- Eileen Fisher’s “Waste No More” exhibition in Milan.
One million garments would be enough to populate a landfill. Instead, one Hudson Valley-based fashion brand wants to return garments to your closet and lead the fashion industry toward a sustainable future.
The Eileen Fisher headquarters in the Westchester village of Irvington are located in a 40,000-square-foot former Lord & Burnham factory, which manufactured greenhouses until the late 1980s. Today, the saw-toothed roof—designed to optimize light without trapping heat—looks like a row of yogis in downward dog position.
- Artist Sigi Ahl with a Tiny Factory employee.
Eileen Fisher, the woman and the brand, was once associated with women who have tidied up and closed the door on the decade between their 20s and 30s, maybe even 30s and 40s, and are ready for the breezy, uniform-like garments of the unbothered.
In 2017, the popular fashion blog Man Repeller deemed the look "menocore" (after menopause) and announced that young women were now lusting for it. "Menocore is the aesthetic leap to styles we would embrace as middle-aged women, taking us forward in time to a more marinated version of ourselves, our mothers, and our world," Harling Ross wrote. This moniker, and sentiment, was echoed across fashion media.
Eileen Fisher eschews trends, but the resonance of the brand with the present moment is more than just aesthetic. In 2009, before the concerns about climate change had reached the fever pitch we're experiencing today, the brand began informally collecting used Eileen Fisher garments from its employees. By 2015, they were taking used garments back from customers as well and reselling them for a discount under the label Green Eileen, now known as Renew. That same year, artist Sigi Ahl paired up with the brand to create new garments and felted textiles from the old ones. These works have been exhibited and sold as part of the campaign Waste No More since 2017.
- “Waste No More” exhibition at the Eileen Fisher store in Brooklyn.
Eileen Fisher has now collected over a million garments, and the brand estimates they bring in 2,000 to 3,000 units every week. Each garment returned West of the Mississippi is sorted in Seattle, and everything to the East is sorted in Irvington. The Irvington operation, nicknamed Tiny Factory, was opened in 2017 across the street from the headquarters.
In February, the UN hosted a Sustainable Fashion Summit in New York to discuss how the fashion industry can support the goals of the Paris Agreement and other international environmental commitments. "Sustainability is no longer a trend, but a business imperative," says the nonprofit Global Fashion Agenda. An oft-repeated factoid that "the global fashion industry is the second most polluting industry in the world," has been debunked by experts. However, some of the industry's impact is confirmed in a 2009 Business for Social Responsibility report: 18 percent of carbon emissions from a single garment come from fiber production, 16 percent from yarn production, and 39 percent from consumer behavior (washing and, ultimately, disposing of it.)
"The best thing you can do for a garment is keep it as it is," says Carmen Gama, a designer at Eileen Fisher. But that's not always possible. Gama says that only 40 percent of the garments returned are sellable and resold through Green Eileen. The standard for sellability is high, and garments that make the cut are laundered locally in Westchester County. A quarter of returned clothing is termed "not quite perfect" with minor flaws and resold at select stores. The remaining 35 percent is too damaged to resell and falls under the re-manufacturing efforts of Waste No More, which has just launched its own website and social media channels.
Previously, these clothes were recycled into limited-edition garments, like a jumpsuit made from five to seven pairs of discarded jeans. Eileen Fisher is now focusing renewal efforts on the textiles by dismantling and machine-felting the garments to create new raw material. Fisher tells me that the impetus behind this shift is scalability.
- Only 40 percent of the garments that are returned can be resold.
"We've been trying to do both, and I think what we found with the clothes is that they're not so scalable. It's not so easy to do—they all become one-of-a-kind, practically," says Fisher. Now, the Tiny Factory hums with the sound of machines fondly termed Lanettes, after the woman who sold the brand its first felting machine back in 2015.
"We don't have a solution for everything, but we don't throw away anything," says Gama. Walking around the Tiny Factory floor, one sees buckets of Eileen Fisher tags and buttons. Gama estimates that of the 35 percent of unsellable goods, 20 percent of the material has no current remanufacturing purpose within the company. (Shoes fall into this category, piling up like hopes for the future.)
Fashion is an industry obsessed with dramatic reveals, so the fact that Eileen Fisher spent a decade quietly moving the needle on their own climate footprint is revolutionary. That the brand developed new methods to do so likewise makes them a standard bearer for corporate responsibility. However, Fisher herself is self-effacing about her leadership in the industry. In a 2013 New Yorker profile, she told writer Janet Malcolm, "I'm just an ordinary person. It's only because I created this company and these clothes that I'm interesting."
- A view of the Tiny Factory floor in Irvington.
A Sense of Urgency
Tiny Factory (the linguistic opposite of Mass Consumption) has strong feminine energy. Upstairs is the Eileen Fisher Learning Lab, where employees undergo professional development and the brand hosts workshops, most of them geared toward women.
On the day I tour the facility, there is a pile of Gloria Steinem books left over from a recent event. The lobby of the lab is decorated with (live) plants, cream-colored wall hangings, and throw pillows—examples of the home goods also being produced by Waste No More. The Hudson River sparkles just beyond the Metro-North tracks. "I'm very water-oriented, I like living on the water," Fisher tells me. (She lives in Irvington, in a farmhouse-inspired home with river views.) A trip to China in the early 2000s spurred Fisher to do more to curb the company's environmental footprint. "I had personally become acutely aware of the water crisis that was happening not just in our country on the West Coast but across Asia too. It just seemed urgent to begin to do more."
Fisher started her brand in 1984 with the idea that quality natural fibers and timeless design would automatically lend themselves to fashion sustainability. (It takes 2,700 liters of water to make one cotton shirt, according to the World Resources Institute.) "I feel responsible for some of the mess without being this aware in the early days, thinking organics were good for the environment," Fisher says, "I felt good about that without realizing I was part of the problem." In 2012, the power of water and climate change hit home when Fisher's Irvington facilities were walloped by Hurricane Sandy. The New York Times reported that "even the cash in the register at the Irvington store had to be taken home and blown dry" and the total loss amounted to "$1.5 million, 12 Dumpsters, and eight moving-truck-size mobile storage units of damaged goods."
- Waste No More is also producing homegoods like throw pillows and tapestries.
Fisher was honored by environmental nonprofit Riverkeeper in 2015. The clean water advocates called her "a strong and loyal ally in the work to protect the Hudson River, and a model in the sustainable business community."
An Industry Leader
In addition to launching Waste No More's online presence this spring, the brand showed off the potential of their textiles in simultaneous Brooklyn and Milan exhibitions. Textile and product designer Salem Van Der Swaagh points to the symbolism of the old Lord & Burnham space in Irvington: "There's something transparent about a greenhouse," she says. "And I think you're making a company that's very transparent but also, of course, green." However, for a long time Eileen Fisher was too nervous to advertise the risks she was taking—like that first $20,000 needle-felting machine. "We were just overwhelmed by how much work had to be done," says Fisher. "We were saying 'Just take baby steps. Let's just get started.'"
- Tiny Factory has developed their ownsorting process for returned items.
Now that their methods are out in the open, the "teach a person to fish" phase of Waste No More is in motion. Streetwear designers Public School and Heron Preston have spent time at Tiny Factory learning their methods. So have representatives from global fast-fashion conglomerate H&M. In looking to change the world, Eileen Fisher has brought the world to Irvington.
"We realized that we need to share what we know, we need to teach other people, because we're like a drop in the bucket. We're one mid-sized company, and that's great, but unless the rest of the industry follows then we're not going to solve the problem," Fisher says. "We can't do it alone."