Q&A with Marci Zaroff, Founder, Under the Canopy
Marci Zaroff is passionate about ECOfashion, a term she coined for apparel and home fabrics made in a socially responsible way — from organically grown cotton, with the least carbon footprint possible. She is the first to admit that ECOfashion can get a bad rep for being “crunchy, beige, and boring,” but she proves with her apparel and bedding company Under the Canopy, that this just does not have to be the case. We asked Marci about what it means to produce ECOfashion — and her recent invitation to the White House to educate eco-curious politicians about her cause.
How did Under the Canopy get started, and what sparked the idea?
I have been an artist and fashion lover from the time I was very young, worked in clothing stores, modeled a bit, and was awarded best-dressed in high school. On a separate front, with my passion for personal and planetary wellness, I was consistently studying health and environmental modalities, and co-founded a health educational center in 1990, now known as “The Institute for Integrative Nutrition.” Early on, I learned that cotton was a leading cause of air and water pollution, so there was a missing link in the wellness equation, and that fiber needed to be addressed.
My heart and brain lit up with a life-changing epiphany, and in 1995, I coined and trademarked the term “ECOfashion” to fuse ecology and wellness with modern fashion. I founded Under the Canopy as a pioneering lifestyle brand — to give people a way to buy stylish apparel and home textiles, while making a difference to human health, the environment, farmer/worker welfare, and future generations.
“ECOfashion” represented the intersection of all of my interests: It is inspired by the reflection and interconnection of man and nature, it is generated “Under the Canopy” of the world’s rainforests, and with the premise that we “all live under the canopy of the planet’s ecosystem together.” My mantra became to break the stigmas that sustainable fashion was “crunchy, frumpy, boxy, beige, boring, and overpriced.” Under the Canopy and ECOfashion would offer NO compromise on innovative design, color, comfort, quality, price, and authenticity, and would inherently include both value and values.
Speaking of values, today we all try to eat organic, clean foods, and use clean products on the outside on our skin as well. Why is eco fashion and bedding just as important?
What most people don’t know is that although cotton represents less than 3% of the world’s agriculture, conventionally grown cotton uses up to 20% of the most harmful insecticides and 10% of the most toxic pesticides in agriculture. The cotton in just one bed sheet can contain up to 2 pounds of pesticides — plus an array of harmful chemicals, including formaldehyde, chlorine bleaches, acetone, and heavy metals.
Can you explain what exactly organic cotton is, and what makes it organic?
Certified organic cotton is grown for at least three years without GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and the use of any harmful chemicals, such as pesticides and insecticides. Like organic food crops, an organic farming methodology includes crop rotation and other practices that build soil depth and richness. While most people rarely think about soil quality, our food and clothing choices dictate its future. In organic agriculture, food and fiber crops are interconnected in many ways. Roughly 60% of a cotton plant actually goes back into the food stream in the form of seed and oil, and cottonseed grown from conventional cotton is rampant with chemicals and pesticides.
Organic cotton is much better for farmer welfare. Farmers can sustain their livelihoods, unlike with conventional cotton farming, where they get stuck on the “pesticide treadmill” and can barely afford to put food on their tables.
Further, because the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) also includes the complete manufacturing, dyeing, and finishing processes, as well as social accountability, GOTS certified “organic” cotton apparel and home fashion means that — from farm to finished product — there has been minimal impact on the environment and ultimately, to human health. The products are fully traceable and are free of toxic chemicals such as formaldehyde, heavy metals, and chlorine bleaches, using only fiber-reactive low-impact dyes with less than a 5% runoff. Organic fashion is more responsible, more socially conscious, and an important part of the solution towards a more sustainable future.
Where are all your apparel and home products produced? What does it mean to produce ethical fashion goods?
At this time, Under the Canopy produces its apparel in Turkey, the USA, and India. We shy away from China, as the majority of ethical fashion claims from China still cannot be trusted. Our home and hospitality products are made in India, Bahrain, and Turkey. All of our factories are GOTS and Oeko-Tex Certified, and some are Fair Trade Certified as well.
To produce ethically means that human and planetary wellness are at the forefront of all of our sourcing and manufacturing decisions. Our commitment to authenticity and transparency are paramount, and we review all certifications each season. At every opportunity, we address minimizing impacts in the supply chain — waste, water, chemicals, energy, and social justice.
As a board member of the Organic Trade Association, you recently went to the White House to talk about organic fiber and policies. What was that like?
It is incredibly exciting to be a part of the political system, and to witness such an overwhelming receptivity to the organic movement. Because the organic industry has experienced double-digit growth for over 20 consecutive years, and has been a key job creator in the U.S., with organic farming being the fastest growing sector in agriculture, Republicans and Democrats alike are fans of organic.
Add to that the fact that 84% of American consumers are now buying organic food at least occasionally, with an industry now nearing $40 billion in sales, and it is evident that the organic industry represents a bipartisan platform that has universal appeal economically, environmentally, and socially.
Although organic fiber is still, relatively speaking, at its infancy as an industry, the meeting at the White House with the Senior Policy Advisor for White House Domestic Policy, Rural Affairs was invigorating. The USA organic fiber sector is growing rapidly — reaching a billion in sales — a record for the sector. While educating members of the USDA, Congress, and the White House about organic fiber, I felt proud and empowered that we are the next frontier, and will be well supported as an important part of the organic products industry.
Do you think this issue is getting the attention that is deserved here in the U.S.?
I think we have a long way to go, but are moving in the right direction. As Lao Tzu once said, “The journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.” As supportive as the government seems to be, I do believe that business is a more powerful vehicle for progress. Fortunately, there is a convergence now of consumer demand for social and environmental accountability — driven by the digitally-savvy millennial generation — and businesses with affinities for ethical, sustainable, socially innovative, and collaborative commitments and strategies. This is creating a tipping point, that sustainability — in fashion and beyond — is no longer about staying ahead, but instead, about not being left behind.
How can we, as readers and consumers, make a difference?
Consumers have the power to vote with their dollars, so a vote for organic and ethical fashion is a vote for change. Because there are still greenwashing efforts in the fashion world — those trying to jump on the ECOfashion bandwagon without necessarily understanding that it’s not about a marketing proposition, but instead, a desire for no compromise, it is important to know what brands you are supporting and buying. Look for third party certification on any and all organic fiber claims. Like the USDA NOP seal is to food, GOTS is the platinum seal for a certified organic textile. Support major retailers who are launching organic home products such as Bed Bath & Beyond, and Whole Foods Market, and shop on beautifully curated ECOfashion websites — such as Shop Ethica, Modavanti, Master & Muse, Zady, Rodale's, Helpsy, and Reve en Vert. Also, ask your favorite retailers if they carry any organic or sustainable fashion, and if not, make them aware of this growing and important movement. Join the global Fashion Revolution and ask, “Who made my clothes?”
Any final words, or advice for readers?
Remember, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. Don’t throw out your current wardrobe, but instead, the next time you make a fashion or home textile purchase, think about how you might purchase differently — and like Gandhi, “Be the CHANGE you wish to see in THE WORLD.”
Marci Zaroff is an internationally recognized ECOlifestyle entrepreneur, educator, innovator and expert. Founder of Under the Canopy, Producer of “THREAD|Driving Fashion Forward,” and Co-Founder of The Institute for Integrative Nutrition and I AM Enlightened Creations, Marci has been instrumental in driving authenticity, environmental leadership, and social justice worldwide for over 25 years. Board Member of the Organic Trade Association, Textile Exchange, Fashion Revolution Day, Fashion Positive, and Teens Turning Green, Zaroff was a key figure in the development of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and first Fair Trade Textile Certification. Marci has received countless recognitions — including New York Moves “Power Women Award," Fashion Group International's "Rising Star Award," and the Natural Product Industry’s “Socially Responsible Business Award.” Marci is featured in the book “ECO AMAZONS: 20 Women Who Are Transforming the World,” and is a Henry Crown Fellow of The Aspen Institute.