Corporate Member Spotlight: How Eileen Fisher Engages its Vendors for Social Compliance

Interview with SAI Advisory Board member Amy Hall, Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher

November 2010

Amy Hall is the Director of Social Consciousness at Eileen Fisher, a women's clothing retailer based in the United States.  Eileen Fisher is a founding SAI Corporate Program member at the Signatory Level, and Ms. Hall is a member of SAI's Advisory Board. Eileen Fisher is the first company to roll out SAI's Social Fingerprint program with 6 factories in China, which will be reported in the December 2010 newsletter.

Ms. Hall spoke with us to explain more about Eileen Fisher's Social Consciousness department, discussing its best practices to engage vendors.

First, why "social consciousness" and not "corporate social responsibility?"
 
We call it 'social consciousness' because we believe that it's not just about our responsibility, but about raising awareness around all the people that we interact with- our customers, vendors, business partners- it's not only about what we are doing in our individual roles. When I think of social consciousness, it's not just about what the company can do, but what we can do all together. It begins with each individual's sense of inspiration, and where each person fits into the bigger picture.

From your experience, what are some of Eileen Fisher's best practices for corporate social consciousness? How do you engage your vendors?

A key aspect of how we engage with vendors is that we involve organizations or NGOs that can support our work because our expertise is limited. This is part  of our strategy, and why SAI is one of the major partners that we work with.

Also, we engage other teams such as manufacturing, sourcing, and design to embrace them in this process so that we all come from the same angle and have similar ultimate goals within each of our areas of work. Earlier this morning, our department talked about the effects of air and sea shipments, and what we can do as a team to continue the discussion with the design and manufacturing team. For example, if last minute changes are made by the design team-- such as the shape of a collar-- we need to understand the ripple effects on the hours of labor, mode of shipping, and wages paid. We raise this awareness throughout the company in order for everyone to play a role in contributing to the bigger picture.

Can you elaborate more on how Eileen Fisher supports its vendors, especially with your commitment to the practices outlined in the SA8000 certification?

Our level of interaction reflects our commitment to a given factory and the amount of volume they produce for us. Even now, after doing this over 12 years, many of these concepts are still challenging because of the government and political systems that they operate in and the culture. We have to support and partner with them, and not make it about policing and punishing.

Additionally, we don't believe that you can just hang up rules on wall and walk away. One of the approaches that Eileen Fisher does is to start where the vendor is- you can't assume that they know any more than they do, you have to start at their capacity level. So part of that is achieved through training with organizations like SAI, and seeing an avenue for their needs. We try from our end to look out for opportunities to push for influence.

How do you select factories to source from and work with?

We have a checklist that our manufacturing department uses when selecting a factory, and we also issue a self assessment. Now that we are using SAI's Social Fingerprint™, we may use this instead of the checklist and self assessment because it covers the same purpose. This enables us to get a snapshot of factories to see where they currently are at this moment in time. We don't rank or grade factories, but rather see how far along they are in alignment with SA8000 values.

In your opinion, what is the potential impact of the vendor development program in China, especially as you will be the first company to utilize SAI's new Social Fingerprint program?

What I like about it is that it takes a holistic approach. In the past, we would have gone in for a workshop, and returned in 6 months for the second visit. This year, Eileen Fisher said that she sees "business as a movement," where it's not just about making clothes and getting orders out on time, but thinking holistically as to how to achieve this sustainably. I think this program lays the foundation, where we can use more tools and information to think about what everyone's place is when visualizing corporate social responsibility. With this program there is the vendor assessment and evaluation, and then they'll receive feedback on how they can take action right away to improve if needed. There's a lot of follow up with what we can support them with, while still giving the time to make changes.

For more information, contact SAI Communications & Development Coordinator, Joleen Ong, JOng@sa-intl.org.