As cool as it is to know a jacket was made with recycled plastic bottles – or even bio-textiles made from cow dung or kombucha – changing the raw materials is only one of the ways to reduce the environmental impact of apparel and footwear. Extending the life of clothing and recycling it are two essential pieces of the puzzle if a sustainable fashion industry is to be achieved.
Many brands and retailers are working to address all three of these – their items’ materials, lifespan and collection/recycling. For example, Levi Strauss & Co. and H&M have enhanced communication of care instructions, encouraging customers to extend the life of their clothing, while Patagonia has promoted buying less and celebrating what you already have, as well as hosted repair clinics. Levi’s, H&M, Patagonia, The North Face, American Eagle and many others offer in-store recycling collection programs. In turn, collected garments have been recycled into new products, either for their brand or by another company.
EILEEN FISHER, Inc. collects gently worn EILEEN FISHER brand clothing at all of its retail stores through its GREEN EILEEN program. Items that can be resold are sent to GREEN EILEEN stores, with profits donated to organizations that support women and girls nationally, internationally or in New York and Seattle (the states with the largest GREEN EILEEN locations and the brand’s two recycling centers). Items that cannot be resold are either donated to organizations or wait in storage to be turned into a new garment. Since its launch in 2009, GREEN EILEEN has taken in 500,000 garments, resold 200,000 and donated $2 million.
EILEEN FISHER – like many other brands – faces the challenge of finding scalable, commercially-viable ways to recycle garments which cannot be resold or are damaged. Rather than shred and weave them into new textiles, the company enlisted the help of top design school graduates. In partnership with the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), EILEEN FISHER created the Social Innovators Award, offering fashion design students the unique opportunity to work alongside the brand's designers, merchandisers and social consciousness teams. The Award sought designers committed to socially conscious design who could help move EILEEN FISHER's VISION2020 sustainability goals forward.
The inaugural winners, Teslin Doud, Carmen Gama and Lucy Jones, participated in a 12-month residency project to prototype ways to make new designs from the donated clothes. The experience culminated in the first scalable zero-waste collection, “Remade in the USA,” which offered 500 one-of-a-kind pieces created using iconic EILEEN FISHER patterns and techniques such as felting, natural dyeing and resewing. The items were sold in a pop up shop in Brooklyn over two weekends in July, but the company says the limited edition pieces are just the beginning.
“Along with their galvanizing enthusiasm, Teslin, Lucy and Carmen are leaving behind a new model for clothing production,” the company’s eponymous founder, Eileen Fisher said in a statement. “We’re one significant step closer to our vision for becoming a closed-loop company.”
With scalability in mind, Doud, Gama and Jones looked for garments with similar flaws. Sweaters with holes could be fed into a felting machine, which tangles fibers into a new dense material that can be cut and sewn. “The art is in how you feed the linen and wool sweaters into the machine,” Gama explains on the project website. “We overlap them to create a specific pattern of colors and textures.”
Minor stains could be camouflaged on silk tops by overdying them using natural ingredients such as eucalyptus leaves, saffron and madder root. Dipping garments in dye pots or scattering leaves and pigments on them, rolling them into bundles and steaming them to affix the colors created abstract patterns. “Our nickname for this project was ‘stains on stains,’” Doud said. “The great thing about an overdyed tunic is that if you spill on it you only add to its character.”
EILEEN FISHER clothes generally have minimal seaming, making them easy to deconstruct, but worn and torn parts of the fabric called for some creativity. “We started with EILEEN FISHER patterns and added seams in places that look good on the body,” Jones explained. “We also engineered the patterns so we could minimize waste by using as much of the recycled garment as possible.”
“Our goal was to find techniques that minimize waste and preserve the inherent value of Eileen Fisher’s materials,” Gama added. “They’re so beautiful they can easily have a second and maybe third life.”
By 2020, EILEEN FISHER expects to have collected a total of one million clothing items. While the company admits it may take longer than 5 years, it imagines a future where these items are reborn as new textiles or new clothes and where “waste is a thing of the past.” The company says it is working towards this goal by both designing clothes to last and taking them back for resale and recycling.
“My vision is for a closed-loop company that designs into sustainability from the very beginning all the way through to our recycling program—and now, our upcycling program,” Fisher said.
The Remade in the USA project has paved the way for that vision – the techniques use almost no new materials and extend the life of textiles, while creating new garments designed to last and stay in closets longer. And when customers are done with them, they can be fed straight back into the loop to be remade in the USA all over again.