Interview: Amy Hall of Eileen Fisher

It’s no lie that we’re big fans of Eileen Fisher and their commitment to sustainability – that’s why we featured some of their Spring looks in our inaugural lookbook (click here to see it). So we sat down (virtually) with Amy Hall, the Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher, to learn more about the brand.

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In what ways is Eileen Fisher a conscious brand?
EILEEN FISHER was founded based on a commitment to natural fibers and timeless design.  These principles are still true today, in addition to so much more.  Most recently, we became a Certified B Corporation, which means that we exist not only to make a profit but also to benefit the environment and our broader community.  Over the years, we have become known for our commitment to our employees through our wellness program, profit-sharing plan and ESOP (employee stock ownership plan).  We are also developing a program to help employees discover their individual purpose.  These values extend beyond the walls of our company to our supply chain partners.  For example, we now have goals to increase worker and community happiness in our supply chain and to increase worker voice within our suppliers.

On the product side, we have an absolute commitment to achieve the highest level of environmental sustainability possible in our materials and processes.  Our ultimate hope is to move from a place of “doing less bad” to a place of replenishing the negative impacts of our company on the planet and her people.  We want to push the traditional notions of what an apparel company should be and demonstrate a new way of doing business.  We call this, “Business as a Movement.”

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What does sustainability mean to the brand?
For EILEEN FISHER, Sustainability encompasses financial health, environmental health and human health – all equally important to the success and viability of our company.  It means looking at every thread, every fiber, every human hand that touches our garments and asking the question, “Is this the best we can do for our planet and her people?”  If the answer is “no,” we haven’t done our job well.

The majority of your brand is manufactured overseas. What programs do you have in place to protect workers?

We have been paying close attention to the workers in our supply chain since 1997.  Over the years, we have determined that what works best for us are:  (1) Committed, values-based supply chain partners, such as our fair trade partner in Peru – Indigenous Designs – or one of our artisan suppliers in India – Indigo Handloom.  These businesses were founded specifically to create viable opportunities for indigenous people through the creation of exquisite products.  We are proud to work with them and to add value to their important work in their communities; (2) Strong NGO partnerships with organizations like Verite, which has been a key training partner for our China suppliers and their workers, and Labor Link, which has enabled us to conduct mobile phone surveys among workers in two of our India supply chains.  These partnerships allow us to hear directly from workers about their needs and their experiences in a way that we might not otherwise be able to have access; (3) A focused program called, “Choose Handloom,” which we created in partnership with Indigo Handloom and other India partners, to provide credit support and community health services to a community of weavers in NE India.  One of our 2020 goals is to increase worker voice within our suppliers by ensuring there are either well-functioning labor unions or worker committees in place within our supplier workplaces.

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Tell us about your work on SA8000.
We’ve been actively involved with Social Accountability since 1997 and participated in the development of SA8000, a globally-recognized workplace standard.  Over the years, we have used SA8000 as the workplace code of conduct within our suppliers.  Two of our approximately 40 suppliers have achieved SA8000 certification.  And several more are in the process of acquiring certification over the next 18 months.  For us, the most important application of SA8000 is not the certification, but the genuine adoption of SA8000 behaviors.  This means valuing the employees, providing a safe workplace, paying everyone fairly for every hour they work, and putting systems in place that ensure a well-run, transparent workplace now and in the future.

I have been on the SAI advisory board since the late ‘90s and have been serving as Advisory Board Chair for nearly 3 years.  Now that SAI has a new CEO (Jane Hwang), I take very seriously our partnership to ensure that SAI continues to have real impact on the lives of workers around the world.

How can the Eileen Fisher customer get involved in your sustainability efforts?
Getting involved in sustainability efforts can take on many meanings.  To start with, we want our customer to simply learn about what goes into each and every garment she wears (whether or not the garment is from EILEEN FISHER).  What is it made of?  How was it dyed?  Who made it?  By simply increasing awareness around the origins of her clothing is a huge step into this conversation.  Ask the sales people, read the website, challenge us.  We want to have a dialogue, and we want to know what is important to our customer.  Many years ago, it took just one letter from a customer who was concerned about the industry treatment of mohair rabbits.  That single letter resulted in our own deep dive into the mohair rabbit industry, and we ended up dropping mohair forever from our line because we weren’t comfortable with the way rabbits were raised for their hair.  Customers have a tremendous amount of power, but we also want to be sure they are informed and aware.  That’s where it starts.

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What Social Consciousness initiative are you most proud of?
This is a very difficult question to answer, because so much of our work is collaborative and is the result of years of evolution.  But, if I had to point to one thing, I’d say I’m most proud of Eileen herself.  She has stepped into this world of Sustainability without having the answers, without knowing how we’re going to get there, but with full confidence that we will get there one day.  She learned about what is happening to the water supply on this planet and she took action.  That gives me tremendous pride.  To know that Eileen herself was able to come to terms with the fragility and mortality of this one precious planet and to say, “We must change things before it’s too late.”

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How do your Social Consciousness efforts filter though to every day in the work place?
Social Consciousness consists of three key elements:  Environmental Sustainability, Human Rights and Women & Girls (and community).  Each area partners with individuals and teams throughout the company to raise awareness, establish goals, serve as sounding boards, create task forces or committees and much more.   On any given day, one might find a group of employees from across the company meeting to decide on our next group of non-profit grantees.  Or discussing how to select a new vendor based on our company values.  Or reviewing the most recent eco-materials data for inclusion on the next season’s hang tags.  It is a constant flow of information, ideas, negotiation and education.  My team leads a new internal education program called, “Sustainability Ambassadors.”  We facilitate the creation and collection of eco- and social-metrics.  We engage with external organizations around local, state and national policy.  We work with partners in Design and Manufacturing  on supply chain transparency issues. We design supply chain trainings.  And so much more.

What is in the future for Eileen Fisher?
In many ways, I feel as if EILEEN FISHER is at the start of its journey.  Yes, we are over 30 years old, but there is a pervasive sense of rebirth permeating our walls these days.  We are now a triple bottom line company that needs to figure out exactly what that means for us.  We are still founder-led today, but thinking about the future leadership of this company.  We are still trying to figure out what it means to be a profitable apparel company in the 21st century, facing a scarcity of resources.  Those are just a few of the challenges facing us in the next few years.  It is a very exciting place to be.

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