Eileen Fisher, Yael Aflalo And Cara Smyth on Sus­tain­abil­ity, Prof­itabil­ity

WWD Digital Daily - - News - BY

If sav­ing the planet is the goal, profit, growth and brand value are the bonuses to sus­tain­abil­ity in fash­ion.

The fash­ion in­dus­try has wo­ken up to sus­tain­abil­ity in a ma­jor way in the past few years. De­signer Eileen Fisher and Yael Aflalo, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer and founder of Ref­or­ma­tion, are ahead of the pack, hav­ing made sus­tain­abil­ity core to their busi­nesses and seen con­sid­er­able growth as a ben­e­fit. The ex­ec­u­tives dis­cussed their philoso­phies on sus­tain­abil­ity and busi­ness along with Cara Smyth, founder of the Fair Fash­ion Cen­ter and vice pres­i­dent, ex­ec­u­tive board mem­ber of the Glas­gow Cale­do­nian Univer­sity, on a panel moder­ated by WWD news di­rec­tor Lisa Lock­wood.

In 2015, Eileen Fisher im­ple­mented her Vi­sion 2020 com­mit­ment to mak­ing her com­pany com­pletely sus­tain­able. Mak­ing sus­tain­abil­ity part of her busi­ness model had a core part of the com­pany cul­ture for years. “We've had a head of so­cial con­scious­ness and sus­tain­abil­ity for 25 years now,” Fisher said. “It's very embed­ded but we didn't talk about it be­cause it never felt good enough.” When she put Vi­sion 2020 into the pub­lic do­main, it was a re­sult of a “lead­er­ship mo­ment,” Fisher said. “We de­cided at a large off­site to com­mit to this idea to be­come 100 per­cent sus­tain­able, and I re­mem­ber think­ing, ‘I have no idea if that's pos­si­ble.'”

Ac­cept­ing the fact that ad­dress­ing sus­tain­abil­ity is com­plex and im­per­fect is cru­cial to mak­ing progress, Smyth said. “It's like, no mat­ter which way you go it's im­per­fect. I think it's great to say that out loud. Pick a lane and do the best you can in that lane. We hear from a lot of the brands and ceo's that ‘We need a per­fect strat­egy be­fore we say any­thing out loud.' I don't think that's nec­es­sary.”

The key is to get started. “By mak­ing a com­mit­ment, we learned a lot and peo­ple in­side the com­pany be­came very com­mit­ted to think­ing, ‘How can we do this? What else can we do? How much more can we do?” Fisher said. “With Vi­sion 2020, we knew we couldn't be 100 per­cent sus­tain­able by 2020, but we could be­come 100 per­cent on eco-pre­ferred ma­te­ri­als by 2020 and that's some­thing we're very on track to be­com­ing. I think we're 60 to 70 per­cent there.”

On a sim­i­lar note, Aflalo said Ref­or­ma­tion has a goal of re­cy­cling 75,000 gar­ments this year. “We're nowhere near that goal but we still have two months.” She built sus­tain­abil­ity into Ref­or­ma­tion's brand val­ues and the cus­tomer fol­lowed. “When we first started, I don't think many of our cus­tomers cared about sus­tain­abil­ity,” Aflalo said, cit­ing the lack of en­gage­ment sus­tain­abil­ity so­cial me­dia posts gar­nered six or seven years ago. “It was like crick­ets, no com­ments. Now, the en­gage­ment on our so­cial me­dia posts ri­val that of any other posts.” The re­sults of a sur­vey con­ducted by Ref­or­ma­tion showed that the com­pany's sus­tain­abil­ity mis­sion leads to cus­tomer loy­alty. “We were shocked to see how many peo­ple were mo­ti­vated to pur­chase with us, not on an ac­qui­si­tion ba­sis but on a re­ten­tion ba­sis,” Aflalo said. “Peo­ple stay with us longer be­cause we're sus­tain­able. They also let us mess up a lot more. They give us more lee­way.”

Aflalo, Fisher and Smyth see cre­ativ­ity and in­vest­ment as the way for­ward. Fisher has cre­ated a $4 mil­lion sub­busi­ness out of reusing and up­cy­cling old Eileen Fisher clothes, lead­ing to art­work and a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Pub­lic School. She's also a found­ing mem­ber of Alante Cap­i­tal, ven­ture cap­i­tal fund that in­vests in sus­tain­abil­ity in­no­va­tion in the ap­parel in­dus­try.

The re­cent United Na­tions cli­mate re­port, pre­dict­ing a dire cli­mate cri­sis by 2040 was top of mind. Fisher, Aflalo and Smyth were hope­ful about fash­ion's role in change. “Fash­ion is hard­wired for change like no other in­dus­try — we can re­flect and drive cul­tural shifts,” Smyth said. “For our in­dus­try to be the one to say, ‘We're go­ing to take a lead­er­ship po­si­tion on this, is great. Sus­tain­abil­ity used to feel like a bucket of prob­lems and it now feels like a bucket of op­por­tu­nity, if you look at our in­dus­try from 1,000 feet away and say, ‘Wow, from agri­cul­ture to chem­i­cals to the dyes to the man­u­fac­tur­ing to 70 per­cent of the sup­ply chain to re­tail to the trash that we make…there's op­por­tu­nity for cre­at­ing key im­pact.”

If sav­ing the planet is the goal, as a bonus, there are prof­its to be had in run­ning an en­vi­ron­men­tally con­scious busi­ness. Smyth noted that Wall Street is track­ing com­pany's sus­tain­abil­ity prac­tices, cit­ing a re­cent Har­vard study that found that sus­tain­able com­pa­nies are trad­ing 4.5 per­cent higher than other com­pa­nies. She also called out what Bloomberg has deemed “chase the waste,” wherein en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact — the amount of pack­ag­ing, wa­ter, chem­i­cals, etc. a com­pany wastes — di­rectly cor­re­lates to profit loss. “Wher­ever you chase the waste, you'll find money,” Smyth said.

Eileen Fisher, Yael Aflalo and Cara Smyth.

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