Meet

MEET: Marci Zaroff, Eco-fashion pioneer

Marci Zaroff in Bali

Marci Zaroff came to hang out with us for a few days in July at Bambu Indah. She is someone you really need to meet- she knows everything there is to know about the organic textile industry and is an industry leader with her company Under the Canopy and her new cradle-to-cradle factory Metawear Organic.

Read on for a conversation between John and Marci while she was here.

Marci Zaroff with John Hardy

Sometimes, it’s really overwhelming to start making a change to live a more eco-friendly life. What’s the best way we can start? 

One of my favorite quotes is “the journey of a thousand miles begins with one step”. I think people can get overwhelmed going in this direction- the simplest first step is to think about the products that you are buying. Start with food and be mindful with what you put into your body, as food is energy; if you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it— read the label. Buy more organic. I am a huge organic advocate and I think the myth that you have to be wealthy to buy organic has been debunked by the fact that over 84% of American consumers are buying organic food at least occasionally; that’s because it has become more accessible through retailers like Costco, the biggest buyer in the United States of organic food. I think the excuse of organic food being too expensive and that you can’t find it anywhere has gone away.

For me, one of my missions is to revolutionize the fashion industry with organic and sustainable textiles.  We must break the stigma that organic and sustainable products are for the elite. If you want to make a change in the world outside of this beautiful paradise [Bali], we have to be able to scale things like organic agriculture.

What is the difference between organic and conventional cotton? 

The agricultural and ecosystem methodologies are completely different. Conventional cotton production, which uses monocropping, depletes and destroys the soil.  Organic production predominately uses rainwater for irrigation. It also is farmed using crop rotation — which builds nutrients thru diversity, and protects the soil and ecosystems. Organic cotton is only harvested once a year. When it is in its off-season, the farmers can plant grains or lentils. Further, in organic cotton farming, there are no harmful pesticides or insecticides being used, nor are there genetically modified seeds (GMO’s.)

There are also the social implications of conventional cotton.  Cotton farmers are lured in by the seed companies like Monsanto; most of them are illiterate and are told that they are going to increase their yield, that GMO cotton is better.  They basically get hooked on a “pesticide treadmill.” This is happening all over the world, especially in India, and even in the US; 95% of farmers in the United States are using genetically modified cotton, which uses Roundup containing glyphosate. Glyphosate is an ingredient that is now being tied to autism and cancer.

Roundup initially kills the pests, but what happens in countries like India (which produces 80% of the organic cotton in the world) is that you have farmers that are lured in so they start to use the GMO seeds and the pesticide that goes with the seeds.  They get stuck on the treadmill; the bugs build resistance to pesticides, and the pesticides get stronger, forcing the farmer to buy more expensive pesticides. Suddenly the banks that are partnered with seed companies show up and they help the farmer to get the more expensive pesticides by having the farmers leverage their farms. This system perpetuates to the point where you get super bugs and super weeds, and the farmers have leveraged most of their farms and their health deteriorates because they spray manually. Many women farmers spray with tanks on their back and babies in slings on their front.  It’s crazy and the community is struggling. Suicides are rampant due to this broken system of conventional cotton farming. GMO cotton is ultimately not sustainable because you are destroying soil and ecosystems, while degrading human health and livelihoods.

How much more expensive is it than conventional cotton?

At root of the cost of cotton agriculture itself, it is around 5-10% more expensive at the organic fiber level.

 

But if you know textiles, you know they change hands many times in a supply chain: from growing to ginning to spinning, to weaving, to knitting, to cutting and sewing, to finishing and dying – there are so many layers of production, that the cost of the fiber itself is only a small portion of the finished product.

 

Why is it so difficult to get organic cotton products?

My mantra is to break the stigma of organic fashion not being affordable by being vertically integrated and efficient in the supply chain. Under the Canopy sells organic cotton bedding and bath at Macy’s and Bed Bath & Beyond. When people buy apparel and home fashion, if given a choice and the price differential is very close, and they see the added value, they will pay a little bit more, but not double or triple. Being authentic, affordable and accessible has been key to Under the Canopy’s success.

In 2002, the global organic cotton textile industry was USD 245 million. Last year it broke 16 billion in global organic cotton textile sales.

 

Cotton is the fastest growing non-food category in the organic industry. Demand is growing, studies are showing, but people can’t readily find organic fashion and that’s why they are not buying it. Studies show that they would buy if they were given a choice, as long as they don’t have to compromise on style, design quality, fit, or comfort.

What else is happening in the market? 

It’s really interesting because the global market right now is shifting with the younger brands and younger companies; we are starting to see more demand driven by Millennials. It’s taken some time for the supply and demand to work in tandem, but now we are finally connecting all of the dots.  I just came from a major global sustainable fashion summit in Copenhagen. There were 1,250 people there – all talking about sustainable materials and manufacturing including organic cotton, recycled fibers, hemp, closing the loop, ethical production, zero waste.

What’s the deal with hemp? 

Hemp is a very environmentally friendly fiber, grown without water, naturally resistant to UVB and UVBAs; the stigma that has come with hemp is that hemp is a course fiber. You have to break it down to make it into a soft fiber and to make it less heavy; you either have to blend it with cotton, silk or Tencel to soften it, or you have to put a lot of chemicals in it to make it thinner and softer. 

And bamboo textiles? 

Bamboo has a different problem. To break the fiber down into a soft enough fiber, it goes through a heavy-duty chemical process, which leads to barely any trace of bamboo in the end product. When people market a bamboo textile, it is totally greenwashing. You’d be surprised, I do a lot of public speaking and I often ask the audience, “Who thinks that bamboo is a sustainable textile?” Still to this day, many, if not most, hands go up. While the major retailers like Macy’s and Amazon know that bamboo textiles involve a synthetic “rayon” process, the average consumer still thinks that bamboo fabrics and garments are sustainable.

Why do you choose cotton? 

My favorite fiber is organic cotton because it is breathable, it’s a solution to climate change (organic agriculture that is), and it produces a rotation crop that actually increases livelihoods for the farmers.

 

60% of a cotton plant goes into the food stream; the oil from the cottonseed and the seed itself go into food products. Cottonseed oil is in many bread products and baked goods and the seed goes into feed for dairy cows. People who eat organic dairy actually need to have organic cottonseed, so there’s a sister industry because the entire plant is used.

What have been your major achievements? 

I was on the team of people who developed a standard and seal that has been adopted by the US department of agriculture (USDA NOP) called the Global Organic Textiles Standard, which assures consumers that GOTS certified finished products are fully traceable from the farm all the way to the finished product, every step of the way — with a fully transparent supply chain.

Part of my mission has been to create products that are price competitive. A typical garment can change hands 5-10 times in its supply chain before it gets to the shelf. With all of that inefficiency and all of those mark ups along the way, many people are making money — often at the expense of the farmers and factory workers who are struggling to survive. So when I started Under the Canopy, I collaborated directly with farmers to help convert them from conventional cotton to organic. From its onset, I worked with a farm project in India called Chetna that today has about 15,000 farmers in a cooperative certified fair trade organic farm project. Under the Canopy oversaw our own supply chain from farm to fashion, so we had minimal mark-ups along the way. At the end of the day, we could bring our finished products to market at competitive prices to the conventional counterparts, while adding both value and values along the way. That’s why we were able to launch major organic textile initiatives with retailers like Target, because we have been able to offer high quality certified organic sheets and bedding, towels and robes, and kitchen textiles at the comparable prices to non-organic.

By doing so, you take the question away from “Why would I buy organic?” to “Why wouldn’t I buy organic?” and that’s how you are going to break through and scale organic fiber apparel and home fashion. Make it innovative, traceable, transparent, authentic, accessible and affordable.

 

As long as you lead with great design and price, being organic and/or sustainable become the value add tiebreaker that will set the brand and products apart. Transparency is now becoming more of an imperative than a choice. Today’s consumer is asking where products are being made, how they are being made; they can ask these questions and Google for the answers.

Now it’s all about accessibility, which is finally the direction we are moving. Major retailers and brands are now drinking the “Kool-Aid” — waking up, for many different reasons. They know they need to stay relevant. I believe that brands and retailers who aren’t thinking of creating and carrying more ethically and sustainably produced products will likely be out of the game; it’s just a matter of when, right? It’s no longer about staying ahead anymore; it’s about not being left behind. And I see this momentum, as I am being propelled like crazy as a leader in this movement! What I’ve been doing for 20+ years in organic and sustainable textiles is hitting its tipping point, as the industry is poised for takeoff.

How big a polluter is the fashion industry? 

The fashion industry is the biggest polluter in the world second to coal. So, globally, 10% of the carbon impact is from the fashion industry. Over 3 trillion gallons of fresh water are used every year in textile production. 20% of freshwater pollution comes from textile treatments and dyeing. Over 5% of global landfill space is textile waste. Socially, fashion employs slave labor in most countries. 

 

 How does ‘cradle to cradle’ fit in to your work? 

The cradle to cradle movement has identified and measured impacts across several industries, especially the green world’s fastest growing sector — the building industry. William McDonough and Michael Braungart’s cradle to cradle efforts look at what we take from the earth, and focus on how we have to give back to the earth to close the loop in a circular — vs. linear —economy.  How do we bring that methodology into the textile industry? Via its “Fashion Positive” vertical, the Cradle to Cradle Institute evaluates material health, material reuse, renewable energy, water stewardship and social justice — rating finished textiles for those five key principles. My factory Metawear in Fairfax, VA, is right now the only producer in the world of turnkey finished cradle to cradle certified garments. We helped pilot the cradle to cradle textile certification process.

Metawear factory

A reason we are the only current producer of finished apparel and home textiles is because we are using a proprietary seaweed based screen printing process — free of any formaldehyde, PVC or other toxic chemicals typically used in a finishing and printing process. Our dyes are low impact and this innovative printing process actually dyes the fiber and fabric so it won’t crack or fade.

Metawear Seaweed Screenprint Ink

I wanted to set up a solution driven turnkey factory that, like an “Intel inside,” can provide ‘plug and play’ sustainable fashion. It takes excuses away from brands and retailers of not producing sustainably, because we’ve embedded ECOfashion into our DNA. Pick a card, you want Made in the USA, fair labor, organic certified, cradle to cradle certified, renewable energy (we use solar and geothermal in the factory), locally produced with quick turns, lower minimums and less risk, efficient and ethical production — we’ve got it all under one roof.