Amy Hall started her career in non-profit fundraising, but “accidentally” ended up in a wonderfully fulfilling career at a “company she never even heard of”. That company is Eileen Fisher. After serving as the Director of Social Consciousness for 24 years, Amy is now the Vice President of the company. From supply chain management to company culture, Amy shares with us what it takes to be a truly sustainable and ethical company, the crucial role of authenticity, and why businesses must make the shift towards real impact now, or risk losing business in the next 25 years. Read on:
You were the Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher for 24 years before stepping into your new role as VP. In your previous role, what are some examples of tangible action steps that you encouraged your teams to take on in order to integrate their values into their everyday practices?
My team doesn’t order the fabric, design the clothes, or order from the factories. We don’t look at our carbon footprint, or our electricity bills. We don’t enforce ourselves, nor our zero waste efforts. Instead, we serve as advisors and cheerleaders to those teams who [execute those action items] to help make sure they are doing their part.
I’ll hear about an effort that took place in another team, or about a partnership in our stores (that I had no idea about), but that enforce our core values. When I found out our Vermont company store (our outlet) was organizing a B Corp Fair outside the store, I was thrilled. They called me to get some advice, but they were already planning it. I was so delighted that I had nothing to do with that, and yet they did it themselves! We want people to embrace the values of the company, and make them their own.
What are the challenges and advantages of having a sustainable fashion company? Relative to the size of your business, which sustainable initiatives are easiest to implement, and which are the most challenging?
I wonder if anything is easy! It’s easiest to start with most challenging: human behavior change. All of it requires behavior change, whether environmental or human. What we need to do is convince every supplier (yarn, farmer, etc.) about the business case [for sustainability], and then convince other brands that this work is important. Convincing others would allow us to source more responsibly with shared suppliers. But honestly, all of it is really hard. Conversations often take months, if not years, to complete
I would have to say one of the most difficult things to achieve is living wage because we are not the sole brand within the supplier/factory. We can’t actually achieve the living wage goal if not everyone is part of the process. Beyond that, when we move to another supplier, what will happen to those wages? We don’t want them to fall back, so how do we make it systemic? It needs to be systemic, so that no matter who is in the factory, they will have a living wage.
However, that requires policies and labor unions. it’s a huge conversation that is beyond the power of any one brand. Although we have a goal of a living wage, it’s admittedly the area of slowest progress. But it doesn’t make us shy away. Instead, it forces us to be creative and collaborative.
As for the easiest? Well, it took us a while to get there, but shifting materials has gotten easier over the years. The changing supply and demand for better materials has made it a little less difficult to request them. You see, if other brands demand organic cotton, then it will be made available. From what I hear, suppliers are now getting a lot more demand for materials that are available in organically and/or responsibly. Worldwide demand is making it a lot easier to find these materials.
Many major retailers are now looking to implement sustainability and corporate social responsibility into their operations and supply chain. What can they learn from your company, and what advice would you give to them in regards to maximizing their social impact in a real and authentic way?
Authenticity is extremely important. Historically and traditionally, companies have had an arm of supporting organizations through philanthropy. It was in a way, wiping the slate clean. They might have negative impacts in their businesses, but through philanthropy, it clears the slate for them. Here’s a classic example: Phillip Morris supporting the arts, but making a product (cigarettes) that is dangerous for people’s health.
The most important thing is that the leadership within that company is willing to make a [responsible] commitment. Otherwise, asking a supplier to do something you’re not already doing [in your company] is hypocritical. It’s no longer good enough to have philanthropy, but you must demonstrate through business actions.
However, no matter whether you’re a small or big company, you can’t do everything at once. Sustainability is all about choices. Typically, people will start at the top tier of the supply chain, but even then your supplier list can run in the thousands. So start somewhere: even if it’s just about having heart-to-heart conversations with your top five suppliers. Win them over with the business case, and branch out from there.
Start somewhere, be authentic, and remember your own commitment as a brand.
Many people say that the fast fashion business model can never be sustainable. Do you agree?
It’s an impossible question to answer. Time will tell. For example, with H&M, we are learning just how much they invest in this work (in terms of financial and human resources), and they are doing a lot of good in the industry. I wouldn’t ever want to criticize them or their business model, because they are out to prove everyone wrong. By 2030, they want all their materials to be sustainable, and come from circular models. I would imagine that they see circularity as the goal. As long as everything is feeding back to a new raw material source, old clothes can be new again, and fast fashion can continue to live on. It’s not the vision I have for Eileen Fisher, but who knows? It may be possible. So many things are possible with technology and time.
In your perspective, what is the business case for sustainable fashion? Why would an investor want to invest in this model?
If you look at data about consumer behavior, and knowing it has yet to be proven (a lot is still in speculation), you’ll see that it’s the up-and-coming generation that has the most affinity for values-based shopping. If we all want to be in business in 25 years, we have to plan for how we will attract and retain customers who are 25-35 years old now.
Speaking from the perspective of a brand that has a clientele upwards of their fifties, we know that younger clients will eventually be older. And I would hope that their values wouldn’t change in 25 years.
The other thing is, as a population, we are much more aware than we were 10-15 years ago. I think investors understand that. I get calls from investors who want to understand more about what this world of sustainability is about, and what should they be looking for.
In regards to brand reputation, we are heading toward a future where if you’re not sourcing ethically, you won’t get the business. I don’t know if that’s going to come as a result of greater transparency or simply people realizing that it is the right thing to do. Those who source conventionally will begin have to pay for their errors, whether in the form of a tax or penalty. Sustainable and ethical products will become the norm. I feel we’re headed that way. I really do feel that we’re going to see the tipping point. We’re on the path.
Tell us about the impact you’ve made in your business. What impact accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m not one who is self-congratulatory. But I feel proud that I started this work at Eileen Fisher. There wasn’t a formal program or team around social consciousness before.
The older I get, I notice that I am getting sought out by other companies (whether apparel or social impact) for advice. The best thing I can do now is to consider the impact beyond the borders of the company. To share experience and knowledge that I’ve gained, and that we’ve gained collectively as a company, for greater impact. I’m personally not going to have a lot of impact, but if we can gather around us to move in the same direction, we can create lasting change for the planet. I feel responsible in this way now, and I know can’t shy away from those conversations anymore. Once you know this, you can’t un-know it. I have to share it, and help others avoid some of the pitfalls we made.
How has your involvement with SVC helped you and your company ?
I attribute so much of how I think to SVC. I can’t tell you how many times I went to a conference and heard a motivational speaker, and how it opened my eyes to what is really important in this world.
I learned about “The Natural Step” method through a small workshop at (what was then SVN), and it totally changed the way I thought about our individual impact on the planet. That was probably 15-18 years ago (before we had a formal sustainability initiative in the company), but it set me down this path, and It inspired me to lobby internally.
It was the first time it woke me up [to sustainability]. It was that simple.
To learn more about Amy’s work, visit the Eileen Fisher website.
Join leaders like Amy at our annual conference this November 13-15 in Berkeley CA, as we convene to “Welcome the Next Economy”.