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9/27/2016

Behind-the-Scenes with Under the Canopy Founder Marci Zaroff

POSTED UNDER Partnerships & Awards

Marci Zaroff is an eco-fashion pioneer. In fact, she invented the category. Literally. Her Under the Canopy brand is setting the standards (again, quite literally) for sustainability in fashion, and she’s a tireless advocate for greening the apparel and textile industry. After she participated in the Sustainabilty in Retail panel our NYC Go Green ERG and MMG Green Team co-sponsored earlier this year, our Green Living team caught up with the environmental powerhouse during a break in her jam-packed schedule

Zaroff has spent 30 years in the sustainability industry, growing up with environmental causes and becoming a vegetarian as a teen. “The book ‘Living in the Light’ was an aha moment for me – it showed me that what we put in and on our bodies is an extension of ourselves. It’s important to understand the choices that we’re making, and how they affect us – and the world around us.” She put her beliefs into action, learning all she could by reading, attending conferences and making connections.

In 1995, Zaroff had just partnered with Aveda founder Horst Rechelbacher to open the first Aveda concept salon when a client asked her about extending the organic concept to fashion. It made sense to her, and she set out to create a sustainable brand that embodies the lifestyle she was living and advocating. She coined (and trademarked) the term “eco-fashion,” and Under the Canopy was launched.

It was tough going at first – “People thought I was absolutely crazy,” she says. “They were two dichotomous worlds – people who were into ecology and humanitarianism on one hand, and people who were into fashion on the other.” People told her “You’re stepping into a paradox, and it doesn’t make sense.”

But Zaroff knew better, and she didn’t let the skeptics stop her – or even slow her down. She describes herself as a natural bridge-builder, and she had a vision for how she could bring the two worlds together in a real and impactful way, “connecting the fashionista and the tree-hugger.” She knew that for the company – and the eco-fashion concept – to be successful, she needed to focus on the idea of “no compromise”: “You can have it all. No compromise in color or cut or fit or comfort or fashion or price. You can have it all and still be sustainable.” That principle is still part of the company’s driving force today.

Supply chain was a major issue, as well. Zaroff found a “real gap” in the availability of sustainable fibers. “The impact of cotton is huge,” she says. “It’s perceived as natural, but it’s the most sprayed crop in the world. It accounts for three percent of agriculture, and nearly 25 percent of harmful crop chemicals.” When she couldn’t find the certified organic cotton she wanted, she started a farm project for Fair Trade, organic cotton. Today, that farm has more than 15,000 farmers and provides organic, sustainable cotton to a multitude of companies. Zaroff was also part of the panel that wrote the U.S. organic fiber certification, and helped Fair Trade USA develop its first textile certification as well. The next challenge was certifying factories – ensuring that materials are not only grown sustainably, but also processed, transported, and used in manufacturing sustainably, as well, for end-to-end consideration of their environmental impact. “There are five key areas for sustainability in fashion,” she says: “reducing toxic chemicals, reducing waste, reducing energy consumption, social justice, and water usage. The fashion industry is responsible for 20 percent of the world’s fresh water pollution – the second largest polluter in the world, after coal.”

With all of these factors in play, and with textiles often crossing many borders, it can be very difficult to certify finished product, because it’s challenging to track sustainability throughout a supply chain. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) was designed to address that, tracking materials from farm to finished fashion with full transparency. GOTS ensures the raw materials, manufacturing, and distribution of products are free from harmful toxic substances such as heavy metals, GMOs, toxins, and carcinogens. Even better, all processes adhere to fair labor standards. “Screen printing was very difficult to get certified because it involves PVCs and formaldehyde – but then I met my partner CAS, who invented a seaweed-based process that was a springboard to both GOTS and Cradle to Cradle certification of our USA factory called ‘MetaWear’,” says Zaroff. That opened the door for me to create the first Cradle-to-Cradle-certified organic apparel in the world – and our Virginia-based factory is solar- and geothermal-powered as well, Zaroff notes.

From its beginnings as a mail order catalog, Under the Canopy has continued to grow and thrive and expanded to a full line of GOTS-certified organic clothing in 2015, and Under the Canopy products are available through major retailers, including macys.com

“Today, when you say ‘eco-fashion,’ people don’t give you a blank-eyed stare. They say ‘of course!’ Wow. And especially the younger generation. They get it instantly. When I started, I wanted to get into the trenches and infuse environmental responsibility and sustainability into fashion. Now we’re at a tipping point in the movement,” says Zaroff, the excitement evident in her voice. Consumers can have a major impact on what companies produce and sell by voting with their dollars, says Zaroff: “Look at the organic food movement. What started as a niche group of people saying ‘I don’t want to put toxic chemicals in my body or send toxic pesticides into the air and water’ is now mainstream - 84 percent of Americans now buy at least some organic food.” She says “The Internet has changed the game – people are longing for storytelling and connection, and the timing has never been better in terms of leveraging social media as a wildfire tool to educate. That’s always been the missing link: education. What used to be about ‘staying ahead’ is now about not being left behind. Brands and companies that are not thinking about sourcing differently, producing more transparently, including the kinds of materials they’re using, etc. are going to be out of the game because today’s consumer has the Internet. Now that we can be online and share stories that resonate, it’s all starting to grow exponentially.” Exponentially is right. Eco-fashion is now a global movement, with regular conferences, coalitions and partnerships extending its reach around the globe. Zaroff says this is what she’s most proud of: “I have tremendous pride and gratitude I was instrumental in bringing this to life. We’re all in this together.”

Find out more about Under the Canopy on its website, and shop the Under the Canopy collection on macys.com. Follow @marcizaroff and visit marcizaroff.com.

 

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Sources: Interview with Marci Zaroff, Under the Canopy website, ShopEthica.comTargetMarketingMag.com