Organic Fiber Pioneer Marci ZaroffAugust 2018
By Kyle Roderick
Just as consuming organic foods and nutritional supplements helps promote optimum health, “so does wearing organic fabrics and using organic home textiles,” says New York-based entrepreneur Marci Zaroff.
A petite powerhouse, Zaroff and the company that she founded, Under the Canopy, has been revolutionizing the way we dress, sleep and bathe by manufacturing organic clothing and home textiles for over 20 years.
Zaroff wrote the book ECOrenaissance: A Lifestyle Guide for Co-creating a Stylish, Sexy and Sustainable World as a guide to sustainable living.
“Skin is the largest organ of our body,” Zaroff explains. “Conventional cotton is grown with toxic pesticides and other poisons, treated with toxic dyes and finished with carcinogenic chemicals such as formaldehyde, so it’s far healthier for us, our children and our planet to wear and use pure organic fibers in everyday life.”
Zaroff’s career has been at the forefront of organic fiber fashion. A vegetarian for the last 35 years, Zaroff regularly practices yoga and takes various health supplements (see sidebar).
LE: Why is it important to use textiles that are made from organically grown fibers and plant-based, earth-safe dyes?
MZ: Hundreds of ingredients in the insecticides used on cotton have been variously classified by the EPA and other scientific authorities as carcinogenic and/or endocrine disruptors. While five of the top nine pesticides used on cotton in the U.S. (cyanide, dicofol, naled, propargite, and trifluralin) are known cancer-causing chemicals, all nine are classified by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as Category I and II dangerous chemicals. Clothing dyes are also one of the leading sources of water pollution worldwide.
LE: In 2007, the Environmental Justice Foundation, in collaboration with Pesticide Action Network UK, reported that conventionally grown cotton accounts for 16% to 25% of all insecticides used globally each year, more than any other single crop. Is there any good news from the EPA regarding toxic insecticides used on cotton crops?
MZ: The EPA has recognized the dangers of Aldicarb, the world’s second best-selling insecticide. Acutely poisonous to humans and wildlife, Aldicarb is still used in 25 countries, including the U.S., where 16 states have reported its presence in their groundwater. The EPA has signaled that Aldicarb’s phase-out will begin this year.
LE: Why and how did you become an organic textile entrepreneur?
MZ: I realized that organic and sustainable apparel, along with textiles for the bed and bath, as well as furniture and curtain fabrics, were the missing links that I wanted to forge between organic foods and other key elements in the sustainable lifestyle chain. Another key reason powering my decision to develop the market for organic cotton fashions and home textile products arose out of U.S. government reports which stated that conventionally grown cotton uses more insecticides globally than any other crop. I knew that organic cotton represented a better way forward for humanity and the planet which is our home.
LE: So how did you get such a huge project started?
MZ: In 1995, I founded Under the Canopy, a sustainable lifestyle brand of certified organic, eco-friendly home fashion, apparel, and hotel textiles that are manufactured according to socially responsible methods. I worked with organic cotton farmers and fabric manufacturers in the U.S., India, South America, and Europe to pioneer sourcing, manufacturing and marketing of third party-certified organic-cotton bed linens, bath towels, bathrobes, clothing, draperies, pillows, etc. My team and I created a development, distribution, and monitoring business model to ensure that organic textile manufacturing processes and products remain transparent, authentic and of the highest possible quality.
LE: Starting your business must have required many months, if not years of due diligence.
MZ: I did spend a fair amount of time researching various mills, vetting and visiting them for occupational health and safety, ethical working conditions and fair trade practices. But I soon found mills in India and in the U.S. that could produce organic clothing.
LE: Why and how have organic textiles gained a foothold in the mass market?
MZ: Evidence-based reporting on the Internet, cable television, and print media is continually increasing people’s awareness of how what we wear on our bodies is just as important as what we put inside our bodies. Increasing numbers of people, especially Millennials, are questioning how chemical residues from conventionally grown cotton plus dyes in clothing, bedding, towels and other home textiles may be irritating their skin, triggering allergies or contributing to chronic and serious conditions such as asthma.
LE: What’s the hard data on organic textile sales growth?
MZ: In 2016, the Organic Trade Association reported that U.S. organic food sales totaled around $47 billion, indicating sales increases of almost $3.7 billion from the previous year. While 2016 sales of non-food organic products increased by almost 9% to $3.9 billion, organic fiber products such as sheets and towels, along with health supplements and personal care products, accounted for the bulk of those sales. What’s more, in 2016, U.S. organic cotton farmers produced a record 17,000-plus bales, which has helped increase supply to manufacturers.
LE: Having steadily worked with organic cotton farmers, sustainable textile mills and trade associations during the nascent years of the organic textile industry, you’re one of the experts who defined the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Please explain the important points about GOTS, why it is important and how it is evolving.
MZ: GOTS is a stringent third-party certification system that ensures highest product purity and ethical manufacturing of organic fabrics, home linens and clothing. Although I spent about six years working with colleagues to create universal standards for organic fiber certification, I have been collaborating for almost two decades with other green business leaders to define and refine this. GOTS is now in its fifth iteration, and I sit on the board of directors of the Organic Trade Association (O.T.A.), where I continue to advocate for upholding highest possible standards in organic textile manufacturing.
LE: I understand that you have also helped create standards for the world’s first Fair Trade Textile Certification with the nonprofit organization Fair Trade USA.
MZ: Yes, and I’ve also worked on the Cradle to Cradle Certified™ Product Standard. This guides designers and manufacturers through a continual improvement process that evaluates how a product measures up in the five quality categories of material health, material reutilization, renewable energy and carbon management, water stewardship, and social fairness.
LE: You’ve worked consistently as an advocate for the world’s organic farmers and organic product manufacturers.
MZ: Yes, I enjoy speaking and consulting internationally on organic and sustainable textiles, strategic vision, social innovation, green business, and the rise of the values-driven Millennial generation.
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