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Mindful : December 2013
50 mindful December 2013 business Inspiring Change “ We talk about ‘business as a movement,’” Eileen Fisher says. “This means we take responsibility for what we’re doing, and we look for all the possible ways we can change ourselves—and change this industry.” Fisher doesn’t see herself and the company “fighting for change.” Rather, she says, “ We lead. We do what we do and hopefully that influences others.” The company researches ways to make improvements in every stage of the life cycle of a product so that less energy, chemicals, and water are used, resulting in less effluent and a better environment for workers. “We share that information with anyone who is interested, so others will be inspired to do similar things,” Fisher says. The cradle-to-grave philosophy also includes taking back and reselling garments to suppor t charitable causes and advising customers on how to care for their garments better, which is the stage of the life cycle that results in the most pollution and energy use. “Business as a movement” also ex tends to placing a strong focus on employee well-being, promoting collaboration and consensus in decision-making, employee ownership, and—through the Eileen Fisher foundation—supporting the empowerment of women to take leading roles in society. ● people cultivate good judgment, so they don’t have to use rules.” When the 2008 financial collapse hit, sales dropped precipitously, which tested the mettle of the tight-knit, family-style business. Some people took unpaid leave, while others’ jobs had to be eliminated. “One of the first things we had to do was help people over the loss and grief. The whole organization was saddened,” Jarreau says. The tough times occasioned a tightening-up and made leadership skills—f rom the practical level of setting agendas to the bigger level of fostering trust—even more importa nt. Fisher feels that difficult period created a healthy sense of renewa l, a nd it set the stage for her current emphasis on “personal transformation.” That ’s a new initiative, Ja rreau says, based on the notion that “a culture of trust, good judg- ment, well-being, and purpose is centra l to people flourishing in their work a nd their life. Personal transformation is a deep dive,” says Jarreau. “ It could involve a va riety of experiences, depend- ing on the person—a regular meditation practice, workshops to explore your personal history and how it affects you today, or looking at what you really value in life, at what it means to prosper. We don’t know the path forward exactly, but we’re sampling and exploring. In the end, we want to support people’s personal growth as part of their work life and try to measure how well we’re doing that.” Amy Hall is director of social con- sciousness. How ma ny companies have one of those? Her mission is to help Eileen Fisher become the most socially and environmentally responsible com- pany possible. It’s a many-tentacled effort that includes initiatives such as the development of an orga nic cotton supply chain in Peru, helping a Chinese silk dyer use fewer chemicals a nd less water, and investing in two windmills in Iowa through Native Energy. Many of these efforts a re chronicled through the Ampersand ma rketing project. When a customer sees the “&,” she knows she can go to a website and lea rn more about how Eileen Fisher products come into being and what the company is doing to be responsible and innovative by watching videos or reading interviews and journal- istic-style reports from the front. “ We’ve been collecting these sto- ries for quite a while,” Hall says, “but Eileen was reluctant to share them. She wa nts us doing good things for the right reasons, not to overstate our goodness in order to sell clothes. But now we see that many customers, par ticularly those age 40 and under, are value-driven and want to know the story behind the products they buy.” Hall is focused now on t wo major proj- ects. The first is to create a publicly avail- able map of Eileen Fisher’s entire supply chain, an enormous undertaking. “ Where we encounter social and environmental problems,” Hall says, “we will actively work with our suppliers to help rectify them—through relationship-building, investment, a nd partnership.” If a serious problem can’t be resolved, they’ll halt production until something can be worked out. The other initiative is even more ambitious: a sustainable way to bring clothing manufacturing back to the U.S. It starts with a proposal to develop a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility in the Bronx. It would rely on used fiber for its feedstock (including clothes f rom the Green Eileen collection project), employ and empower at-risk women, be employee-owned and led, and be housed in sustainable buildings. “This would not be an Eileen Fisher facility alone,” Hall says. “ We’re seeking industry partners to collaborate with us in a facility that would create raw fiber, spin it into ya rn, weave it into fabric, and sew it into ga rments. We want to bring the garment-making arts back to the United States in a way that benefits local communities. If the prototype in the Bronx works, the idea can be replicated in communities across the country.” Next year marks Fisher’s 30th year in the clothing business. She says she’s “in a letting-go phase. I give people my bless- ing. I feel like I work less, but I guess I’m still doing a lot in places I choose to put energy. I enjoy being on the periphery, gently holding something rather tha n being in the center of it all.” She has also started to transfer owner- ship to her employees. The company has long shared at least 10% of its after-tax profits (and often much more) with all staff. In 2006 Fisher sta rted an Employee Stock Ownership Plan that passed almost a third of the company to employees. 3