Green is the New Black

What do a clothing retailer and a premium chocolatier have in common? A lot more than I thought!

On the Oregon MBA’s recent experiential learning trip to Seattle, I got to see two very different businesses both using environmental responsibility to grow their bottom line—Green Eileen through post-consumer product responsibility and Theo Chocolate through supply chain management.

For the first visit, we headed south to Seattle’s Columbia City neighborhood looking for the west coast retail outlet of Green Eileen–Eileen Fisher’s “recycled clothing initiative.” The Green Eileen arm collects, processes, and sells already worn Eileen Fisher clothing in excellent condition—called “seconds” by Green Eileen. I was expecting the store to feel and look like a second hand store, but it has a boutique, spa-chic feeling and features a revolving dry cleaning rack that adds an industrial design element to their inventory display.

Green Eileen TourWe met with Megan Arnaud, Retail Leader in Seattle, who shared her impressive depth of knowledge about the overall corporate responsibility mission of Eileen Fisher. She acknowledged, “We are a teeny tiny tip of an incredibly big iceberg,” within the overall clothing industry, but “we feel a responsibility for the whole lifecycle” of their products. Eileen Fisher is not only committed to environmental responsibility, but are also using their “seconds” to open a new sales market. The Green Eileen model serves as a new, more effective, way to reach a younger market segment—a demographic Eileen Fisher would like to reach, but currently doesn’t have in its traditional customer base.

Over in the Green Eileen recycling center in a very cool old warehouse in the SODO area of Seattle, we met Patty Liu, Recycling Program Leader at Green Eileen. It was impossible not to get excited as she drove home the possibilities inherent in thinking nimbly about dealing with Eileen Fisher “seconds.”  Through the Green Eileen store, pop-up sales at the recycling center warehouse, and planned expansions to factory stores and internet sales, Green Eileen is reaching previously untapped demand for high quality, sustainable fashion from a younger market segment. By embracing the challenge to internalize responsibility for the entire lifecycle of their products, they have started to create a new market for both their product and their mission. Patty shared, “You really have to invest and believe in what you’re doing to drive other people to see value.”

Theo Chocolate TourLater in the afternoon, across town in the Fremont neighborhood, we piled out of the van into the Theo Chocolate Factory and outfitted ourselves with hairnets and beardnets to begin a tour inside the closest thing any of us will ever come to Willy Wonka’s factory. Our tour guide was knowledgeable, funny, and generous with the chocolate samples as we learned Theo’s history and current supply chain processes and commitments. Feeling worlds away from the retail fashion world, I nonetheless started hearing a very similar story from what we had heard in the morning—taking environmental and social responsibility for your product can help you reach whole new market segments and grow your bottom line. While Green Eileen is focused on Eileen Fisher’s post-consumer product responsibility, at Theo, their focus is on supply chain responsibility.

Theo uses both direct interaction and third party certification to ensure social and environmental responsibility at every single step of its supply chain. Of their suppliers, our tour guide explained, “People want to work with us because there’s the immediate benefit of people making more money,” due to the higher price premium fair trade and organic ingredients command. On the customer side, Theo enjoys a price premium compared to conventional chocolate bars, but tries to keep the price point at a level that is accessible for people to treat themselves.

MBA Seattle trip 2016The biggest take away from the day (besides the six pounds of chocolate samples I ate throughout the tour) was a reinforced appreciation for social and environmental sustainability as a powerful business tool to drive both mission-related impacts AND a company’s bottom line. Despite the competitive advantage both companies enjoy from their practices, it was energizing to hear both companies’ desires to share the lessons and tools they’ve found along the way with others in their industries. In Patti’s words, “Do I hope other companies will see what we’re doing and try to do it, too?  Well, yeah!!”

 

 

Written by Kate Hammarback

Kate is a 2017 MBA/MPA from the Center for Sustainable Business Practices. Originally from Wisconsin, Kate graduated with honors from the University of Wisconsin with a political science degree and spent time working in state and national politics before pivoting to nonprofit resource and program development. Kate is an active member of LiveMove and Net Impact and is happiest when working at the intersection of policy, planning, and business development through social and sustainable enterprise. After graduation, she plans to work where she can use finance and sustainability strategy to impact the triple bottom line.