Megan, you are a Supply Chain Transparency Specialist, what does that mean? As the Supply Chain Transparency Specialist at EILEEN FISHER, I research and analyze our supply chains to create a complete picture of how are our garments are made and to understand the impacts of production from fiber to factory. This entails working with our suppliers, tracking organic and other third party certifications, and analyzing several of our environmental and social metrics related to our materials and supply chains.
Before working for Eileen Fisher you had not worked in the fashion industry, tell us about your background? Where did you go to school and what kinds of jobs did you do that prepared you for your current work?
I attended Pennsylvania State University and studied Environmental Resource Management. While in school, I interned at a Small Business Center that helped businesses within Pennsylvania identify and realize energy and water savings through efficiency measures. After school, I worked with two sustainability consulting firms where I gained a great deal of experience, working primarily with product manufacturers and commercial building owners. The projects were diverse; I would lead teams through LEED (green building) certifications, conduct third party product content analyses, and work on green marketing campaigns.
My favorite projects as a consultant were when working with product manufacturers; I find the process of how products are made quite fascinating. Additionally, I’ve always loved fashion and clothing and knew that I wanted to transition into the garment production industry. As luck would have it, EF was hiring a transparency specialist with much of the experience that I had gained throughout my years of sustainability consulting.
What attracted you to Eileen Fisher?
I began wearing EF in my early 20s. The more I read about the brand, the more I wanted to support their efforts of using natural fibers, supporting ethical production, and creating quality clothes in a timeless design that didn’t feel trendy. EILEEN FISHER was certainly on my radar as a company I wanted to work for; it’s a progressive company that really “gets it.” And the clothes are beautiful!
You describe very clear memories of how your shopping habits changed from when you were a child, to young adult, to present. Can you describe these changes and how they represent changes in awareness?
As a child and young teenager, I loved shopping! Nothing beat back-to-school shopping in August. My parents would take my sisters and me to the mall and we would buy new clothes for the school year. I can remember that at some point during high school, many well-known fast fashion stores began popping up in my area. So what began as a once or twice a year shopping excursion, became buying cheap clothing throughout the year. While this was seemingly great to a young girl in high school, I eventually became aware of the consequences of fast fashion. This is why we need more transparency and communication about the impacts of garment production, so consumers are able to make mindful, knowledgeable purchasing decisions. It’s a complicated industry, but no one should have to suffer to make our clothes.
Supply chain mapping is, at its core, people talking to people to gather information and answer questions. This communication requires honesty, trust and education. How do you personally, and how does Eileen Fisher as a company, work to create and maintain these open relationships with suppliers?
EILEEN FISHER has well established relationships with garment producers as well as fabric and yarn mills. We use the same garment factories season after season and some have been producing for EF for almost 20 years. We are in constant communication with our factories and with the development of the VISION2020 goals and initiatives, the communication has only increased to find better and more open ways of working together.
In terms of transparency, many of the questions that we ask our suppliers are new to them. There is a lot of education involved especially when it comes to proper documentation of certifications. For example, organic fiber certification systems can become complicated quickly, so we educate suppliers on how the certification scheme is implemented over the entire supply chain and the proper documentation they are expected to pass along to us.
For the most part our suppliers are on board and want to help us achieve complete transparency into our supply chains. But it’s important to meet and have face-to-face conversations. There is a lot of email correspondence with our suppliers who are based all over the world, but relationships are always improved when we can be in the same room and openly discuss our initiatives, expectations, and supply chain details.
It’s also important to be on-site and actually see our supplier’s operations. Just as we educate them on certifications and transparency, they education us on everything that goes into creating our materials. Textile production is fascinating and complicated; we’re lucky to work with suppliers who are experts in this industry.
Can you give us an example of the time when supplier education was particularly important?
Providing education and creating awareness is important so that our suppliers know why we are asking certain questions. For example, EF is a member of the Canopy Style initiative by having made a commitment to not use raw materials that have been sourced from ancient or endangered forests by 2017. As part of this commitment, we need to know where all our wood-based cellulosic fabrics, such as viscose, rayon, lyocell, and modal are manufactured and from where the wood is sourced. Our direct relationship is typically with the fabric mill, not the fiber manufacturer. Therefore the fabric mills need to ask the yarn spinners from whom they have purchased fiber, and the fiber manufacturers need to disclose where they have purchased wood or wood pulp. This is a fairly deep supply chain question and the answer relies on our supplier’s supplier to respond, who may not readily disclose this information. This is an example of where we need to educate the entire supply chain about an industry initiative and the importance of knowing the whole supply chain, in this case from forest to garment.
Eileen speaks about “business as a movement;” there are so many departments in a fashion company, sales, marketing, design, production, material sourcing and development to name only a few. Having worked in the fashion industry I know first hand how difficult it can be to work collaboratively between and amongst departments. Can you describe how Eileen Fisher integrates sustainability into every link in the development, design and production chain?
There are numerous ways that sustainability has been integrated throughout EF. We have a Social Consciousness department focused on sustainability and human rights, and there are a few sustainability-related positions within other departments. My position is one of them; I am part of our Manufacturing department, which is perfect because I have a close connection with our suppliers and materials. We also have an R&D Chemist at EF who is part of the Design department. This is key because she has communication with the dye houses during the sourcing and development process to work with them proactively on safer chemistry programs.
We also have several teams dedicated to making our VISION2020 goals a reality. Each team typically includes representation from Design, Social Consciousness, Merchandising, and Manufacturing. These teams work on researching and using sustainable materials such as responsible wool, organic fibers, recycled polyester and nylon, etc.
We also have a fairly new Sustainability Ambassadors program at EF, which is an educational program designed to deepen employees’ expertise on environmental and human rights issues within the company specifically, and the fashion industry in general.
The Vision 2020 goals are ambitious. They are phrased in such a way that success of the business is not balanced against sustainability concerns, but in such a way that unless it is win-win, it's fail-fail. What plans have been put in place to meet and measure these goals?
We have a plan to meet our 2020 goals with intermediate goals along this journey. And it’s important to remember that once these goals are achieved, we need to maintain them. For example, we are on track to meet our organic fiber goal of using 100% organic cotton and linen by 2020. The cotton and linen fabrics and yarns that we use season after season have been converted to organic fiber, but we also source new materials each season so the challenge is to continuously work with our suppliers to source organic fiber for these new novelty materials. Meeting fiber minimums for these smaller programs can be difficult for our suppliers, so we are looking at new ways of sourcing and using organic fibers.
Our Vision2020 goals are guided by an internal document we lovingly call, “The Riverbanks.” The Riverbanks name 8 categories of work (materials, water, carbon, energy, conscious business practices, fair wages & benefits, worker voice, and worker & community happiness), 20 goals within each of those buckets, and 90 “stepping stones” to help us get there. Each Riverbank has a metric attached to it, and all relevant teams are aware of how they are progressing on a seasonal and annual basis.
Transparency is clearly something you feel very strongly about. What are your thoughts on the fashion industry and on transparency as a whole?
We clearly need more transparency in this industry, and it needs to be collaborative industry effort for real change to be made. While brands need to be held responsible for effectively and truthfully communicating the impacts of their supply chains to consumers, we as consumers need to make more mindful purchasing decisions based on those impacts and our personal values. And very importantly, ask questions! We will see increased supply chain transparency from brands as demand increases from consumers.
You have been working closely with SourceMap to map some of your supply chain. What do you find are your greatest challenges in reverse engineering the supply chain? What does your everyday look like?
I’m very excited to be working with Sourcemap. We are utilizing Sourcemap as a data collection and supply chain mapping platform. We are sending online surveys to our fabric and yarn mills through Sourcemap for each material used within a season, and then based on their answers, the supply chain is visually mapped out. This allows us to analyze our materials and metrics in a more dynamic manner, and communicate those supply chains for effectively.
One of the challenges in supply chain mapping is just the shear amount of data collected. We needed a system to assist in managing this information. Then there is the issue of reverse engineering the supply chain which cannot only be challenging but actually impossible for some materials. For example, we can trace some of our organic cotton and organic linen materials back to the farm, which is really exciting. These are supply chains in which we have been working with the mills for quite some time, and even have a relationship with their suppliers. Other supply chains are not quite so simple, especially when there is blending of fiber involved. Conventional wool is a good example: wool is collected by brokers, sorted by quality and fiber size, sold at auction houses, and mixed before and during the fiber scouring process. The yarn mills that purchase the wool tops to spin may know the country in which the wool was sourced, or it may be a blend of wool from say Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and South America. With this typical business model, it’s impossible to trace back to the sheep farms.
With that said, there are some really exciting things happening in the garment and textile industry right now. Keeping with this wool example, there are now several sustainable and responsible wool fiber suppliers who are engaging with brands directly. Because the farmers within these wool networks are certified to a third party standard, the wool is processed separately and carries chain-of-custody documentation to the yarn mill. This managed supply chain provides full traceability back to the farms supplying the wool. And not only is it traceable, but the farms are certified, ensuring that the animals are treated humanely and that the farms are operated in a sustainable manner, preserving soil integrity and biodiversity.
My work can vary quite a bit day to day, but typically I will be working on supply chain mapping, analyzing our key material metrics, or working with suppliers to verify our sustainability claims. I am constantly working on mapping our supply chain. Garment supply chains are very complex and involve many mechanical and chemical processes. I try to meet with our suppliers whenever possible to review their materials so we have a complete picture of how and where the textiles are made. In terms of metrics, we have several teams dedicated to implementing our VISION2020 initiatives, and one of them is the Metrics Team. We use an internal material ranking tool to rank each fabric and yarn per season based a fiber and chemistry score. We then use this tool to holistically evaluate the line; how much organic fiber we are using, percentage of materials that are dyed to a safe chemistry program, etc., and benchmark our progress to our VISION2020 material goals. My third area of work is on integrity of our sustainability claims. I work with our suppliers, standard developers, and certification bodies to ensure our claims (e.g., organic and recycled fibers, certified dye programs, etc.) are accurate and not misleading.
What can you tell us about taking ownership for supply chain problems on a company level?
We understand that our actions affect our suppliers and their business operations. Suppliers are always trying to meet a brand’s expectations and requests. It’s important to understand a factory’s capacity, capabilities, and limitations as well as how a change request from the brand affects the factory’s processes. For example, if we ask for an extraction after the garments have been packaged and are ready to ship, the process of unpacking, re-doing the shipping documentation, etc., can be quite laborious. Changes are inevitable, but we working closely with the factories to understand when and why these changes take place and within our own internal operations to strategize on how to reduce changes after a cut-ticket has been issued to the factory.
It sounds like this work is much more than a job to you. Could you comment on your passion for this work?
I believe people should have greater awareness of how their clothes are made and the impacts of their choices, both positive and negative. I also believe brands are responsible for communicating that information honestly and accurately. There are certainly numerous challenges to achieving supply chain transparency, but there is a great deal of inspiring work being done in collaboration between brands and industry organizations. I’m hopeful that we will continue to see greater transparency in fashion; it’s necessary for meaningful change to be made.