Eileen Fisher and Rothy’s Dive into Designing for Circularity

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Eileen Fisher and Rothy’s have begun to unravel the complexities of circularity in their supply chains and consumer-facing efforts.

James Rogers, vice president of sustainability for Rothy’s, and Inka Apter, Eileen Fisher’s director of sustainability and integrity, spoke with Kate Nishimura, Sourcing Journal’s senior news and features editor during a panel titled “Circularity Begins with Design.” Rogers said the brand has focused on making its shoes recyclable from day one.

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For instance, he noted, the shoes have 3D-knit uppers made from recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. And while the company wanted the shoes to be greener than alternatives on the market, leaders also recognized they had to be functional.

“[We made] the decision to make them washable, so that affects the durability and longevity of the item and also affects your material choices,” Rogers said. “We’re also trying to constantly improve over time, so the 3D-knit design allows for significantly reduced waste in the construction material; it also allows for recyclability.”

Rothy’s began piloting an in-house collection and sortation program for recycling in 2023. Rogers said the program has helped the company better understand the types of materials it would need to use to create a more holistic recycling loop.

“We own our factory, and so the factory employees are Rothy’s employees. That changes the dynamic of design and conversation—our designers are having conversations with the factory all the time, so when they make a decision, they actually get pretty immediate feedback on the production consequences of that decision,” he said. “Now with recycling partners, we get added feedback… We’re kind of saying, ‘Well, what if we change this material? Would it actually add value to it and eventually get this to a point where you’re actually selling into our supplier, back into our supply chain?’ It allows us to optimize for that.”

By nature, footwear may accrue more wear and tear over time, making recycling a viable solution, especially because of the direct inclusion of plastics. But in apparel, some brands have shifted toward giving clothes longer lives.

Apter said at Eileen Fisher, the focus has been on durability, though the women’s brand has also dabbled in learning more about whether—and how—its products can be disassembled for recycling.

“The longer we can keep the garments in use, the better it is for the environment, and so that’s a big key aspect of what [our designers] are looking for,” Apter said. “Sustainability is so embedded in all our teams’ work, it’s something that is becoming a natural lens through which they select materials.”

Apter noted Eileen Fisher products use materials like regenerative organic cotton, organic linen, recycled synthetics and more—but also shared that her team often jokes that one of the brand’s most loved, most durable fabrics is also the hardest to recycle.

The West Elm partner launched its own branded resale program in 2009, around the same time that secondhand marketplaces like ThredUp and Vestiaire Collective began to pop up. And brands have only continued to prioritize the secondhand market as consumers grow fonder and fonder of it.

According to ThredUp’s 2024 Resale Report, secondhand is expected to make up 10 percent of the apparel market.

Though the two brands’ primary approaches toward circular design differ, both Rogers and Apter agreed that designing for durability and designing for recycling don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive. But because of the technology and available materials in today’s supply chains, it can often feel like a brand has to choose one or the other.

To move forward with circularity in design, Rogers and Apter contended, legislation like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) programs will be key in bringing brands along. But consumer education—and a mindset shift around how consumers consider apparel and footwear purchases could also be fundamental.

Though the industry continues to face issues with making circularity a reality, Apter said, all industry players can do is forge ahead.

“I’ve been with Eileen Fisher for 27 years, so I definitely can see the progress, and sometimes it seems like it’s slow,” she said. “Despite the setbacks, which are definitely challenging and heartbreaking, I do think there’s no turning back.”