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An Interview with Marci Zaroff: Eco-Fashion Advocate & Pioneering Businesswoman

An Interview with Marci Zaroff: Eco-Fashion Advocate & Pioneering Businesswoman

Our founder, Carole Murphy, recently sat down with Marci Zaroff, one of the first real eco-fashion creators, a multi-hyphenate businesswoman, and founder of ECOfashion Corp, an umbrella company with four sustainable textile businesses. They talked about Marci’s inspiration, her mentors, and her business model. Dive into the full interview or listen to the audio recording of this program HERE. 

Carole

This is Heart stock radio and I'm your host Carole Murphy today. Our guest today is Marci Zaroff, the CEO and Founder of ECOfashion Corp (EFC).

Good morning Marci, how are you?

Marci

I'm great, thank you Carole. How are you today?

Carole

Oh, it's one of those great Montana mornings when you wake up to a blanket of snow when really all you want to see are your crocuses blooming.

Marci

Yes, I'm counting down the minutes till spring. Trust me.

Carole

Yes, but it’s beautiful nonetheless. Just chilly. Where are you speaking with us from today? 

Marci

I'm currently in New York City and calling in from my 55th floor apartment. Very sunny today, but still chilly. I split my time between Pennsylvania and Costa Rica as well.

Carole

Costa Rica is one of my favorites. Can you give our listeners a little intro? What is ECOfashion Corp and why is it important?

Marci

So ECOfashion Corp is really 30 years in the making. I've spent my life career, really driving sustainable products across different categories. In 1995 I coined and trademarked the term “eco-fashion” to revolutionize the fashion industry through education and inspiration. I wanted to get in the trenches and really build this movement and join forces across industries to shift the paradigm of fashion because it’s one of the leading causes of air and water pollution in the world.

What people don't realize is almost 10 percent of the world's carbon footprint and 20 percent of its freshwater pollution comes out of the fashion industry. Plus, cotton is heavily sprayed with chemicals since it’s wrapped up in agriculture. 

So there are a lot of impacts across waste and water use, chemical use, climate change, and social justice.

When you pull the curtain back and you unveil these human and environmental impacts, you see that business as usual in fashion can't continue.

So ECOfashion Corp is really the manifestation of all of my years as a pioneer of this movement, bridging the tree hugger and the fashionista. Today, we have a “greenhouse” of brands and METAwear is the engine of our whole company. 

Carole

One is called Seed to Style and one is called Farm to Home, and then you have Under the Canopy, right?

Marci

Well, I founded Under the Canopy in 1995. It was the first sustainable fashion and home brand in North America. I built that company from the ground up with the premise that we all live under the canopy of the planet's ecosystem together. At first, we were a mail order catalog going direct to consumer back before the internet took off. Then, I wrote the business plan for Whole Foods Market in the late nineties to connect the dots from food into fiber and fashion, and textiles. And Under the Canopy launched in Austin at their flagship store. It was such a success and it really reinforced that this is a lifestyle and a way of thinking,

It's about making choices that you know are about no compromise. Food that’s tasty and fashion that’s stylish and you also know the social and environmental impact is fair trade, regenerative, etc.

So Under the Canopy was really my first baby. Once we launched in Whole Foods Market, we got seen by a lot of other retailers and found myself in the C-suites launching the first sustainable textile initiatives for Target, Aveda, Macy's, Bed Bath and Beyond and a number of other retailers.

I exited Under the Canopy in 2009, but came back in 2013 as a consultant. I still live today at the intersection of food and fashion. I believe you can't really support one part without the other because in agriculture, food and fiber crops are growing side by side. And in Maslow's hierarchy of needs, our first basic need is food and then we evolved to shelter, and next to clothing. So there's an interconnection from agriculture to culture that's inherent in everything that I do.

I also launched a plant-based seafood brand called Good Catch as part of an agency, Beyond Brands, that I am a co-founder of with my husband. I believe in leveraging the power of products to drive positive transformation in the world.

Carole 

We were just speaking a moment ago about the tropics, so I'm guessing that you grew up in Florida?

Marci

I did. I’m definitely an ocean girl. I love the water, taking long walks outside, and being part of nature all year round. So Florida had an influence, where I really connected to the ocean and the land ecosystems. I was given a book by a girlfriend of mine called Living in the Light” by Shakti Gawain that struck a deep chord and made me realize there's more than what we see. She also gave me my first eco product. It was a shampoo and I remember reading the label and I was like, “This is so interesting.” It was filled with plant based wisdom, ancient healing traditions, and indigenous culture. Something lit up inside of me and I was like, “Yes this is it. This is what I wanna do when I grow up.”

I ended up going to UC Berkeley in California for college and then to the Haas business school. Being in an environment that was so enlightening really opened me up to thinking about the world from a very different place.

Carole

So that time that you spent on the beach, did you have anybody in your earlier years that was guiding your interest in the environment? I see there’s a firm grasp of science in your background. Help us understand how you connected the dots between all of the environmental systems and how it's all playing together to create healthier food and clothing systems?

Marci

I would say the first step started with the same girlfriend, Surya. We sort of went on this journey together. The journey of 1000 miles begins with one step and I guess that first step was reading that book she gave me. Then the light went off for me on becoming a vegetarian and starting to practice yoga and reading “Diet for a New America” by John Robbins. I starting going to macrobiotic conferences in the ninety's and really just found myself learning about health and wellness and the environment in ways that inspired me to integrate that thinking into business.

After that, I would say my greatest influence became Horst Rechelbacher, the founder of Aveda. I was drawn to the way he used the power of beauty and always believed that if you lead people with a sort of aesthetic experience then you can take them down the rabbit hole of the why, the what, and the how.

Horst and I met at an environmental conference in the eighties and we became fast friends, In 1990, I co-founded a school that today is known as the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. It's the world's largest holistic nutrition school and an integrated eastern and western mindset around health and wellness. We opened the very first Aveda concept salon in New York inside the school too. 

Horst was my mentor. I actually ended up getting married at his house on 11/11/11 to my husband. I also spoke, sadly, at his funeral when he passed away several years ago. He was such an incredible icon and really is credited as revolutionizing the personal care industry.

Another one of my biggest influences is the artist Peter Max. I talked about this in my own book, “ECORenaissance,” where the renaissance is a rebirth and the whole premise of my book is through the lens of design, we can change the world—and that starts with art. Because we’re all creators, we’ve created the reality we live in, so we can co-create a new reality. That's really the name of the game now because so many of our systems are broken. 

People have been drawn all over the world to Peter’s work. But what's underlying is he's almost channeling his passion for the environment and humanity through his art.

Carole

That’s beautiful. I really want to delve more into the business part of our discussion, but before we go there, what did you major in at Berkeley? 

Marci

I was actually a computer science major. This was in the mid-eighties. So it was the beginning of the computer industry and I was so fascinated by the idea of seeing beyond the potential that we thought we had–this sort of unlimited opportunity to expand our consciousness, you know? 

As Albert Einstein once said, we can't solve today's problems with the same consciousness that created them. Everything I do as an entrepreneur, I take all those learnings to think out of the box and see connections. I learned computers but then also applied to the Haas business school to do my MBA. There I was able to get really deep into business, finance, and marketing. Believe it or not, I spent a short chapter of my life as an investment banker. All of that gave me the experience to move to New York City and start my first business, which I mentioned before, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition. Today, this on-line program has certified over 175,000 people worldwide in 150 countries around the world.

So that first chapter where we were able to educate and empower people around thinking about the power of every single thing they put in their bodies and when I was living these principles out at Berkeley, they became the catalyst for that first business. It’s not just what we put in our bodies that matters, but also what we put on our bodies and beyond our bodies, right?

Carole

Right. Every single choice we make is an extension of ourselves and the environment around us. They’re all connected. And they all go back to the soil, which I'm hoping that you can share a little bit about since you talked about it early on. How do you see all those pieces fitting back to the land?

Marci

I consider myself a soil junkie. Starting my career in organic and natural food and moving into organic and natural ingredients in beauty products and then fiber, what people don't realize is that over the last 60, 70, 80 years–as we've continued to use conventional chemical agriculture, GMO seeds, pesticides, herbicides and insecticides–all these harmful fertilizers and chemicals were going into our soil. We've essentially destroyed soil health all over the world–a living breathing ecosystem that’s meant to capture carbon and protect us. 

Think of soil as the skin of the earth. When it is healthy, it sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere. Soil is a living breathing ecosystem and meant to create healthy plants which then also feed us in a healthy way.  As Rodale Institute researches have said, healthy soil makes healthy plants, which makes healthy people.

So I've always looked at how we rebuild and regenerate the soil that's been so damaged, through conventional agriculture, turning it into dirt, where not only does it no longer sequester carbon, but it also doesn't retain water. So, you need heavy irrigation in these conventional systems because the soil is no longer supple, and the plants are no longer resilient or retaining water. Using the power of products and driving the expansion of organic and regenerative agriculture is so key. It's like water for chocolate.

A third of the world's textiles are made from cotton. You know, our jeans, t-shirts, dresses, and jackets. They're not growing in the department store. They start in the soil. So how can we then make better choices at the finished product level? Where we can leverage the power of fashion to expand truly sustainable agriculture? Because at the end of the day, when we do have healthy soil it will absorb carbon. It’s one of our greatest solutions to climate change. It goes back to making sure that not only are we making healthy choices for our soil, but we're making healthy choices for ourselves-it's all connected.

We are now coming full circle. That's why people are talking about farm to table, farm to home, farm to closet.  It's about lighting ourselves up in our own source.That sort of waking up and saying wait, I am no longer okay with destruction, pollution, and chemicals. And now more than ever because of the pandemic, where we couldn't go outside, but we could go inside—to tap back into that source of what really matters. We're turning on the “light” and waking up.

And so my whole business model at ECOfashion Corp is about connecting sources to the story by expanding organic and regenerative agriculture, biodynamic farming, recycling and circularity, biodegradability, and looking at how can we be a part of the solution instead of the problem.

Carole

This is the challenge of the hour. And it’s the perfect segue to our next question, which is about the consumer aspect of it. As business owners, we’re being more responsible, respectful, and sustainable, but there's also some onus on the consumers and that's where I have seen huge amounts of confusion for them. As we're making this transition, how do we be better consumers?

Maybe you could speak a bit about your products and how you are reflecting this to consumers so they know we really are working more sustainably.

Marci

Well, part of our model at ECOfashion Corp is to make sustainability easy for consumers, brands, and retailers. Otherwise, it can seem very daunting and overwhelming, with concerns such as “I don't even know what I'm looking for. I don't know how to read labels properly.” 

In terms of protecting integrity, we have four verticals in our “Greenhouse of Brands,” which all share a common soil, a DNA of doing well, by doing good.

Take MetaWear, for example. It’s our turnkey manufacturing platform that’s about meeting other brands and retailers where they are—as an “intel inside” of sustainable apparel and home. There I will ask brands, what stories do you want to tell? Is it organic, regenerative, circular and recycled, biodynamic, low impact dyed, Fair Trade Certified, and/or Made in the USA? Then we’ll ask, what products do you want to make? Is it home textiles or women’s, men’s or kids clothing? What is the category (knits, wovens, sweaters, denim, etc.) and what are your price targets?

Then we oversee and manage the supply chain from farm to finished fashion, and everything we do is certified and fully traceable. We connect the dots so consumers can evolve from organic food or clean beauty, as those worlds have really taken off at the mainstream level.

Now, 83 percent of Americans are buying organic food. This is no longer a niche concept. So then when you look at fashion, the equivalent certification is known as the GOTS standard, the Global Organic Textile Standard

The fiber is certified organic by the National Organic Program (NOP), the same program governed by the USDA that oversees the food system.

But every single touch point in the supply chain of a GOTS-certified product is also managed, and audited so that there are no harmful chemicals anywhere in the process from the dyes to the finishes to the packaging. It’s the platinum standard for a finished textile.

We have three brands at ECOfashion Corp that are GOTS certified. YesAnd! is built on my core philosophy that you can have everything you want–style, quality, fit, color, comfort, softness, price point, AND social and environmental responsibility. We even have a YesAnd! resale program called YesAnd! Repeat. It's a secondhand resale market for YesAnd! with lots of ways to engage and learn along the way.

And then we have two mass market brands on QVC. One is called Farm to Home and the other is called Seed to Style. They're size-inclusive and help break the stigmas that you have to give up anything. Sustainable fashion is not about crunchy, boring, or boxy beige. Overpriced is another stigma we break by making it affordable, accessible, and fashion-forward. And these brands and products are GOTS certified so they are fully transparent and traceable.

We even now have a Blockchain technology in the Seed to Style and YesAnd! brands where a consumer can scan the QR-code on a finished product on the hang tag and learn the entire journey of the product. They can see how long the product has traveled, what the inputs are, and meet the farmers and factory workers with videos, photos, and testimonials. By year-end, the next frontier is embedding ESG impact data—such as carbon, water, energy use and wages.

The consumer can be a part of this solution by voting with their dollars.

Carole

How might our listeners find you?

Marci

I am on all the social media channels. On Instagram and Twitter @marcizaroff. I can also be emailed at Marci@ecofashioncorp.com. I have my own site at marcizaroff.com. We have our company site at ecofashioncorp.com. I'm on LinkedIn and of course our brands are also on Instagram.

YesAnd, Seed to StyleFarm to Home, and MetaWear.

 

Carole

Thank you so much for sharing your story on Heart Stock Radio. You’re an incredible inspiration.

Marci

Thank you so much for having me, Carole. I'm really looking forward to continuing on this journey where we can be the change, eat the change, and wear the change we all wish to see in the world.

Carole

Yes, indeed. And as usual, I'm your host Carole Murphy. We'll be back next week.

Heart Stock Radio is a production of KBMF 102.5 Butte America radio.



Thanks to our contributor: Kasi Martin

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