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GREAT LEADERS

Eileen Fisher: How I Focus on What Really Matters

Fashion designer Eileen Fisher focuses on her long-term goals: to make the company more environmentally sustainable and to boost employee happiness.
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Eileen Fisher's easy-to-wear clothing company just marked its 30th anniversary. But rather than celebrate, Fisher is thinking about what her company, which had sales of $360 million in 2012, will look like 30 years from now. Sustainability, she claims, is key. --As told to Liz Welch

These days I'm focused on the concept of good growth. I constantly ask myself and my employees, "How do we grow in ways that are sustainable, and ways we can be proud of?"

The word sustainable makes me think first of the environment. Ten years ago, I decided to take baby steps towards making clothes that helped versus hurt the planet--so we started using organic cotton and looking for natural fibers for fabrics that would support communities instead of destroy them. But recently I realized we're not moving fast enough: we have to start sprinting, and actually lead the fashion industry to make these changes now.

The water crisis and polluting practices in the fashion industry alone have made this shift mandatory. When cotton prices went way up a few years ago, H&M lost 30 percent of its profitability. It takes approximately 700 gallons of water to make one T-shirt. This can't last. A few employees attended a presentation about the water crisis several years ago which prompted internal questions, "What does that mean for us as a company? What can we do about it?" In 2009, we started using Blue Sign Technologies, a Swiss company that audits the textile process from raw material to finished product to measure its impact on the environment. Not all of our clothes are Blue Sign approved, but our goal is that 50 percent of our products will be sustainable by the year 2015 and all of them by 2020.

We also hired Shona Quinn as our Director of Sustainability five years ago. Her job is to oversee the impact our clothes have on the environment and think about ways to alleviate that. We do offsite conferences several times a year to dive deep on these issues. One year, someone said, "We have to do something about all those plastic hangers!" Since then, we have cut back on our hangers by 80 percent. We still use plastic bags, so we have a far way to go. But one employee making a suggestion can cause a huge shift.

Everyone can make a difference. Everyone has to lead at different times. There are so many large and small things that we can all do. I really think it is so much about individuals. And it is amazing how one person can have a real influence.

That’s why I believe sustainability is also tied to the people who work at Eileen Fisher. I’ve recently gotten involved with The Gross National Happy Project, which is about examining what matters most to people. We recently did a workshop at my home office with 20 people from all throughout the company. The workshop focused on finding one's purpose. Now, we're creating a learning lab where employees can come and work on their own purpose. The goal is to light up every employee around issues they care about, whether they work in one of our retail stores or in marketing.

I'm also asking, "What are we really trying to do as a company?" Is our goal to make lots of profit? Or to create well-being and happiness around the work we do? We held a meeting lately to talk about this issue. Everyone broke up into smaller groups to discuss possible answers: One was, be a leader in sustainability, another was to lead the fashion business in good growth, and another was be a model business in the future around these issues.

My 30-year plan is to do all of those things. I see us as a powerful force for change in the world. We have 1,000 employees today. I have no idea how many we will have in 30 years, but I think 1,000 people can do a whole lot.




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