Women Who Inspire: Marci Zaroff
1. You are a true serial entrepreneur! When did you start your first business and what was it?
Yes I’m a true-blooded entrepreneur, and was the 10-year old kid with the lemonade stand. I co-founded my first real business in 1990, a holistic wellness and educational center, known today as the “Institute for Integrative Nutrition.” IIN has certified over 150,000 “health coaches” worldwide and is now the world’s largest online nutrition school.
2. You are known for coining the term “ECOfashion.” What were attitudes towards sustainable fashion like when you first entered this space?
People initially thought I was crazy—that fashion and sustainability were two dichotomous worlds. The stigmas of ECOfashion included crunchy, frumpy, boxy, beige, boring and overpriced. And in the past, people believed that if you were into fashion, you lacked consciousness, and if you were into environmental awareness and social justice, you couldn’t be fashionable. In 1995 when I trademarked “ECOfashion,” I set out to style the world of change, while changing the world of style—bridging the treehugger and the fashionista. ECOfashion is about getting more value, more beauty, more connection—with no compromise on style, quality, fit, color, comfort, and price.
3. How has the eco-conscious customer evolved today?
The internet has changed the game. Today’s more conscious consumers, especially the younger generations, are demanding transparency and asking questions like “Who made my clothes?”, “What's in my clothes?”, “How are they being made?” and they are holding brands and retailers accountable unlike ever before. They want to vote with their dollars. For companies now, it is no longer about staying ahead, but instead, about not getting left behind. If they're not embedding more sustainable materials and strategies into their design and supply chains, it will be harder to stay relevant, and they will likely (eventually) be out of the game. A testament to how consumers are changing is the fact that ECOfashion Corp has recently launched two brands on QVC, where I am meeting the mass mainstream consumer where they are, because health, wellness, and sustainability are now on their radar as well. YES, they want value—AND values too.
4. At Katla, we proudly use 100% organic GOTS certified cotton in our loungewear. You were a key figure in the development of GOTS. How did you identify the need and what was the path to creating this certification?
I started my career in the natural food movement at a time when the global organic industry was so small that everyone knew each other. As I learned more about agriculture and the interconnection of organic methodologies (such as crop rotation,) I realized you can’t support one part of the holistic wellness equation without the other. Discovering that 60% of a cotton plant actually enters the food stream, and that cotton is one of the most heavily sprayed industries in agriculture with some of the most toxic pesticides and insecticides, I had an epiphany to connect food to fiber to address the harmful social and environmental impacts of fiber and finished fashion and textiles. As a partner of the Rodale Institute, I began to pioneer the organic cotton industry, launching Under the Canopy—one of the first organic apparel and home lifestyle brands in the world. With a few others in the 90’s, we established an Organic Fiber Council to develop the USA’s first finished organic textile standard—to mirror the USDA's organic food standard that was rapidly gaining traction in the food industry. As fiber companies, we couldn’t use the NOP organic food seal on textiles, because all of the allowances are food specific and don’t account for dyes, finishes, and other inputs necessary to produce finished textiles. Once we discovered the need for a uniform global standard, since apparel and home fashion crosses international borders every day, we joined forces (for over 6 years) to collaborate with the UK, Germany and Japan to establish the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certification. Having launched the first GOTS certified product in North America in 2006 (at Target), I have continued to work in the trenches and serve as a dedicated advocate through the evolution of GOTS, which recently unveiled its 6th version.
5. You’ve launched several sustainable fiber initiatives for big retailers such as Macy’s and Target. What changes did you see needed to take place in the fashion supply chain?
Cutting out a lot of the inefficiencies has been fundamental to my work to get the costing model to be as competitive with conventional textiles as possible. A garment can change hands up to 7-10 times in a supply chain. We innovated in terms of building from source (raw materials and cotton procurement) to story—allowing us to be more vertically integrated, and more cost effective. In order to supply the big retailers you have to lead with design, quality and timely execution, while also breaking the stigma that you have to pay a lot more. Our biggest challenges were working within broken systems, industry established pricing models and lead times, silo'd departments, and consumer expectations. MetaWear's sustainable manufacturing platform was set up to be a solution provider to make sustainability "easy" for brands and retailers, in a customizable, plug-and-play way—so all tides can rise together.
6. What we put into our bodies is as important as what we wear on our bodies. How do you see the worlds of health/wellness and sustainable fashion intersecting?
Our skin is the largest organ in our bodies and our primary organ for absorption. It's not just what we put in our bodies that matters, but also what we put on our bodies as well. Synthetic textiles are ridden with toxic chemicals that absorb into our skin, metaphorically, just as harmful pesticides and insecticides are absorbed into soil—the "skin" of the earth. Studies have shown that 1/3rd of the global population has chemical sensitivities and over 70 million Americans have asthma and allergies. We often blame health issues on genetics and food intake, but it's time we take a serious look at textiles and how they affect our own states of well-being. Check out some of the recent backlash that airlines have received from their required uniforms. We are now spearheading scientific research through the Organic Center and Organic Trade Association/Organic Fiber Council. Like the Rodale Institute, we believe that "healthy soil makes healthy plants which makes healthy people," and we also know that between chemical farming inputs, chlorine bleach and other toxic finishes and dyes (which can contain formaldehyde and/or heavy metals,) conventional cotton can be extremely harmful from farm to finished product. By eliminating poisonous chemicals, and being socially and environmentally compliant to the GOTS standard, we are protecting and supporting both human and environmental wellness—from farm to body.
7. What’s one thing you would like to see more of the fashion industry doing to mitigate its impacts on the environment?
As you can probably ascertain, I’m a soil junkie, so I am very passionate about connecting agriculture to popular culture. With cotton being used in 1/3rd of the world’s textiles (apparel, bed, bath, etc.), we need to transform the cotton industry to be a part of the solution to climate change. It's not just about doing less harm; it's also about doing more good. When cotton is grown using regenerative, certified organic, and/or biodynamic methodologies—as we do at our ecofashionCORP "RESET" cotton farm project, cotton becomes a part of our industry's commitment to climate action. The Textile Exchange (of which I'm on the Board) has set a collective "Climate+ Strategy" goal to reduce our industry's carbon footprint 45% by 2030. We all need to play our part and there are many spokes in the fashion wheel of change: such as transitioning to organic/regenerative cotton, reducing/eliminating the use of burning fossil fuels to make virgin synthetics, driving a more circular economy by recycling, renewing, reducing, reselling, renting, remaking, and reusing/repurposing. Since fashion is one of our planet's leading causes of air and water pollution, business as usual cannot continue.
8. Among your many endeavors, you are also producing a documentary called THREAD about the impact of the textile industry on the environment. What questions will this documentary pose that you hope more and more people will think about and factor in their purchase decisions?
Given that the fashion and textile industry contributes to 5-10% of the world's carbon footprint, the focus of the film is "Can the Fashion Industry Reverse Global Warming?"—addressing the social and environmental challenges of the fashion industry alongside solutions and calls to action. The film will highlight industry impacts of land, water and air, and will demonstrate through innovation and progress, how we can navigate protecting and regenerating our earth's ecosystems—using fashion as a positive vehicle to drive environmental, social and climate justice.
9. Your best tips for finding balance?
My whole life, career, and philosophy is about “yoga off the mat.” Family first. And self-care is not a nice to have, but a must-have. I start every day with organic juice and coffee, a steam, jacuzzi and/or workout (yoga, weights, walk or bike.) A spa and bodywork junkie, I've also recently started going to a place in NYC called "Restore" for flexology—getting my muscles stretched. So simple yet so important for mind-body balancing. I eat a plant-based vegan diet to keep me grounded, and in the evenings and/or weekends, I like to enjoy nature and/or watch documentary films/series. On a mental level, balance is also about perspective. I'm a big believer that we should see perceived "challenges" as opportunities, so we don't get paralyzed, but instead, we welcome learning and growth in every step of our life journey. And finally, in the words of spiritual icon Ram Das, "Be Here Now."
10. As a nature lover, where are your favorite places in the world to immerse yourself in nature?
My happy place is my house in Costa Rica on the beach, near a rainforest, nestled in the ocean clifsides. Paving the way in sustainability and ecotourism, Costa Rica is one the most stunning and environmentally-conscious places in the world and is home to 12 ecosystems and over 5% of our earth's biodiversity. The country is now powered by 100% renewable energy and over 51% of the land is permanently protected by private and public conservation efforts. Other fave places to enjoy nature include Bali, New Zealand, the beautiful tribal regions of India, and even my local parks in breathtaking Bucks County, PA.