On September 26, 2019, sustainable business leaders and academics from top regional universities gathered at the Eileen Fisher headquarters in Irvington, NY for the first TNFI X EF Academic Consortium. The event aimed to break down communication barriers and get experts talking in a closed-door environment across institutions to drive more collaboration in academia. “We want to help support a more holistically informed crop of new leaders and executives in fashion,” says The New Fashion Initiative founder Lauren Fay.
As it stands, information about fashion and sustainability is siloed, with academics in sustainability MBA programs, design schools, and environmental science departments rarely communicating. In the business world, sustainability leaders rarely speak to those in the university space. TNFI aims to change this paradigm through its Academic Consortium program. “We believe that cross-collaboration is key to changing the industry,” says Fay.
The day started with a train ride up the Hudson River to Irvington, home to the Eileen Fisher Renew factory and was followed with presentations and roundtable discussions. Cynthia Power, Eileen Fisher’s Director of Renew, the brand’s fast-growing secondhand and upcycled line, welcomed the guests. Amanda Lynch, the Director of the Institute for Environment and Society at Brown University, kicked off the morning by talking about her decades-long research into climate change and how the growing conversation about a climate emergency has changed her students’ mindset. “Climate scientists have had a sense of emergency since the 1980s,” said Lynch, “And we thought there would never be a feeling of emergency in the public.” Lynch also spoke about her work with indigenous people who are more comfortable letting incompatible ideas and doctrines about the environment persist side-by-side. Lynch said that tension and conflict over important subjects is important.
Kerin McCauley, from NYU’s Stern Center for Human Rights, spoke to the group about the center’s investigative approach to human and labor rights. The center, which was founded in the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster in 2013, uses research to see how businesses are either protecting or eroding their workers’ rights. They also aim to empower MBA students to understand the social impact of their business decisions. Natasja Sheriff, the Stern Center’s Senior Program Manager, discussed her prior experience investigating factory abuses in Malaysia and the center’s work to protect garment workers in Bangladesh.
Hunter Lovins, the author of Natural Capitalism and a professor at Bard’s Sustainability MBA program, explained that her interest in climate change intersected with the clothing industry only recently. “It had never occurred to me to be interested in the fashion industry until all of my students got into it,” she said. “And yet we all wear clothes.” Lovins talked about her optimism for solutions to climate change, including regenerative agriculture and carbon sequestration. “We are right at a tipping point at which the solutions are really possible,” said Lovins.
Parsons Associate Dean and zero-waste expert Timo Rissanen discussed in his presentation the challenges of creating a sustainable industry. He noted that the fashion industry is relying on outdated and inaccurate information about its impacts. “My frustration is that a lot of the information that has been around for ten or fifteen years,” he said. He also discussed his work with the Concerned Researchers in Fashion, a consortium of fashion academics working towards better data around climate change and fashion.
Meghan Fay Zahniser, from the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, shared about her organization’s role in campus life and curriculum. “What’s really interesting about sustainability is that it lives in different places on campuses. It could be in student affairs, it could be driven by student activists, or it could be a faculty member,” said Zahniser. She also talked about tailoring initiatives based on different campus cultures. “There are campuses where students can’t say climate change,” she explained, because of the political environment. “While other institutions require all students to take a course in sustainability.”
Next, the educators heard from members of the NY sustainable business community. Jessica Schreiber, founder of FABSCRAP, helps brands reuse and recycle pre-consumer textile waste. Schreiber said that her experience has given her an inside look on how companies talk about sustainability. “Not all brands are ready to talk about sustainability even though they are doing it internally,” said Schreiber. She also talked about how the data that FABSCRAP collects, including how many brands choose to reuse versus destroy clothing samples, helps incentivize brands. “Data is like a gateway drug where they want the information to push their company forward,” she said.
Abrima Erwiah, co-founder of Studio One Eighty Nine, rounded out the afternoon with a presentation about using fashion as an agent of social change. Studio One Eighty Nine works with artisans in sub-Saharan Africa, where Erwiah said the fashion industry could contribute $51 billion to the economy. “Fashion produces jobs across a range of skills,” she explained.
All attendees got a tour of the Eileen Fisher facilities, including the factory that processes the clothes from the company’s innovative take back program. Eileen Fisher is one of the first circular fashion companies in the US, as they reclaim thousands of pounds of the company’s own used garments for reuse, remaking, and recycling every year. One of their most innovative projects is Resewn, a collection of upcycled designs. They also are also launching a home goods line, including pillow cases and decorative baskets, crafted out of felted fabric from their textile waste. Eileen Fisher’s business model is one of the main inspirations for the workshop, says Fay. “We need to support design and business leaders whose goal is to create accountable and profitable companies that are also open to collaboration.”