When organic industry pioneer Marci Zaroff, CEO of ECOFashion Corp, wanted to start her first organic textile company, she knew she wanted to apply the same ethos found in the organic food and beauty industry.
After coining the term "ecofashion," she founded fashion and home goods company Under the Canopy in 1996. The business model would incorporate sustainability and transparency throughout the process, from field to finished product. And she wanted to make the products affordable and attractive, too.
To do this, Zaroff realized her firm needed to control the entire supply chain. Normally the supply chain management process is piecemeal: brands and retailers send textile manufacturers a “tech pack," which include style sketches, construction, design details and other information to properly create the product. The factory uses brokers and middlemen to source those jobs, which dims transparency while adding to costs.
“Because we had a different kind of business model that started at the ground and built up, we were able to be more vertically integrated, control our supply and at the same time add value to product and be price-competitive," she says.
The power of collaboration helped Zaroff get Under the Canopy off the ground, she says. Initial investment and guidance at the farm level came from Anthony Rodale, whose family founded the organic agriculture research organization Rodale Institute. She traveled overseas and in India met her eventual business partner, who wanted to build an organic textile business.
To secure supply, they created a farm project, Chetna, partnering with a manager who oversaw the farmers. That organic cotton was processed at her partner's new factory in India, with Under the Canopy as the anchor brand.
“It shows you the power of collaboration. Not only was I able to help kickstart his business, but he was able to help move my business forward," she says.
Because transparency and sustainability were integral to the business model, it meant Under the Canopy would avoid harsh chemicals at the farm level and during textile processing. Farmers were paid fairly, manufacturing methods were ethical and fair, and laborers worked under safe, fair conditions.
“We were in the trenches, building probably the first transparent textile products," Zaroff says.
Launching in 1996 meant sales came from mail-order catalogs. Zaroff told Under the Canopy's story by sharing photos of farmers in the catalog alongside garments and home goods. “The philosophy was to break every stigma, that you have to give up style or quality or color or comfort. To break the stigma that you have to pay a lot more, or that you don't know where [the product] came from, because that's where transparency came in," she says.
Because we had a different kind of business model that started at the ground and built up, we were able to be more vertically integrated, control our supply and at the same time add value to product and be price-competitive.
—Marci Zaroff, CEO, ECOFashion Corp
A four-page catalog grew to 92 pages by 2003 and 2 million mailings before Under the Canopy transitioned to wholesale. And all this time, Zaroff was partnering with organic cotton suppliers to scale up production globally, from Texas to Turkey.
She says two partnerships brought Under the Canopy wider recognition—working with a national organic supermarket and creating textiles for high-end salons. By 2006, Under the Canopy launched organic bedsheets at a national retailer, selling for the same price as non-organic bedsheets.
Using her knowledge, Zaroff worked with the Organic Trade Association to write the first organic textile standards in the U.S. That led to a collaboration with organic groups in the U.K., Japan and Germany to create a global standard. The Global Organic Textile Standard launched in 2006, with those bedsheets the first to carry the logo in the U.S., Zaroff says.
GOTS, as the standard is known, governs the entire supply chain, not just the fiber, she says. It covers the finishing, dyeing and the processing to ensure the end-product's purity.
“It's truly, at the end of the day, free of all harmful chemicals from the farm all the way to the finished product. It's the only standard of its kind. It's definitely the platinum standard for organic textiles," she says.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognizes GOTS as equivalent to the USDA organic agricultural certification, and GOTS is working with the Federal Trade Commission for recognition of the finished textile product. “We've made some progress, and I think eventually you'll see some government regulation, I hope," says Zaroff.
Zaroff sold Under the Canopy in 2017 and is back in startup mode as CEO of ECOFashion, parent company of MetaWear, a turnkey manufacturer for other companies who want to launch an organic textile line, and later this year Zaroff will launch Farm to Home, an organic home collection.
The organic textile industry is still growing today. The Chetna farm project now enrolls 15,000 Indian farmers, she says, and there are over 5,700 GOTS-certified facilities globally.
Looking back, she says, the organic cotton industry has grown, but the ideas of sustainability and transparency haven't changed.
“I get a kick looking at the old catalogs. The styles are obviously outdated, but the concepts aren't," she says.
Photo: Dah Len / courtesy of Marci Zaroff