Entrepreneur and author Marci Zaroff coined the term ‘eco-fashion’ back in the mid-‘90s. Here, we discuss why sustainable fashion has taken so long to have its ‘moment’ and how regenerative ag could heal the planet along with the damaging textile industry.
Marci Zaroff believes that Millennials are behind the “rapidly growing movement for sustainable and ethical fashion.” As an entrepreneur and author who originally coined the term ‘eco-fashion’ back in the mid-1990s, and with almost 30 years in the fashion and beauty industry, she should know.
We caught up with her as she prepares to take the stage at Sustainable Brands ’21 in San Diego to find out why sustainable fashion has taken so long to have its ‘moment’ and how regenerative agriculture is the key to turning the tide on the damaging textiles industry.
You’ve been active in the world of ethical fashion and sustainable supply chains for the last 30 years. Where did this interest begin and what have you been up to in that time?
Marci Zaroff: I actually started my career in food. I co-founded what’s known today as the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. It’s the world’s largest holistic nutrition school, which has certified over 150,000 people as health coaches. So, I got my feet wet in the organic and natural food movement of the 1990s — and then segued into clean beauty with the founder of Aveda, who became my mentor of 25 years.
Where did this coining of the term ‘eco-fashion’ come from?
MZ: I coined and trademarked the term in 1995, and people thought I was crazy. The sentiment was that these are two dichotomous worlds — people into fashion were not into the environment, sustainability and social justice; and people into being more conscious were not into fashion.
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And I was like, ‘Well, I’m that person. I’m both.’ So, how do I roll my sleeves up and style the world of change, while changing the world of style — to bridge the treehugger and the fashionista?
So, what did you do first?
MZ: I’ve spent the past 26+ years pioneering the sustainable fashion movement. I started the first sustainable fashion and home brand called Under the Canopy, with the premise that we all live ‘under the canopy’ of the planet’s ecosystem together. We sold to a lot of major retailers in the US.
I then produced a documentary film series called Driving Fashion Forward with Amber Valletta.
And today, I’m the founder and CEO of ecofashion CORP — a ‘greenhouse’ of brands. We leverage our core team and operational efficiencies to drive different lifestyle brands across a variety of distribution channels — from mass to class. We have an office in India, and a team there on the ground. The engine of our company is MetaWear — often called the “Li & Fung of sustainability.” We offer design and product development, sourcing, production, inspections, quality control, sustainability and certification oversight, and marketing and communication strategy. Our turnkey, customized private-label manufacturing platform makes sustainability “easy” for our countless brand and retail partners — from basics like T-shirts to full contemporary fashion collections.
We also have three of our own house brands — two of which (Seed to Style and Farm to Home) we launched exclusively with QVC. I go on-air regularly to educate and engage mainstream consumers about sustainable apparel and home textiles.
You are one busy lady. What else are you doing?
MZ: Our newest baby is our direct-to-consumer brand called YesAnd, which really sums up my life work: Yes, it’s about style, quality, fit, color, comfort, price — everything you want. And, oh by the way, ethically made, socially responsible, fair trade, certified organic, regenerative, circular, recycled, biodegradable, low-impact dyed — all the yummy stuff.
Why has it taken the fashion industry so long to wake up to the need to tackle its environmental and social impact in the world?
MZ: Sustainable fashion is still at its infancy compared to food, clean beauty and other industries. It’s taken a long time because of a few factors.
Historically, the consumer was talked at through fashion and beauty magazines and fashion shows that didn’t really know how to pull the curtain back, and didn't understand the human and environmental impacts of fashion. But the internet changed the game. The younger generations readily access information, asking questions like, ‘Who made my clothes, what’s in them, and how are they being made?’ — propelled by the fashion revolution movement that started in the UK as a result of the Bangladesh Rana Plaza tragedy. I was on the team that brought Fashion Revolution to the US, and this consumer-driven movement is now in over 100 countries around the world.
The second big reason: Innovation was necessary in order to really reboot old, broken systems and to propel material change in preferred fibers and fabrics. We needed coopertition and collaboration, as historically, the industry was very competitive.
When I would go to an organic food or natural product trade show, with shared vision and core values, the tone was typically, ‘I’ve got your back.’ On the contrary, in fashion, it was ‘Watch your back.’ Things have come a long way now and it’s all hands on deck. Everybody’s drinking the proverbial sustainability “Kool-Aid” in the fashion industry — so, it’s no longer about staying ahead, but instead about not being left behind. As a result, there’s a lot more money coming into the space — with investments in supply chain transparency, circularity and blockchain technology, fiber and material innovation, and any and all ways our industry can minimize energy, waste, water use, chemical use, and our carbon footprint — while addressing social justice and fair wages.
So, for you, it’s about giving consumers much more information than they've been able to access before? Is that part of what ecofashion CORP is doing?
MZ: The YesAnd philosophy sums it up. It’s all about no compromise — not sacrifice and deprivation, but value-add. Yes, we must lead with great design and be sustainable, and/or regenerative.
My first book, published by Simon & Schuster, is called ECOrenaissance, and the tagline is "Co-Creating a Stylish, Sexy and Sustainable World." The premise is that, through the lens of design, we can change the world. If we appeal to people at a visceral and aesthetic level — through style, color, fit, high quality, value and everything consumers want — and then layer in the how, what and where, the question shifts from, ‘Why would I buy sustainable fashion?’ to “Why wouldn’t I?”
You promote regenerative and organic agriculture — tell us why you believe this is the future for more responsible sourcing?
MZ: I'm very passionate about regenerative agriculture and am a soil junkie and organic advocate. A third of the world’s textiles are made from cotton; it’s one of the most important crops in agriculture, and 60 percent of the crop actually goes back into the food stream — as feed for dairy or cottonseed oil in mainstream breads, snacks and other products. From agriculture to popular culture, food and fiber are inextricably interconnected.
Cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed industries in the world, using GMO seeds and toxic chemical cocktails. Conventional cotton agriculture has destroyed and depleted soil all over the world. It’s also compromised farmer livelihoods, because the system has gotten to a point where farmers have to leverage their farms in order to afford all the heavy and expensive inputs at extraordinarily high interest rates. We call it ‘the pesticide treadmill.’ The cotton agriculture system is broken socially and environmentally. And, of course, the more we destroy the soil, the less resilient the crops are to climate change.
The idea of regenerative agriculture is that it’s no longer about sustaining — it’s about rebuilding. We have to rebuild soil health and ecosystems in order for soil to serve in its role as the ‘skin of the earth.’ When soil is healthy and vibrant and filled with biodiversity, it actually absorbs carbon out of the atmosphere in an expansive way. Regenerating our planet’s soil can be our greatest single solution to climate change.
How are you specifically promoting sustainable agricultural practices through your brands?
MZ: We have our own farm project in India called RESET (Regenerate the Environment, Society and Economy through Textiles) and we work with farmers to train them; and provide them with GMO-free seeds and non-synthetic, non-chemical inputs. We teach them how to make natural fertilizers using cow dung, urine and turmeric. And they get to (re)create thriving ecosystems — learning what their ancestors probably already knew, such as building soil biodiversity by rotating crops and cover cropping. The basis for organic and regenerative agriculture is to build nutrients in the soil, and as the Rodale Institute has taught the world: ‘Healthy soil makes healthy plants which makes healthy people.’ From source to story, we support a win-win-win business model, leveraging the power of textiles to effect positive change in the world. It’s no longer about doing less harm; we all need to do more good. Driving demand for transitional, organic and regenerative agriculture is the DNA of ecofashion CORP.
But the market’s still not big enough, is it?
MZ: It’s growing every day, fueled by the younger generations who are demanding traceability and accountability. We’re at our infancy, but I do believe that ecofashion is the future of fashion.
What’s next for you?
MZ: Meeting the masses where they are, we have two affordable, sustainable, size-inclusive brands on QVC, whereby the engines are revving for major expansion in the coming years. We have a new brand called Farm to Flight for airlines. And for our YesAnd brand, this week, we are unveiling our new website with a fabulous new fashion collection — from double-knit “LOVE” sweaters to certified organic velour. We are also debuting our blockchain technology platform — digitizing our supply chain from farm to finished fashion, to a consumer-friendly QR code on the label of our products. The time is now. Let’s vote with our dollars and wear the change we all wish to see.