With Limits there is Power: Introducing the Riverbanks

Posted by: admin on Thursday, December 11, 2014.

Julie Rubiner is EILEEN FISHER’s chief sweater designer, responsible for managing the process from sourcing and creating that gorgeous sweater you're wearing from yarn, to knit to garment. She shared the following piece of writing with the broader design team at EF several months ago and I found it so inspiring that I asked permission to post on this Blog and she wrote back with her ingratiating and natural humility, “I’d be honored.”


A few bits of context in advance of Julie's piece: Julie talks about the "Sustainability Offsite in the Catskill hills."  This took place a year ago in October where we gathered the “system in the room” of folks at EF responsible for making the product. Our goal was to have them articulate a shared vision – a stretch aspiration for EILEEN FISHER sustainability in 2020. To map the system it would take to get from here to there. To begin to create a strategy to make it happen. To inspire folks to go for it. Many wonderful surprises emerged from that gathering – a tale for a different Blog. One surprise to share here, since Julie refers to it in her writing, is the concept of the “Riverbanks.”


Riverbanks are a metaphor for sturdy banks of the river that prevent destructive floods. The notion evolved from Rabbi Nadya Gross who shares her Grandmother's wisdom: a powerful flowing river requires equally powerful banks to contain it. The Riverbanks include what we will and what we won’t do. For example, “Zero Toxins” is a Riverbank. A boundary beyond which we will not go. To further the metaphor, without those Riverbanks we have massive flooding, damage. We also have no current, no trajectory for the river to flow.  We’ll share more about the Riverbanks at Eileen Fisher in BLOGS to come. To show the value of this concept in sustainability practice, Darcy Winslow's experience at Nike is a great example of the power of setting audacious boundaries and goals and sticking to them. Back in 1999 Darcy, then head of footwear R&D challenged her designers with what then appeared to be outrageous goals. Zero to landfill, Zero Toxins, 100% recyclable, 100% closed loops. There was a revolt among the designers. Not possible! Followed immediately by focused, energized, effective action. And breakthrough results that helped turn Nike from a leading social conscious pariah to an awarding winning CSR leader year after year.


Meantime, here’s the story in sweater designer Julie Rubiner’s words:


“The whole concept of sustainability has been in the air for awhile - Let's use organic materials. Let's support fair trade and artisans. Let's use less chemicals. Viscose sucks - what can we do about it? All good really stuff.  We are in this mode already. We have made great progress. Converting core yarns to organic, getting closer to using better wool - a 2+ year project and is still ongoing.....testing Tencel versions of our icon line, the work has begun and will continue.....if you want details of what we are up w/regard to finding and using better materials - we are happy to share -- Susan Young, the sweater design team and folks from manufacturing are knee deep and can fill you in on all the stuff going on....


So going back to the 1st sustainability offsite - looking out over the Catskill hills, surrounded by immense natural beauty - I felt a switch. This is real.  We will be doing this. So what the sustainability Riverbanks gives us is the ethos.


The Riverbanks gives us the path. It's sets the plan in motion.  And there will be no backsliding. This is it. We're here. We've begun. We make exquisite clothes that solve woman's problems. It's a toxic business. We have to do our part to shift that.


When asked about sustainability projects and how they effect my work, I've been quoted many times saying "It gives a deeper purpose to designing clothes". I want to share a conversation I had with the Designers from Tory Birch - they ask, "How's the Sustainability stuff going?" I say....  " Hard, complicated, making progress, not easy, but well worth it.... etc..." They say "Keep it up and when you figure it all out - just tell us and we'll buy the right materials.”


We are going to be on the ground floor of transforming materials and how the industry makes clothes. Something I didn't see as part of my career path 18 + years ago. So yes, I will continue to say this work has a deeper purpose. It drives our creativity. It's the right thing to do.”


Raising my glass to people like Julie, who are embodying the audacious sustainability vision of creating a world where all life thrives and are making it happen, one strand of yarn at a time. 

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