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Designing Women, Part Two
Mothers of the Earth unite!

by DK Holland

Amy Hall, who has been with Eileen Fisher for twenty years, is now its Director of Social Consciousness. While 800 of the 1,000 EF employees are women, they were not hired for their gender. “But then a lot of men are not drawn to work in a women’s clothing company either,” Amy adds. And the Eileen Fisher model is unusual in the clothing business. Amy says, “Our environment is relaxed, collaborative, less hierarchical. It takes years to shed old ways of being even for the women who work here. Our senior leaders call themselves facilitators, not decision-makers. Everyone is encouraged to speak up about what is on their minds, including those working in our retail stores. We hold many off-sites to encourage this kind of cross-pollination. Since our goal is to build consensus, everyone arrives at the right decision together. Of course, Eileen made the space for this process to emerge.” Amy continues, “We don’t speak about our way as being ‘feminine’ or ‘female.’ That’s just not the way we think. In fact, some of the key consultants who have helped shape the culture, as well as some senior leaders, have been men.”

In most businesses, corporate social responsibility functions are not central to the company: the CSR work is off to the side. But at EF social responsibility is core to its mission. Amy’s small team is integrated into the company and connects to everyone. She sees her team as a catalyst for change from “within, not without.” As a manufacturer (with 2012 sales of $360 million) Eileen Fisher has concerns about workers, materials, practices and facilities and has a keen awareness of the impact and influence that the company has in all these facets.

The Social Consciousness team’s role includes oversight of EF’s internal groups, including marketing and advertising. Amy says, “We try to encourage them to see through our ‘socially conscious lens.’ We might feed them some good ideas, but we won’t lead them or tell them what to do. Instead we might gently provide information and inspiration. We ask lots of questions to encourage them to think. For instance, say we’ve found a cooperative in India that makes hand-loomed weavings. We may show that to our fabric department. Or we may know that a department is using a dye that comes from the alpaca and we’ll ask ‘What do we know about that?’ And encourage them to think through that decision. This may or may not go anywhere. But if action isn’t taken, maybe we’ll come back later and try again in a different way. We are not the police. We’re catalysts.” Amy’s team also oversees vendors’ practices in both the United States and overseas, in particular, China. She says, “Our team also manages the social and environ-mental compliance aspects of the factories we contract with. We observe how workers are treated. Are they happy and open? We follow our intuition. If we hear an accusation, we work to verify or refute it. We may hold up produc-tion. When we come back with what we’ve found out we work out a way to go forward. We have never left a factory because of a negative situation. We’ve always been able to help them improve their practices. We build relation-ships of mutual respect.”

Recently Eileen Fisher started a program for recycling its gently used clothes. “They are so well-made and timeless they shouldn’t just hang in a closet not worn,” Amy says. “Our customer gets five dollars for each piece she brings in. We repair, clean and resell each garment at a reduced price and all the proceeds go to fund programs for women and girls. Since we know not all women can afford our clothes, this program makes them more affordable.” Even though Eileen Fisher is a small company, it aspires to make a big impact, including through its Leadership Institute for girls, which hosts girls from different communities and backgrounds. Changing the world, one girl at a time. The goddess Kali smiles.

Women are not well represented in the creative professions. This means even though women are “the consumers of the world,” women are not represented in leadership, are not helping to shape advertising’s messages. So says Ignacio Oreamuno, the executive director of the Art Directors Club of New York, who thinks the oldest advertising club in the world (founded in 1920) should help remedy this by representing men and women equally in its ranks. He has started a daring initiative called Let’s Make the Industry 50/50, inviting all creative organizations to make their clubs or organizations around the world equal. If they commit to 50/50 for a speaker line-up for an event, a jury for an awards show or their board, they may add the 50/50 badge to their promotion for that event or term. So far several organizations have signed on, notably the Clios, The 3% Conference, The Advertising Club of New York and the 4A’s.

Ignacio says, “All my juries from now on will be 50/50. My board is not yet.” But he’s working on it. He explains, “When we involve more women in power, good things will come. This is not about civil rights. It’s my simple observation: women bring great value into this male-dominated industry—knowledge, experience, insight. Let’s face it, the leading agencies are run by guys, yet go one step down and there are accomplished female creative directors. We need to put them in the spotlight. Then maybe we’ll have more women leading agencies. Right now the message we are projecting to women is, ‘You will never make it to the top.’ That has to change.”

While it wasn’t till 1942 that ADC admitted its first woman member, the ADC staff is now over 50 percent female, including leadership. Ignacio says, “It’s one of the reasons we’re doing so good right now.” Jen Larkin Kuzler, director of awards, knows it’s not easy to uncover the leading female creatives to get them involved. She says, “They are somewhat hidden. And it’s even harder to get them to say yes when you find them.” But Jen is motivated, saying, “By including inspired, talented women in the dialog, we’ll change the conversation, therefore the industry and therefore, our future.” Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.