While in DC for the Textile Exchange Conference I also got the opportunity to walk thru MetaWear’s Fairfax, Virginia factory. The factory has been a long time established printing business as Sundog Productions, but in working with Marci Zaroff it has evolved to include other features like cut & sew operations. Marci is a veteran of the sustainable and organic movement. She began working in food co-founding the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, then beauty and not far behind was fashion.
MetaWear has a commitment to ethical production, organic fibers (these even being spun in North Carolina), and renewable energy. There are some really amazing features utilizing geothermal and solar energy to run the factory efficiently, learn more about that here. Don’t miss the info on SeaInk as well! On top of this, the factory is the first Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified in the US along with Cradle to Cradle certification.
I got a chance to speak with Marci and learn more about her story and the evolution of MetaWear.
You’ve been able to help many industries create a more sustainable direction, but was this always in the cards for you or was there a turning point early in your career?
Marci: It was always my calling from the time that I decided to go into business school that I was going to see business as a force for change. So, it was really never an option to go into business that wasn’t built on the five “P” principals, which are: People, Planet, Profit, Passion & Purpose. This is why I call myself an eco-preneur vs. entrepreneur. My vision is about appealing to people at a visceral level, then taking them deeper into the why, the what, the how, and the where.
When you started Under the Canopy in 1996 was it always based around home products and was there push back in terms of working with mills and manufacturers in understanding your vision?
Marci: I had started another company before Under the Canopy. In 1990, I co-founded a school that did health and environmental education and certified people to become health coaches. That school today is known as the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and it has certified over 75,000 people as health coaches. The program is now in over 130 countries around the world online.
So, I already had been in the trenches on working with consumers and segued into beauty products by opening New York City’s first Aveda concept salon in the school. Then, when I started Under the Canopy in 1995, I coined the term “Eco-fashion” specifically to connect the dots between food, beauty and fiber products—which included apparel and home fashion.
I wanted the brand to embody the conscious lifestyle I had already embraced in food and beauty. I created Under the Canopy as a lifestyle mail order catalog because there was no market at the retail level to sell to as a wholesaler. Under the Canopy was really the first of its kind, and I would say probably about 90% of the catalog was apparel and about 10% was home textiles.
I wanted to show that fashion and home were extensions of food and beauty, as they were all interconnected. Once the seed of consciousness is planted with a consumer, they will inevitably ask what else, what’s next, what’s more, and where do I go from here? Under the Canopy’s core category was apparel out of the gate and home was the add-on.
So did you find that over time consumers were looking more to home products, is that how it evolved?
Marci: From the early years, I was building supply chains around the world. What connected my work in the US, India, Peru, Turkey and in all of my different supply chains and different products was the source—which was the cotton. So, unlike most other fashion or home brands who were buying at the factory level, working back through the supply chain, I was actually starting at the farms and building up my supply chains to the finished products. With this disruptive business model, not only could I offer a diversity of products, but I could connect the source to the story as well.
Over the years in the 90’s, Under the Canopy was a catalog business. Then in 1999, Whole Foods Senior Executive VP of Growth and Business Development was on my Board of Directors and he said to me, “Hey, do you want to be the partner in our first big online website initiative, it’s called wholepeople.com?” So, I started working with Whole Foods to become the apparel and home counterpart and like every other aspiring Internet company, their bubble burst in 2000 when the wells dried up for capital. So, wholepeople.com never came to life, but it planted the seed for Under the Canopy and Whole Foods.
Then a few years later, Co-CEO Walter Robb offered to give me 2,000 sq. ft. in their first mega store to bring the Under the Canopy vision to life. At the time, Whole Foods were 30-40,000 sq. ft. stores, but as a leading retail innovator, they were moving to 80-100,000 sq. ft. store footprints. I was thrilled. As category captain, I basically wrote the business plan for Whole Foods to launch textiles and to connect the dots from food to fiber—creating an Under the Canopy store-in-store with women’s clothing, men’s clothing, baby clothing, loungewear, towels, and bedding. We had the whole textile story. It was very exciting.
We then started getting contacted by all kinds of other retailers that were interested in different parts of what we were offering in Whole Foods. In Macy’s, we launched baby; in Bed, Bath & Beyond, we launched towels; in Target, we launched sheets and kitchen textiles; in boutiques, we launched ready to wear apparel. Suddenly, we found ourselves branching out in many different directions and working with countless retailers on launching their first organic textile initiatives. In 2009, I exited Under the Canopy after successfully spearheading countless launches into the nation’s leading retailers and Under the Canopy had grown substantially. After raising significant funds for growth, new management came in and the company had a life of its own. I moved on to do more public speaking, writing, and consulting, and started producing a documentary film series called “Thread | Driving Fashion Forward.”
Do you think that lead to you starting MetaWear to continue on in a different way?
Marci: After a few years of doing a lot of market innovation, one of the things that I saw, having started my career so early in organic textiles, was that it was very hard for organic cotton farmers in America to survive and to keep growing organic cotton because the manufacturing infrastructure between 2008-2012 had left America. Everything was shutting down and most clothing brands and retailers were moving their productions overseas. At the same time, watching the organic food and farm to table movements pick up steam, with growing consumer demand for transparency, I had an epiphany that the local movement would also ultimately want to reconnect food to fiber.
I realized that I needed to bring manufacturing back to America in order to re-ignite organic cotton farming in America. So, I went on a search to find a way to do that. I fell upon someone in Virginia who had been a tie-dyer and printer for years and I moved into a factory with him to bring to life a sustainable fashion platform, using only organic materials, ethical manufacturing, and a seaweed based printing process free of any harmful ingredients. That was the birth of MetaWear.
I founded MetaWear in 2013 to make sustainability easy for brands and retailers, and to create a turnkey full package solution to bring manufacturing back to America, while reigniting organic cotton farming domestically as well. My vision was to leverage the MetaWear platform like an “Intel inside” to fuel sustainable fashion because of my decades of work in ECOfashion, both domestically and overseas.
MetaWear would be a one-stop shop for brands and retailers to produce knitwear and other custom goods, made authentically and transparently from farm to finished fashion. MetaWear became the first GOTS certified manufacturer in North America with a full GOTS certified supply chain. We also were the first manufacturer in the world to make cradle to cradle certified finished garments. MetaWear has become a game-changing innovator and solution provider in the fashion industry.
Do you feel like that market is growing?
Marci: Unquestionably! No doubt about it. MetaWear just launched on Amazon a collaboration with an awesome company called Alma Mater, so we now have co-branded NCAA college licensed organic merchandise made in the USA. We are launching a co-branded organic underwear collection with Hanky Panky in early 2018. We just launched a very exciting T-shirt with Mission 2020 and Christiana Figueres, who’s one of the leading world voices on climate change with the United Nations. Our “Stubborn Climate Optimist” T-shirts are available at https://www.2020t.us/.
We also just this week launched “Dirt Shirts”—grown from TX organic cotton and sewn in the USA—for Dr. Mercola, available now at Mercola.com. We are doing a lot of co-branding and collaboration, reinforcing the “Intel” that I was speaking to, and the power of 1+1=11. MetaWear has a lot going on in our pipeline, and it’s all super exciting.
Have you experienced any difficulties in working with organic cotton vs conventional cotton?
Marci: I have over 20 years of working and pioneering the organic cotton movement, so I’m pretty well versed in where the challenges have been and where they are today. One of the challenges is with companies that have been working with organic cotton overseas like Indian organic cotton and they don’t understand all the intricacies of the various global supply chains. For instance, US organic cotton has a slightly different hand than Indian, as the fiber lengths are not as long in the US.
Fashion brands and consumers still don’t always get that cotton is a part of agriculture and there are differences from region to region around the world. And since MetaWear offers both Indian and American organic cotton options, we do a lot of education and innovation to provide finished products that encompass both value and values—from source to story. We drove the building of the first USA certified organic supply chain, including a GOTS certified spinner and GOTS certified knitter in the Carolinas, where the American textile industry was once thriving.
Is there anything you envisioned for MetaWear that has felt like an impossible task?
Marci: One of the challenges that I discovered while building my cut & sew operation in Virginia was how hard it has been to find a labor force, when there’s not a lot of sewing skills in the area. So, I’ve expanded into extended factory partnerships that MetaWear manages in places like North Carolina and Pennsylvania, taking these factories through GOTS certification as MetaWear subcontractors. Because of Virginia and other limitations, we’ve built a bigger supply chain than our original factory, and are hoping to open a large cut & sew facility in the Carolinas of our own by the end of 2018.
MetaWear is primarily knits and tee based, do you foresee working in wovens and expanding products in the future?
Marci: Our core competency is definitely organic and sustainable knitwear. We have also done some home textiles for Coyuchi and other brands where we’ve made printed napkins, made knit pillowcases and created accessories like scarves. Our focus is definitely T-shirts and other knit goods, such as tank tops, hoodies, leggings, and yoga wear.
Technically, we can do wovens too, but it won’t likely be under our own roof where we do the cut & sew. That’s where we come in more as a manufacturing platform because we do have supply chain partners that we work with on wovens, and we might even suggest these programs to be done in our Indian factories, since making woven fabrics in the USA is extremely challenging.
What steps can brands take to be more sustainable?
Marci: Most importantly, it comes down to fiber and materials and looking at what’s in them, where are they from and how are they being grown and/or made. So, if polyester is a fabric of interest for performance attributes, we would inspire a brand to use recycled polyester (rPET) instead— which is actually plastic bottles taken out of landfills. If a brand is used to working with cotton, we will help them transition to using organic cotton. If they are using fibers or materials like bamboo—which is very toxic—we would move them into Tencel, which is made from the cellulose extracted from Eucalyptus.
We are certified at the highest level of GOTS standard, the platinum level standard for a finished textile. From farm to finished product, GOTS certification assures full traceability, whereby both the fiber and processing into materials and final goods are free of harmful ingredients like pesticides, herbicides, formaldehyde, heavy metals, acetone, and chlorine bleach. The average fashion brand often doesn’t even realize the magnitude and multitude of toxic chemicals in their production.
The next frontier of the fashion industry addresses how and where textiles are being made and processed beyond the fiber itself and also includes ethical manufacturing. We are dedicated to fair-trade principals such as fair labor, social justice and safe working conditions—all very important to our ethos and integrated into the GOTS organic certification.
What is your take on farm to fashion, do you think we will see the same crossover from the food and beauty industries in awareness?
Marci: It’s already happening and we are seeing a lot of momentum around organic cotton and sustainable textiles. I’m on the Board of Directors of the Organic Trade Association which helps govern organic products in America by driving both policy and promotion. I also Chair the newly launched Organic Fiber Council, and 34 brands have already joined our council, including companies as big as Prana, Timberland, and Outerknown. Brands like MetaWear, Dr. Bronner’s, Mercola and Patagonia are also addressing organic regenerative agriculture, which focuses on soil as one of our greatest solutions to mitigating climate change.
There are lots of brand and retailer initiatives and the Global organic textile industry has grown from around 245 million in sales in 2002 to over 16 billion in sales just last year. And it’s just the beginning. Approximately 83% of American consumers today are buying organic food products at least occasionally—which means the level of awareness in the mainstream is that consumers now understand organic to be healthier for people and the planet. We have to continue connecting the food to fiber dots, as 60% of a cotton plant actually goes back into the food stream for animal feed and oil.
Obviously, with ECOfashion, we have to break the stigma that you have to give something up— like style, quality, fit, comfort or color —or anything that you want, so organic becomes a value-add to the product. It’s all about no compromise.
How do we continue to engage consumers especially when it comes to understanding price?
Marci: Another stigma with organic fashion is in consumers thinking that they have to pay a lot more. If brands and retailers were more vertically integrated and more efficient in the supply chain, then they’d have the ability to cut a lot of the inefficiencies out—which means a lot of the broker mark-ups. A typical garment can change hands 7-10 times in a supply chain.
In my supply chains, we go directly to the organic cotton farms and build up the supply chains and therefore we can actually add value (and story) without adding a lot of price. Where price becomes sticker shock is with 100% “Made in the USA.” That’s because labor costs in the United States are so much higher, but when we talk more about the fiber and materials over a larger scale program we can actually amortize the fiber cost, and the premium on the fiber cost so there shouldn’t be large differentials, especially in our overseas productions.
We really have to educate consumers to stop thinking about cheaper, faster, more and start thinking about better quality, better for human health, better for the planet, better for farmer and worker welfare, and better for future generations.
Lastly, after a long day what is your favorite way to unwind?
Marci: Fortunately, I have an amazing gym and spa across the street from my building in NYC. It offers great yoga classes, plus houses a jacuzzi, steam room, a juice bar, and an organic café. I love to start my morning there, so I’m refreshed and rejuvenated before I dive into my day.
I love my work, and I’m very lucky, as one of my favorite quotes is from Kahlil Gibran: “work is love made visible.” If you love your work, it’s not work, it's love.
So, everything I do, I become. What I choose to put in, on, and around my body, and who I spend my time with, I believe is an extension of who I am. I feel so grateful for the work I’m doing, but I also find it’s very important to nurture myself through a good steam, just resting and tuning out, taking a walk or yoga class, or eating a nice organic meal with my daughter (who is my roommate), my son, my husband, and/or my friends. We are all in this together, and the movement for positive change has never been more exciting.
My book: “ECOrenaissance: Co-Creating a Stylish, Sexy & Sustainable World” is being published by Simon & Schuster in 2018, so follow me at @marcizaroff and/or pre-order your copy on Amazon today.