Under the Canopy with Marci Zaroff: Meet the Woman Who Coined the Term ‘EcoFashion’

Under the Canopy: Meet the Woman Who Invented the Term "EcoFashion"

Under the Canopy: Meet the Woman Who Invented the Term "EcoFashion"

Ever thought about the origins of the term “EcoFashion”? Here’s your daily dose of eco-trivia: It was first coined and trademarked in 1995 by Marci Zaroff, founder of the sustainable lifestyle brand Under the Canopy.

Zaroff is more than just a name behind a name. After speaking with her about her work, I learn that she’s a one-woman machine: One who is responsible for bringing the first sustainable fashion products to Target, Macy’s, Aveda and Whole Foods Market (in fact, she wrote the business plan for Whole Foods to get into textiles).

What she’ll tell you, though, is that no one can do it alone. That’s her mission and mantra: To converge the worlds of fashion and sustainability under the same, well, canopy, Zaroff says, “of the planet’s ecosystem.”

EcoSalon: Tell me a little bit about how you got into EcoFashion. Is that something you were doing before ecofashion was really even a thing, or had a name or label?

Marci Zaroff: I actually coined and trademarked the term EcoFashion in 1995. If you would’ve Googled the term when I started, it was just “Marci Zaroff,” or “Under the Canopy” when I started it in 1996. Even today, if you type in ecofashion.com, it goes right to my website. There was no EcoFashion. The reason that I had a vision to create that movement was, I had spent almost a decade in the organic and natural food and beauty worlds. When I was in high school, I got Best Dressed; I always loved fashion. It was just one of my passions. After getting a business degree, I created a school in New York City that was one of the first places that people could go to learn about health and wellness. You could go to art school or law school, but where do you go to learn about healthier cooking? It was called Gulliver’s Living and Learning Center, and it would take people on a journey of self-discovery, of self-realization.

We opened the first Aveda concept salon in the school as the connector between food and beauty, and I saw there was a missing link in the wellness equation. I started to learn a lot of agriculture and the environment, and I had a “woah” moment when I saw that there was a very strong connection between food and fiber. Sixty percent of a cotton plant actually goes into the food stream. When I saw the magnitude and multitude of impacts in cotton, in terms of it being the most heavily-sprayed agricultural crop, it just blew my mind. I said, “What about organic cotton?”, because I knew so much about organic food and beauty products. I couldn’t find anything except crunchy, frumpy, boxy, beige, boring, hemp that, for me, as a fashion consumer, was nothing that I wanted to wear.

Then, I had an epiphany of, “How do I marry these two worlds?” The more research I did, the more disillusioned I was that it didn’t exist, but the more excited I was that it was a white space opportunity.

ES: Tell me a little bit more about your brand Under the Canopy.

MZ: It was founded as a lifestyle brand to break the stigmas that came with organic and sustainable fashion. Because I started it as a mail-order catalogue to go direct to the consumer, and to tell that story, because I knew I had to educate, there were three stigmas that I set as goals to break. That was my mantra.

The first was the stigma that you have to give up style, quality, fit, color or comfort – any of the things you actually want in an apparel or home fashion product – and prove that you can have everything you want, in terms of great product. Under the Canopy was dedicated to lead with great design and quality, from day one. We came out of the gate with women’s clothing, men, baby, home, accessories: A little bit of a lot of categories to reinforce the lifestyle, and that it wasn’t just an apparel brand.

The second stigma was price. There was an assumption – especially because the organic food movement was just starting, and there weren’t really economies of scale – that you were going to have to pay a lot more to get sustainable fashion. At that point in time in the fashion industry, most companies were going to a factory and saying, “This is my product,” and the factory would work backwards in the supply chain to get pricing. Every step of the way, there were brokers involved who were putting markups in the model. Because I wanted to start at the source of the product – I didn’t want to use conventional cotton, I wanted to use organic – I had to go directly to the farms, because I couldn’t go anywhere to buy organic cotton yarn or fabric. I had to create it from the ground-up. By building a model that was farm-to-finished-product, I was able to cut out a lot of the middle-men and inefficiencies in the supply chain, and drive the product up the supply chain so that I could actually create product that was priced competitively with conventional product. The whole thing was, “We’re all about adding value.” It’s not this OR that; it’s this AND that.

Stigma three was, how do you really know if it’s going to be organic and sustainable? I was one of the first people on the Organic Fiber Council of the Organic Trade Association, which governs all organic products in the United States. In the nineties, some of us wrote the first organic fiber standard for the U.S., which then became a global collaboration, and we created one global standard that, today, is recognized as the platinum standard for certified organic textile [the GOT standard, for Global Organic Textile Standard]. All of Under the Canopy’s products are GOT-certified…it’s been a pioneering brand to drive authenticity and transparency, and very hands-on, in terms of developing other standards and working with other standards so that the end consumer can have the confidence that the product is fully traceable.

ES: It’s interesting that you mention assumptions about having to pay a premium for sustainable fashion. You’ve put into practice that, yes, that is a myth. Do you think more people need to be educated about this?

MZ: A billion percent. I mean, my mission is to revolutionize the fashion industry through education, inspiration, collaboration and innovation. Those are the tools that are going to really drive this movement forward. This is the big tipping point year. This year, we’re seeing unbelievable engagement around this movement.

In the early years, people said, “You’re going to lose your trademark if you don’t protect it!” I liked that people were using the word “ecofashion,” because it started to define this movement. Now, if you Google that word, you’re going to get millions of references. To me, it’s here, and it’s here to stay, and it’s only going to get bigger.

ES: Are there any designers we should keep an eye on?

MZ: Stella [McCartney] and Vivienne [Westwood] get the most cache out there, because they’re doing the most, but there are a number of other designers – some of which are doing everything in a sustainable way. Amber Valetta has a website called Master & Muse, where she’s curated really beautiful, high-end EcoFashion from some of the best designers out there.

Another great company is Reformation; they deal with the zero-waste issue, as does [designer] Daniel Silverstein. Amour Vert is a great up-and-coming brand.

And this is the power of collaboration. Suzanne, [Lerner], the co-founder of Michael Stars, and I came together and made Under the Canopy their sustainable brand, so that we could be integrating and educating their whole company, as they’re supporting us with all of their expertise. It’s a real win-win.

There are a lot more of these websites popping up that are curating sustainable fashion: Shopethica, Modavanti, Zady, rêve en vert … even Rodale has launched a website that’s getting into EcoFashion.

Everyone takes so many spokes in the wheel of EcoFashion. Depending on what somebody resonates with – the waste issue, the water issue, organic cotton versus conventional, U.S.-made – there are so many different things that fall into the bucket.

ES: The word “green” gets such a bad rap in so many categories. Is greenwashing happening in fashion?

MZ: It definitely is. It’s probably the bane of my existence, which is when companies slap the word “green,” or even the word “organic” on products, and they don’t understand that this isn’t a marketing proposition. It’s a methodology substance, and it’s about being able to back up every claim. Those who don’t ultimately create a compromise for those who do, on many levels. The idea of “green,” for me, is about no compromise; the problem with that word, historically, is there was an assumption that if you throw the word “green” on it, people are going to buy it, regardless of whether it works. It has to lead with great design, it has to be good, quality product, it has to appeal to people’s senses as if it’s not sustainable; then, the green and sustainability has to be a value-add. The product has to be about no compromise. It does frustrate me to see companies misusing those words when, if you really pull the curtain back on what they’re doing, they’re just trying to get some extra credit where credit isn’t due.

ES: So, how do you feel about the future of EcoFashion?

MS: I would say that all of the stars are aligning now. All of the seeds that were planted over the past 20 years that I’ve been doing this are budding and growing. There’s this imminent harvest of EcoFashion that’s taken route now, and amazing efforts from the fashion, product, web and consumer engagement. Check out fashionrevolution.org; it was the consumer-driven movement all over the world that infiltrated 60 different countries this year, where consumers wore their clothes inside-out in honor of the Rana Plaza victims.

ES: And those tools you use to education people: Inspiration, collaboration and innovation…

MZ: I do a couple of things. I do public speaking all over the world, at trade and consumer conferences, all kinds of business events. I write for different media vehicles, and have done a lot of TV and press. I’m just out there, constantly trying to teach this content and am writing a book right now, that’s going to be published next year by Simon & Schuster, called “Eco-Renaissance,” that’s about co-creating a stylish, sexy and sustainable world. I also serve on a number of boards and am constantly connecting the dots on how I can take information from all of them – the Textile Exchange, the Organic Trade Association, Fashion Revolution, Fashion Positive – and move the topic to the frontline. I made a short film series called “Driving Fashion Forward,” with Amber Valetta narrating it, and I have a documentary in play; you can watch the trailer threaddocumentary.com.

ES: Oh, sure. Just “a couple of things.”

MZ: Never a dull moment! People ask, “Do you ever sleep?” It is my calling. My favorite quote, from the book “The Prophet,” is, “Work is love made visible.” If you love your work, it’s not work. You’re just doing it, right?

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Image: Marci Zaroff Official Website