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Pioneers
Meet the Woman Who Literally Invented Eco-Fashion
07-06-15
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Photos courtesy of Marci Zaroff

The word “pioneer” often precedes Marci Zaroff’s name, but the term hardly begins to cover it. For the last two decades, Zaroff has been tirelessly advocating for sustainability in textiles and fashion–launching Under the Canopy, one of the world’s first sustainable lifestyle brands, in 1996; playing a key role in defining the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) in 2002; working with the likes of Whole Foods, Macy’s and Target to introduce organic-fiber products into stores nationwide; and helping Fair Trade USA develop its first textile certification. She has also executive produced a sustainable fashion documentary, Thread, and is a public speaker who's previously shared a stage with Al Gore. She is, in other words, a total #girlboss.

This year, Under the Canopy expanded from home goods into a full line of GOTS-certified organic clothing. Available online exclusively at Ethica, the collection of loungewear and wardrobe basics has already been spotted on the likes of actress Alysia Reiner and TV personalities Catt Sadler and Louise Roe. We spoke to Zaroff about her 20-year journey to make sustainable fashion a reality.

Under the Canopy organic cotton Greta tee

An organic cotton V-neck tee by Under the Canopy.

You created and trademarked the term eco-fashion in 1995. Whats surprised you about the way the industry has evolved over the past 20 years? What’s surprised me most is how long it took to take root. The outdoor apparel industry got it so much faster, and I think that’s because of that sector’s connection to the environment. But fashion has such great storytelling cachet that I thought eco-fashion would’ve gained momentum much sooner. A lot of early pioneers–talented people–just couldn’t withstand that timeline and ended up dropping out of the space.

While the eco-fashion movement was picking up steam in the outdoor space, the fast fashion movement was picking up steam in the fashion space, which was the antithesis. We almost had to get to an extreme for the fashion industry to wake up and embrace the change. I think that’s what happened, and Rana Plaza was a big catalyst for this.

Louise Roe workout leggings

Louise Roe wearing Under the Canopys Molly leggings. Photo: louiseroe.com

Do you believe that we’re approaching the tipping point for ethical and sustainable fashion? Is there anything about this moment in time that feels different from where this movement has been in the past? A thousand percent. The Internet and the digital world have 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. There are all these different spokes on the wheel of eco-fashion, whether you’re talking about organic products or fair trade, or ethically made items or minimizing impacts–whichever battle you want to pick. Now that we can be online and share stories that resonate, it’s all starting to grow exponentially.

And now you see sites like Ethica that are becoming portals where, once people have that education, they can actually translate it into action. There was really a lack of that.

catt sadler under the canopy

Catt Sadler in an Under the Canopy tee. Photo courtesy of Under the Canopy

Which among your many accomplishments makes you most proud? The meta answer to that is the fact that when I created the term eco-fashion in the early ’90s and trademarked it in 1995, it didn’t exist. People thought I was absolutely crazy, and every time I said the term, people laughed at me and said, “Marci, no one is ever going to buy into that. Those are two completely dichotomous worlds. People who are into ecology and humanitarianism and consciousness are not the people who are into fashion. And the people who are into fashion, they look at the green, humanitarian, consciousness world as a bunch of weirdo hippie treehuggers. You’re stepping into a paradox, and it doesn’t make sense.”

But I’m a bridge builder, so I suppose that I get incredible joy now at seeing that that bridge has been built, and that 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.

“I’ve learned that the way to stay in balance and harmony is to have one set of values and not two. To have your personal and professional lives in sync.”

al gore marci zaroff

Zaroff with former Vice President Al Gore. Photo courtesy of Marci Zaroff

You always look radiant, and you're always such a positive presence. What are your secrets for inner and outer beauty? Building on what I was just saying, it’s not about ‘this or that,’ it’s about ‘this and that.’ It’s about no compromises, so for me, looking good is important, but so is feeling good and doing good. I’ve learned that the way to stay in balance and harmony and radiate true health is to have one set of values and not two. To have values where your personal and your professional lives are in sync, and you live a healthy and conscious lifestyle and make choices that resonate on a deep level.

It’s like water for chocolate in that you want the energy of what you’re putting in and on your body to touch you on every level. And so I live with passion and purpose, and love is a big part of that. I find love to be the key ingredient in everything that I do.

Related Story: Meet 5 Eco Babes Who Inspired Under the Canopy's Debut Collection

under the canopy gots certified organic cotton

Under the Canopy's organic cotton moto sweatpants.

As a woman who is living her passion and leading several companies, whats the best piece of leadership advice you can offer? We create whatever reality we can envision, so you have to find your inner strength and trust your gut. One of the comments I find myself saying on a regular basis when I do public speaking is to always follow your heart, not your head, because it’s within you, the inner strength within you, where your soul lives, where your truth lives, that you really have all the answers you need. It goes back to being about no compromise and trusting your gut. Oh, and never ask why. Ask why not.