With Marci Zaroff, ECOFashion Corp
Even if you’re not interested in fashion, the fact is everyone wears clothes. As social entrepreneurs and changemakers, it’s important to recognize how far we’ve come in the fashion industry. Reflecting on our progress gives us the motivation to keep going.
Cory spoke with eco lifestyle expert and serial social entrepreneur Marci Zaroff on the Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation podcast. They discussed fast fashion, its environmental impacts, and how brands are joining the momentum to disrupt the fashion industry as we know it.
Disrupting the fast fashion industry may be a slow process, but the good news is we’re moving in the right direction. In this post, we’ll cover why eco fashion matters, how eco fashion has evolved, and what’s next for the fashion industry.
What Does Eco Fashion Mean?
Before we go into the evolution of eco fashion, let’s define it.
Eco fashion is a fashion movement committed to minimizing carbon emissions, promoting the health and safety of all species, and protecting the planet from climate change. It’s a movement that ties environmentalism and social justice with fashion.
In 1995, Marci Zaroff coined the term eco fashion. The idea was to bridge two worlds: the environmentalist and the fashionista. Marci wanted the world to know you can have style and minimize your harm to the environment at the same time.
The aim for eco fashion, according to Marci, is to change the world of style with products that are:
- Ethically made
- Certified organic
- Low impact
While it can be challenging to find brands that are practicing eco fashion, it’s not impossible. Today, more and more brands are joining the eco fashion movement. It’s not a passing trend; it’s here to stay.
Why is Eco Fashion Important?
“Eco fashion is so important because we’re not just what we eat―we’re also what we wear.” ― Marci Zaroff
On the podcast, Marci shares two reasons eco fashion is important:
1. Impact on the Environment
“There’s a big opportunity to leverage the power of fashion to transform agriculture to help find a solution to climate change.” ― Marci Zaroff
The fashion industry is a major contributor to biodiversity loss, as it harms worms, beetles, and thousands of other subterranean species that are vital to agriculture. Raw materials like non-organic cotton use pesticides for production, further leading to poor soil health.
“Today, regenerative agriculture is being seen as one of our greatest solutions to climate change,” Marci explained. Regenerative agriculture involves restoring biodiversity, rebuilding soil, and minimizing mechanical agitation to improve ecological health.
Marci says healthy soil is important not only for biodiversity but also for minimizing carbon emissions. “When we have healthy soil, soil—which is the skin of the earth—will sequester carbon out of the atmosphere.”
2. Impact on Our Health
Your skin is the largest organ of the body. It protects you from external factors like chemicals and bacteria. Does it protect you from textiles made with non-organic cotton that used pesticides for growth?
We don’t know yet.
In one study, the chemical benzothiazole was present in 23 of 26 investigated garments. Back in the 70s, the flame retardant tris phosphate was used in children’s pajamas before researchers discovered the chemical was gene-altering.
With the lack of research, textiles seem to be a “forgotten route to human chemical exposure.”
“When you pull the curtain back, and you unveil the magnitude of harmful chemicals that are going into our textile system, it’s pretty eye-opening,” Marci said.
The fact is, we’re touching textiles 24/7. Sleeping in sheets, using towels, wearing robes, t-shirts, and underwear. “What you’re wearing all day is an extension of who you are,” Marci said. “Business as usual can’t continue when you look at what goes into the making, the growing, the sewing, and the building of textiles.”
When Did the Eco Fashion Movement Start?
“Eco fashion has come to a place where it’s a ubiquitous term for this movement for a different kind of fashion industry.” ― Marci Zaroff
The eco fashion movement was a gradual evolution. There’s not one single moment or event that launched eco fashion or defined how we see it today. But before we dive into the winding history of eco fashion, let’s clear up a few terms.
What’s in a Name?
Eco fashion has gone by different names over the years. From green fashion and eco fashion in the early 2000s, to eco-friendly and sustainable fashion in the mid-2010s.
Google Trends shows a jump in the term “sustainable fashion” around 2016. Here’s a comparison between the terms eco fashion and sustainable fashion from January 2004 to November 2021:
Whether you call it green fashion, ethical fashion, or sustainable fashion, we’re all in this together. The eco fashion movement has been in the works for over five decades and it’s here to stay.
Eco Fashion Through the Decades
Some cultural movements have a specific point in time you can refer to as the beginning, but the eco fashion movement has been a slow burn, lasting over the course of more than 60 years to bring us to where we are today. Here’s a look at the history of eco fashion in the United States.
The 60s brought us the hippie movement, a counterculture movement rejecting mainstream American life. Hippies were often mocked for being tree-huggers. Their focus on the environment eventually “led to the philosophy of taking care of the Earth through recycling, organic food, vegetarianism, and forest preservation,” said journalism professor Larry Atkins.
The first-ever Earth Day took place on April 22, 1970 to spread awareness about air and water pollution. Shortly after the first Earth Day, the United States Environmental Protection Agency was formed.
After two decades of growing interest in environmentalism, the 1980s showed us the importance of citizens using their voices. We started to see some policy shifts come into play, including:
- The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which focused on waste reduction and “phasing out land disposal of hazardous waste”
- The Safe Drinking Water Act, which ensured quality drinking water in the U.S.
- The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, which set standards and enforcement for cleaning up hazardous waste sites
Even with all the green policy gains from the 80s, the eco fashion movement still wasn’t fully adopted by the 90s. Eco-friendly, green brands were still very niche.
“Eco fashion used to have all these stigmas attached to it—that it was crunchy, frumpy, boxy, beige, boring.” said Marci.
Small, steady progress started to take shape. Brands like Whole Foods and Burt’s Bees saw incremental growth. Esprit and Patagonia started raising awareness about the environmental impacts of fashion. In 1993, Nike launched its Reuse-a-Shoe program to give consumers a way to upcycle their old sneakers—a program that still runs to this day.
Even as Marci coined the term eco fashion in 1995, there were still stereotypes attached to the organic and sustainable fashion movement, likely stemming from the 1960s.
“The internet changed the game,” Marci said. In the early 2000s, for the first time ever, consumers could find out more about where their clothes come from—pulling back the curtain on fashion production and its environmental impact.
In 2002, Marci played a key role in forming the GOTS certification. Then, in 2006, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth came out, stirring a cultural reaction to the impending ecological disaster of climate change.
Post-Inconvenient Truth, the movement for going green started to grow in popularity. Terms like “eco-sensitive” and “green consumerism” were starting to gain traction. Gone were the old stereotypes of environmentalists being “tree-hugging hippies” (as Marci put it).
Now, environmentalists had science backing them up. A cultural shift was happening.
Green Fashion Week in LA in 2007 was the first fashion week with an eco-focus. It highlighted a key shift in the eco fashion movement—environmentally-minded consumerism was the way of the future across industries. The week was sponsored by Mercedes Benz, as the company was promoting “an eco-friendly car.”
Green Fashion Week was a testament to the changing times. The showcase included pesticide-free cotton and environmentally friendly designs. It shifted the conversation and showed that fashion can (and should) be eco-friendly.
Kicking off a new decade, the UN Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) concluded its 2010 event with an EcoChic Fashion show. The show called on producers and consumers to protect the world’s species.
Then, in 2013, the Rana Plaza disaster sparked another wave of momentum. The collapse of the Rana Plaza factory killed more than 1,100 workers on April 24, 2013.
The first Fashion Revolution Day took place in 2014. Today, Fashion Revolution is the world’s largest fashion activism movement. It’s focused on “the interconnectedness of human rights and the rights of nature.”
In 2015, the film True Cost premiered, a documentary on the environmental and human costs of fashion. It brought to light the impact on our planet and how fast fashion labor impacts garment workers.
Throughout the 2010s, education and awareness about the impact of fashion continued to spread. But at this point, the conversation expanded to the intersection between human rights, social justice, and the environment.
When cities and storefronts closed for lockdown, and 35% of employees started working from home, consumers weren’t shopping for new clothes. As a result, fashion brands canceled or refused to pay for $16.2 billion worth of factory orders.
They owed 40,000 laid-off workers about $40 million in severance pay, even a year after the pandemic began.
Today, consumers are driving demand for the future of fashion to be sustainable and ethical. The pandemic put fashion brands in the spotlight and brought the eco fashion movement to the forefront of everyone’s minds.
One thing is for certain for the fashion industry: change is inevitable.
“COVID-19 presents an opportunity for reconceptualization and retraining of designers but also of consumers,” Nkwo Onwuka, founder of sustainability brand Nkwo, shared with UNEP. “It means thinking smaller—not a 60-piece collection, but maybe a 16-piece one, that is beautiful and wearable, made with less waste, by workers who are treated fairly.”
Eco Fashion Today: The Momentum Continues
“That whole mission of the alternative becoming the norm and the norm becoming the alternative—I think we’re there.” ― Marci Zaroff
We’re in an eco-renaissance. According to Marci, we’re finally in a place where consumers and brands are striving to be better together. Post-pandemic environmentalism is growing, and brand behaviors are shifting. Here’s where we are today and how Marci expects the future of eco fashion to unfold.
1. Moving Toward Carbon Neutral
The move towards carbon neutrality is continuing to spread. In fact, “Fifty-two fashion brands, including Reformation, Nicholas Kirkwood, and Allbirds, are certified carbon neutral today.”
Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral, shared, “There is a norm shift happening.” As more companies get certified or announce their carbon-neutral initiatives, competitors are starting to take notice.
“Most companies don’t understand their climate contributions,” Austin shared, “but that should be as normalized as understanding your revenues or expenses.”
As momentum continues, we’ll start to see more companies announce their commitments and more brands learning how to measure, assess, and minimize their carbon footprint.
Product labels don’t tell the whole story. You might see a “Made in India” label, but where did the cotton come from? What about the buttons? The thread?
Traceability is Essential to the Future of Eco Fashion.
With access to information, consumers can make better buying choices. They can select products that travel through fewer countries to reduce their carbon footprint from transportation. They can prioritize purchasing organic and ethically sourced products.
For brands, traceability is a slow process. You don’t have to have all the solutions figured out, but acknowledging there’s a problem and explaining how you’re moving in the right direction will go a long way. “That’s where you build trust and credibility,” Marci said.
“It’s not about being perfect,” Marci explained, “it’s about being transparent, and saying ‘this is where we’re going. We’re not there yet, but we’re committed, and here are the steps we’re going to take to get there.’”
On the road to trust and credibility, ECOfashion Corp is rolling out new technology on its packaging. Using blockchain QR technology, the company will share where each piece of the product originates. Marci says this will provide full visibility as to where the factories are located and every touchpoint the product goes through along the way.
What’s more, the QR code will link to farmers’ stories to build connections between consumers and the real people who brought their products to life.
Their plan is to expand blockchain technology and dive deeper into the product stories. The next chapter is to bring impact data and carbon mapping up the supply chain so consumers know each piece of the production puzzle.
3. Educating Consumers
“Our clothing doesn’t grow in the department store, and our food doesn’t grow in the supermarket.” ― Marci Zaroff
Part of the antidote to fast fashion is education. Consumers need to learn how to make smart buying choices. But how?
It Starts with Awareness
Marci says a key piece of the eco fashion movement is continuing to educate consumers on what eco fashion looks like. What kind of raw materials are less harmful to the environment? What types of brands and labels should we look for?
There are three key areas to educate consumers on:
- Raw materials: What are the textiles made of? What are the environmental impacts of the materials?
- Production process: How is the item made? What’s the carbon footprint of the item?
- Labels and marketing: What should consumers look out for?
The challenge with consumer education is the prevalence of misinformation and misleading labels. Brands are quick to market their GOTS certified organic cotton, but if there are other harmful materials in the item, there are missing pieces to the story.
“If you see a label and it says organic cotton, and in the same label you see rayon, that’s probably a red flag,” Marci explained. She’d be concerned about whether the materials are actually organic, as rayon’s chemical usage means it’s considered a semi-synthetic fiber.
Right now, 62% of Gen Z and 59% of millennials are post-COVID environmentalists. Younger generations are leading the way for change.
But there’s a gap in the generations. GlobalWebIndex (GWI) found that 37% of baby boomers don’t own sustainable products, and 33% aren’t sure whether they do or not.
We need education on all fronts to ensure consumers of all ages know the impact and importance of their buying choices.
From the consumer side, try to really get to know the brand. Find out what their missions are, what they’re working on, the gray areas, and gaps between where they are and where they want to be. It all comes down to transparency.
ECOFashion Corp: A Greenhouse of Brands
Marci Zaroff, Founder and CEO at ECOFashion Corp
“Make the norm the alternative and the alternative the norm.” — Marci Zaroff
Marci Zaroff has spent decades driving positive change. In 1990, she co-founded the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, now the world’s largest holistic nutrition school. She coined the term eco fashion in 1995, about ten years before mainstream fashion and consumers started to embrace the idea of sustainable fashion.
A pioneer in the field, Marci was a key figure in the development of the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) in the early 2000s. She continues to be a leader in the eco-space, as founder and CEO of ECOFashion Corp. The company is a greenhouse of four brands, including Yes And, Farm to Home, Seed to Style, and MetaWear.
In 2018, she published her book ECOrenaissance: a Lifestyle Guide for Cocreating a Stylish, Sexy & Sustainable World.
“I’ve always seen business as a force for change. A very powerful force for change.” — Marci Zaroff
Closing: Slowing Down to Get Ahead
The pandemic, Marci says, showed us we’ve been moving too fast. “We need to slow down our own lives,” Marci shared on the podcast. “We need to slow down fashion, we need to slow down food, and we need to get back to the roots.”
Remember you are not alone on the eco journey. Marci put it best: “The future is ours to co-create and redesign.”
Slow progress is better than none. If there’s anything that the eco fashion movement has shown us, it’s that we’re moving in the right direction.
Additional Resources and Links Mentioned from the Episode:
- Marci Zaroff
- Marci Zaroff LinkedIn
- Living in the Light
- B Corporation
- Rise and Resist
- Fashion Revolution
- Kiss the Ground
- Be Here Now
- Bold Women in Science
- Cradle to Cradle
Grow Ensemble Contributor
Karonica is a content writer focused on helping purpose-driven and sustainable businesses connect with more people. Using her background in college admissions and customer service, she writes and edits to serve others with kind, clear, and educational content.
Karonica has written blogs and scripts for everyone from food startups to nonprofits, to SAAS and e-commerce companies. She’s an aspiring green thumb who loves reading, hiking, and making fresh salsa every week.