Posted by Paul Brownhill 17 Feb 2016
Eileen Fisher is a leading advocate for sustainable and ethical garment manufacturing. In fact, the brand has supported human rights work within the supply chain for some 20 years now - before many of today’s big ethical issues were well known at street level. Amy Hall, Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher, recently spoke with us about the importance of supply chain management in the fashion industry.
Q. What first brought the idea of a more ethical and environmentally sustainable practice to your company's attention, and why has it remained such an important part of your brand?
A. Eileen founded the company 32 years ago with a commitment to natural fibres. At the time, that seemed like a logical way to maintain ecological purity for our products. Over the years, Eileen and the rest of the company came to recognize that her original commitment needed to evolve, to reflect the world's increasing awareness of the true impact of clothing on the planet and her people.
To be more specific, our commitment to the people in our supply chain was sparked in the mid-90s, when there was a lot of media coverage about ‘sweatshops’. We were too small to be in the news ourselves, but we knew that we needed to pay closer attention to the women and men who make our products.
On the environmental side, we took a huge leap forward about three years ago, following Eileen's visits to some of our supply chain partners in the US and China. She was particularly drawn to the global water crisis and the realisation of how much water is utilised or degraded by the apparel industry. That trip sparked what we now call ‘Vision2020’, our ambitious goals for environmental and human sustainability related to our product.
Q. In your time in the fashion industry, what problems have you seen that tie directly into a lack of supply chain transparency and control?
A. Where do I begin? For nearly two decades, apparel and other consumer product brands have been adopting codes of conduct, requiring their suppliers to follow those codes, sending auditors in to assess and verify performance against the codes, and arranging for training to help develop internal capacity - that would then (ideally) lead to improved performance against the codes.
During that period of time, we've essentially put all responsibility to improve on the shoulders of the suppliers. And very little has changed during these past two decades. The industry still has excessive overtime issues, painfully low wages and, as a result, substantial transparency issues.
These transparency issues are exacerbated when brands build zero tolerance into their supplier agreements, forcing suppliers to hide the reality of their workplace practices out of fear that they'll lose the business.
Q. What steps has Eileen Fisher made to achieve more control over your supply chain? What goals are you hoping to meet in the future?
A. At the beginning of 2015, we launched our Vision2020 work, which sets ambitious sustainability goals for 2020 and beyond. On the environmental side, we have four buckets: materials, chemistry, carbon and water. On the social side, we also have four buckets: conscious business practices, fair wages and benefits, worker voice, and worker and community happiness. We have identified bold goals in each area, along with rigorous metrics.
What we have recognized, however, is that suppliers won't be able to achieve all of these goals until we address our internal practices. For example, if we make changes to orders (in quantity, colour, design, or reorders) while maintaining the original delivery date, suppliers have no choice but to incur excessive working hours. These changes also result in air shipping, rather than sea freight, because the timing is squeezed. This prevents us from achieving our carbon reduction goal.
We’ve therefore placed ‘supply chain excellence’ among our top company priorities for the next three years. We are looking at removing redundancies between internal teams, increasing efficiencies throughout the system, and improving our IT infrastructure so that everyone has the information they need in order to make the best decisions for ourselves and our suppliers.
We may even need to address some aspects of our workplace culture, such as always saying ‘yes’ when a customer makes a special request outside our regularly planned production schedule. This is not easy or quick work, but it will make a huge difference to our own teams and to our supply chain partners in the long run.
Q. How important is supply chain transparency and control to supporting an ethical and environmentally sound business - and why?
A. There is absolutely no way a company can measure and reduce its impact without knowing where products come from and how they're made - at every step along the value chain. This starts at the farm or lab level, in understanding the origins of every fibre used. It continues through every process and every hand along the way.
In addition, transparency can only happen when full trust exists between brand and supplier. Having that trust in place means the really hard work will be possible, because the partnerships within the supply chain are strong and mutually supportive. That's what we need for this work to be successful.
Q. What advice would you give other fashion houses who want to deliver more ethical and sustainable goods?
A. No brand can do it all (yet), no matter how small or large. It’s important for fashion houses to start where they can. They can take baby steps by identifying one key environmental value and one key social value that is most important to them - or that they see as having the greatest ripple effect in terms of addressing their total impact. Start there. And they can layer on as their human and financial resources allow.
Want to learn more? Download our new Guide to Supply Chain Management to discover why it's becoming critically important and exactly how companies can start taking control of their garment packaging suppliers.
Topics: Supply chain management