotton to fast-growing eucalyptus.
In 2015, Eileen Fisher launched Vision 2020, a company-wide initiative that takes a sustainable approach to every step of the manufacturing process—from seeds to the final garment. “We’ve always been committed as a company to environmental sustainability and socially conscious business practices,” says President and founder Eileen Fisher. “Vision 2020 represents a renewed dedication toward setting higher goals for ourselves. This spring, 68 percent of our product was made with eco-preferred materials, which is up 20 percent from 2015. And 96 percent of our cotton in this year’s spring collection is organic.”
Organic cotton is harvested from pesticide-free, GMO-free crops. Patagonia, one of the leaders in green apparel, spearheaded the organic-cotton movement back in the mid ’90s. After visiting conventional cotton fields and witnessing the amount of sprayed chemicals, founder Yvon Chouinard committed to 100 percent organic cotton before most of us understood the value of organic food.
“The reason for that is organic cotton uses no synthetic chemicals or fertilizers,” says Cara Chacon, Patagonia’s VP of Social and Environmental Responsibility. “It uses half the water, half the energy and has almost half the global-warming potential as conventional, chemically grown cotton.”
Thinking Beyond Cotton
Amour Vert, a price-conscious brand that plants a tree for every tee it sells, has pioneered its own fabrics out of unique fiber blends, including modal from chemical-free, GMO-free beech wood. Founder Linda Balti says: “The original idea for Amour Vert was to sell fabrics. I wanted to develop beautiful, sustainable fabrics that other people could use. But very quickly I realized that if I was managing the whole supply chain, and I was creating the fabrics, I would also need to design the garments and sell them.”
Similarly, LA’s eco-friendly fast-fashion retailer Reformation focuses heavily on sustainable fabric sourcing, from working with low-impact fibers (its Tencel is made from the pulp of eucalyptus trees) to repurposing vintage pieces and buying excess fabrics. “A typical cotton T-shirt uses about 200 gallons of water to manufacture, and our Tencel tee uses six gallons,” says CEO and cofounder Yael Aflalo.
Rethinking plant fibers is only one piece of the puzzle. Because petroleum-based fabrics are carbon intensive, brands like Nordstrom’s Zella have started investing in polyester fibers sourced from post-consumer plastic bottles. “As an activewear brand, we use polyester in the majority of our fabrics,” says Zella Brand Manager Marianne Lachini. “We’re committed to reducing our impact on our environment, and we recognize the opportunity to do this by using polyester fibers made from plastic bottles.” This new polyester creates less waste and diverts plastic from landfills, ultimately reducing the overall environmental impact by maximizing resources.
Cutting Out the Excess
Waste that ends up in landfills and waterways also has a direct impact on the environment, so cutting down on waste and pollution is critical in green retail. “At Reformation, we think about all the costs in creating fashion—not just the price tag,” says Aflalo. To track the company’s environmental footprint, her team created RefScale, an internal tool that adds up the pounds of CO2 emitted, gallons of water used and pounds of waste generated. “We offset 100 percent of the carbon, water and waste impact of making our clothes.”
At Amour Vert, they’ve specifically designed patterns so less fabric ends up on the factory floor. “We’re very smart in the way we design, and we try to have zero waste,” says Balti. “Sometimes you’ll see a seam through the back of our garments and the only reason the seam is there is because, when we started doing the markers, it was more efficient and we were wasting less fabric.”
Investing in People Power
As Eileen Fisher herself points out, sustainability is not limited to fibers or fabrics. “It’s all aspects of our chemistry, conscious business practices, fair wages, and worker and community happiness.” In other words, it’s hard to have ethical manufacturing models without addressing the humans involved.
“Social and environmental responsibility go hand in hand,” says Patagonia’s Chacon. “They’re two sides of the same coin. People cause environmental problems, and ecological problems negatively affect people. And people solve people and environmental problems. They’re so connected that you have to tackle both at the same time, especially in the supply chain.”
Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and others are keen to address the poverty issues across their supply chains. So in addition to paying higher wages, they’ve created fair-trade premiums and artisan projects to funnel extra money and resources directly into the hands of laborers. Patagonia’s program has provided workers with free propane stoves, bikes, even childcare. Eileen Fisher’s Love, Peru Collection brings clean water, artisan training and school facilities to local communities. And while these compensation initiatives are not yet the industry norm, they’re picking up steam.
For consumers, it’s getting easier to shop responsibly. Nordstrom, along with Patagonia, Eileen Fisher and others, is part of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which is a broad alliance of brands committed to finding newer, greener ways to sustain our finite resources and fellow humans. Soon, you’ll be able to shop with even more confidence.