(This is the first installment in Planet Experts’ series on trailblazing women in the environmental movement.)
You can’t talk about ECOfashion® without talking about Marci Zaroff – quite literally, as Ms. Zaroff coined and trademarked the term in 1995, which describes the convergence of style and sustainability that has defined her trailblazing career.
The founder and President of Under the Canopy, a leading lifestyle brand, Zaroff has also founded or co-founded nearly half a dozen businesses in the health and wellness industry.
She has spearheaded organic fiber initiatives across some of the nation’s leading retailers, including Whole Foods, AVEDA, Target, Macy’s, and Bed, Bath & Beyond; sits on the Board of Directors of the Organic Trade Association and the Textile Exchange; helped develop the first Fair Trade textile standard for Fair Trade USA; and has appeared in major TV and print media, including on CNN, “The View,” “Good Morning America,” and “The Discovery Channel,” and within the pages of The New York Times, Newsweek, ELLE and Vanity Fair.
There’s a whole lot more on her CV, and frankly it would be easier to list the sustainable textile initiatives Zaroff hasn’t been a part of than those she has.
“I’m kind of on a mission to change the world, right?” she told me just before catching a flight to Istanbul to give a keynote address at Sustainable Brands International. And then she laughed. “I guess you’ve gotta travel around the world to do that.”
When Ms. Zaroff agreed to speak to Planet Experts, one of the first things I asked was for her definition of “ECOpreneur,” a term she uses to describe her creative and business vision.
“I have a business degree,” she said (Ms. Zaroff graduated from the Haas Business School at the University of California, Berkeley in 1989), “and good business for me is built not just on profitability, which, historically, is the way businesses are defined, but instead built on five Ps, which are: People, Planet, Profit, Passion and Purpose. A serial ECOpreneur like myself is someone who leverages the power of business to change the world, and somebody – because I see myself as a creator – who loves to manifest their visions and bring them to fruition.”
A serial ECOpreneur, she added, starts businesses that are dedicated to positive transformation and moves on to found new ones that build upon and strengthen the sustainable work that has come before them.
The Continual Evolution of ECOfashion
In some ways, ECOfashion has reached a tipping point. Incidents such as the collapse of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza factory, the Foxconn suicides and India’s conventional cotton suicides, have made it increasingly difficult for companies to play dumb when it comes to the methods of their production. Consumers worldwide are now conscious of the misery that often underlies their everyday choices and conveniences. According to Zaroff, the youngest independent consumers in America are now much more tuned-in to the life cycles, and contents, of their products.
“It’s a new day,” said Zaroff. “The challenges that once existed in ECOfashion are no longer there, so the opportunities and the voice of the movement have gotten louder and stronger – and part of that has been propelled by the millennial generation.”
This is the generation, continued Zaroff, that has grown up with local Whole Foods markets, understands the distinction between natural and processed foods, and takes yoga classes at the gym. “It’s a generation that has been surrounded by political, economic and environmental degradation and collapse,” she said, “so there’s a lot of disillusionment. That generation is seeking value and values, it’s seeking positivity; it’s seeking meaning. And for that, when you say ECOfashion, it’s not, ‘What’s that?’ It’s, ‘Of course!’
“It’s a whole different level of receptivity, and that generation is now entering the consumer marketplace in a big way with major buying power,” she said. “It’s the first digital generation that can pull the curtain back and actually ask the questions, ‘Who made my clothes?’ ‘How are they being made?’ ‘What’s in them?’ ‘Where are they being made?’ ECOfashion lends itself to answering those questions, as the movement is grounded in responsibility and integrity.”
Seeing Things Invisible
A fan of the 18th century novel Gulliver’s Travels, Zaroff named the health and environmental education center she co-founded after the book (“Gulliver’s Living and Learning Center”) and christened its organic cafe with one of its iconic locales (“Lilliput”). “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible,” said Zaroff, quoting the book’s author, Jonathan Swift. To Zaroff, the phrase concisely describes her work as a visionary ECOpreneur. Yet it could also refer to the entire goal of sustainable fashion: To reveal the alternative to mass-produced, chemically-ridden apparel, home and hospitality textiles.
According to Zaroff, cotton that is not grown organically is one of the leading causes of air and water pollution today. The crop represents less than three percent of the world’s agriculture yet uses 16 percent of its pesticides and herbicides.
Zaroff refers to the cotton problem as the “missing link” in the wellness equation that she discovered after years of studying farming and textiles. “We believe conventional cotton is a natural fiber, when in actuality, it is one of the most heavily sprayed industries in agriculture, and that doesn’t even include what’s added during the processing,” she said, “which is even worse. You’ve got chlorine bleaches, formaldehyde, heavy metals, acetone and other toxic chemicals added during the dyeing and finishing of cotton textile products.” In China, for example, “you can actually tell what colors local textiles are being dyed by the colors of the rivers near the factories.”
The environmental impact, said Zaroff, is astronomical. “The more I learned, the more I realized that business as usual in the fashion and textile industries could no longer go on, and that we had to connect the dots to shift the paradigm. That’s when I coined the term ‘ECOfashion,’ to translate everything I learned and knew from the food and beauty worlds into the fashion and textile worlds.”
Zaroff noted that the danger of treating cotton with pesticides and carcinogens becomes obvious when one realizes that the skin is not only the largest organ in the human body, it is also highly permeable. If you’re not using organic cotton, said Zaroff, more likely than not your skin is in contact with conventional cotton 24 hours a day. “Between your bedsheets and your towels and your robe and the clothing you’re wearing all day,” she added, “the magnitude and multitude of chemicals in conventional cotton is crazy.”
That’s why Zaroff’s Under the Canopy brand uses only certified organic cotton that is grown completely free of pesticides, GMOs and toxic chemicals. Zaroff was instrumental in the development of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS), which is the textile industry’s equivalent to the organic food seal found on organic food products.
The GOTS seal is a visible symbol of transparency throughout the life cycle of an organic cotton textile product. “From the farm all the way to the finished product, whether it’s fashion or home textiles, everything in every step of the supply chain – including social justice and fair labor – is fully traceable,” explained Zaroff. “The end product is much better for human health, farmer and worker welfare, the environment, and future generations.”
But Is It Affordable? Is It Fashionable?
Two stigmas that continue to challenge certified organic textiles are the aesthetic and financial factors. Often, Zaroff hears the complaint that surely ECOfashion has to give up style, quality and comfort to be sustainable. Nothing could be further from the truth, she says. “We always lead with great design.” The second stigma, that you have to pay more for an environmentally sound product, is really only true when the supply chain is inefficient.
“There are always going to be certain premiums on the raw materials and/or labor costs,” said Zaroff, “but if you can amortize them over the cost of a production run and create greater verticality and efficiencies, you can be price competitive on the end product.”
In a conventional supply chain, a “fast fashion” garment can change hands up to 10 times and still be sold cheaply. Under the Canopy has managed to be price competitive by starting at the source and cutting out most of the middlemen, ultimately adding value to the finished products.
Once retailers offer affordable, authentic and accessible organic and sustainable clothing and home goods, said Zaroff, the reasons to buy conventional cotton apparel and bedding become less relevant.
Her Advice to Women: Don’t Have Two Sets of Values
Marci Zaroff has been named one of the 20 “Eco Amazons: Who are Transforming the World,” and with good reason. She’s already inspiring the next generation of female environmentalists and entrepreneurs. But she urges the women following in her footsteps to avoid holding two sets of values.
Zaroff’s mantra is, “Follow your heart and live your truth,” and that has meant unifying her personal and career goals into one whole. “Don’t have professional standards and then a separate set of personal values,” she said. “That disconnect is going to create an imbalance in your life, so fuse them together and have one aligned way of being that resonates on every level, so you can create whatever reality you want. Live a life based on authenticity and transparency.”
Women already have a major advantage over men in terms of sustainable purchasing power. “Women represent somewhere in the 85-90 percent of purchasing influences,” said Zaroff, “and that’s typically because they’re the ones buying for their households.”
Zaroff also considers women to have a more “natural inclination” towards nurturing, compassion and thinking responsibly. “And frankly, that’s because we’re wired to give birth,” she said. “Intuitively, we’re healers, we’re mothers, and so is our Mother Earth. So there is a connection that we have that is deeply embedded in our divine feminine spirit.”
Marci will be sharing her iconic thought leadership further in her new book, “ECOrenaissance: Co-Creating a Stylish, Sexy & Sustainable World,” which will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. Zaroff’s optimistic vision for the future is “built on the pillars of creativity, community, consciousness, connection and collaboration.” She sees this rebirth of popular culture as collective action, which will drive a cleaner, greener planet and a happier, healthier humanity.
Planet Experts’ Trailblazing Women Series: