Ethical Fashion: How to Navigate the Industry

Zaroff In the final part of this series with Eco-fashion pioneer Marci Zaroff, I wanted to turn to the question of what it will take to really change the textile industry, what regulations need to be instituted, and in what ways we can empower ourselves to navigate through the many contradictions of what is indeed, a very complex industry.

Nadia: I would really love to hear what you think about the rise of Eco/sustainable fashion alongside the rise of ‘fast fashion,’ which encourages fast and disposable consumption of cheap clothing. How do we shift the cultural paradigm from this type of consumption to one that is slower and more responsible?

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Taking it to the streets. More than 300,000 people signed up to join the ‘Detox Zara’ campaign, which successfully resulted in Zara committing to go toxic-free by 2015.

Marci: The key is education, and that comes from driving awareness to consumers, retailers, media and buyers. And while deeper shifts are often more effective coming from top-down decision makers, passionate champions within a company and/or consumer demand (especially ignited by social & viral media) can affect positive change as well. Leveraging editors and celebrities, who are already conscious about their lifestyle choices can also be very powerful. I am partnered with the Environmental Media Association, which works successfully within the television & film entertainment industry to create messaging about environmental issues. And consumers can indeed make a difference! Just look at Greenpeace’s Toxic-Free Fashion Campaign that has galvanized the global fashion industry, propelling International brands as big as Levi’s and Zara to commit to a toxic-free future.

Nadia: Sustainable, Eco-fashion has definitely gained steam in the past two decades, but it doesn’t seem to have really permeated our consciousness like organic food has. What would you say are the three biggest stigmas of Eco-Fashion?

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Far from frumpy. Eco-fashion label Noir‘s sexy collection at 2009 London Fashion Week.

Marci: The first stigma would be that to adopt Eco-Fashion, one must give up style or quality. Similar to the early years of the organic food movement, when organic food was associated with granola, today, when people hear the term ‘organic or Eco fashion,’ they often still conjure an image of boxy, frumpy, boring, beige, rough-to-the-hand wares. But just as organic & natural food is now a far cry from just brown rice, as witnessed by walking into any Whole Foods Market, Eco-Fashion is no longer hippie, but instead, very hip! Yes, in the early years of Eco-Fashion, there were limitations to designs in terms of fabrics we could use. And of course, there wasn’t as high of a demand, so pricing was more challenging, and there were fewer factories willing to be innovative and work out-of-the-box. But the industry has come a very long way, and is still a work-in-progress.

In fact, the second stigma, that Eco-Fashion costs a lot more, is also no longer true. Efficiencies and economies of scale have been met and further, vertically integrated supply chains have been built from farm all the way to finished product. That is how Under the Canopy has been so successful bringing affordable accessible product collections to market. We have cut out a lot of the excess markups and middlemen, so that the consumer gets a product that is priced competitively and has the added value of being sustainable and ethically made.

That leads me to the third biggest stigma: how can one truly believe that their product is authentic? This is where certification, as well as brand integrity and commitment are paramount.  Understanding how to navigate a supply chain, while crossing T-s and dotting I’s via traceability and transparency, is an absolute key to success.

Nadia: Well, and one of the arguments for sustainable clothing is that unlike fast fashion, where the clothes tend to be cheap and we have little to no connections with the people who made it, we’re less likely to buy sustainably made clothes in excess and toss it out when we’re sick of it, right? I mean, that’s kind of the realization I came to this past summer when I was cleaning out my apartment.

Project Runway's season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final dress, helping to create awareness for eco-fashion.

Project Runway’s season five winner, Leanne Marshall, used sustainable materials for her final runway collection, helping to create mainstream awareness for Eco-fashion.

Marci: Because of the past roadblocks in accessibility, affordability and authenticity, Eco-Fashion was much more limited. But with a growing market for Eco-Fashion driven by consumer demand and industry-wide collaborations, more retailers and manufactures can have access to eco-friendly materials and manufacturing processes, and they will be more likely to support this shift in paradigm.

Because Ethical fashion is becoming more “fashionable”, and companies know that it’s no longer about staying ahead, but instead, it’s about not being left behind, there is a concern from many consumers that some companies are ‘going green’ to make their products more marketable. That is why consumers must be discerning as to what products, brands and companies they buy and support.

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Real charity or just clever marketing? Gap was accused of using marketing campaigns such as this one to detract from its many sweatshop abuses.

Nadia: That’s a concern I have had in the past and still have. And it’s not just with ‘going green,’ it’s with other aspects of social responsibility, that I feel companies sometimes will adopt marketing strategies to make their companies look better, when really they’re not being completely transparent. For example, I remember the controversy when Gap came out with their Red line, which donated a small portion of their proceeds from that line to Aids in Africa. There were anti-sweatshop activists who were upset that a company known for its abuse of workers would use a cause such as Aids to appear socially responsible. How can consumers navigate through these contradictions?

Marci: I think that this lack of transparency can really discourage people from being conscious consumers, because they don’t know what to believe. And in the Eco-fashion world, we’ve seen a lot of greenwashing, a practice by which a corporation will display insincere concern for the environment in an attempt to further their own agenda and reputation. Historically, it’s been a challenge to differentiate between which certifications are actually being monitored and accredited by third party certifiers, and there is still a huge disconnect in the consumers’ mind about which certifications matter. There’s a great website called the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that reveals the falsity of a lot of these labeling claims, including ‘all-natural’ (which means nothing – unlike organic, which is a legal word with very specific meaning) or calling something ‘green’ just because it contains one environmental attribute.

The importance of full transparency.

The importance of full transparency.

Nadia: Could you give us some examples of greenwashing in the textile industry?

Marci: Sure, I’ll give two. Bamboo is a perfect example, because it was marketed as the poster child of Eco-Fashion, but really, it is absolutely NOT sustainable as a material. Bamboo, when grown, is a renewable plant and actually very sustainable when used for flooring and furniture. But when you break it down into a textile, you must use enormous amounts of chemicals, which, in the end, leave only traces of bamboo. This process emits a magnitude and multitude of toxic chemicals into the air and water, and in doing so, destroys the sustainable aspects of the bamboo.  It is essentially no different from Rayon, which is a synthetic. Once the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) received complaints along these lines, they did some research and slapped lawsuits on many of the companies that were marketing bamboo textiles, making them change their labels and packaging to say ‘Rayon made from bamboo.’

Another example of greenwashing is when companies sell their products as ‘organic’ when their fabrics only contain a small percentage of organic cotton. Banana Republic, as an example, got caught marketing clothes as organic cotton when really they only contained about 5% organic cotton! “Organic” is NOT a marketing proposition; it is a methodology in agriculture and a federally-regulated term.

Nadia: Doesn’t Nike make those claims as well?

Marci: Nike is different because they are fully transparent. Unless a product isn’t 100% organic cotton, they won’t label it as organic. Believe it or not, Nike has been a true leader and pioneer in the organic cotton industry, and they have consistently been one of the largest buyers of organic cotton for over a decade. They were a founding member (along with Under the Canopy) of the Textile Exchange (formerly the Organic Exchange) and their efforts to shift the textile industry have been invaluable. Check out their recently released YouTube video:

Nadia: I know that you have launched organic/sustainable fiber initiatives in top retailers such as Whole Foods Market, Macy’s, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond. How committed are you to this idea of accessibility, in the sense that these companies may also be selling products that conflict with sustainability?

Marci: I am extremely committed to accessibility. I believe in the saying, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”  Therefore, every positive effort to offer consumers authentic sustainable choices is a step in the right direction. At the same time, this is where compliance and labeling are critical. As with the Banana Republic and Nike examples, the issue isn’t about companies only taking baby steps, it’s about full transparency. For example, Patagonia is a company with one of the most inspirational and well-respected environmental commitments that exists in the textile industry, but they are honest that they still have some things they need to work on. If you check out their amazing ‘Footprint Chronicles‘ online, you will be able to follow their supply chain and their efforts to make their company as transparent as possible.

Nadia: Designer Bruno Pieters just recently started the online retail site Honest By, which is the first 100% transparent company that gives customers a full cost breakdown of its products, so as to shed light on where the clothing is made and by whom. He recently noted in an interview that transparency is sorely lacking in the industry, and that no one really knows where their items are sourced, which is why he introduced ‘Honest By.’ Why are so few companies struggling to adopt this fully transparent model?

Marci: One of the biggest challenges I’ve come across with the large retailers I have worked with is how disconnected their different departments are. The marketing team isn’t speaking with the product development or sourcing teams, who aren’t connected with the Sustainability Directors or the buyers. These compartmentalized disconnects result in a lack of transparency, opportunity or effective communication strategies, and sometimes even result in tragedy, like at the recent factory fires in Pakistan and Bangladesh. For efforts to be truly sustainable for people, planet, profit, passion and purpose (“The five P’s”), companies must figure out how to plan, design, develop, source, manufacture and market with sustainable strategy and design models. The whole supply chain, from the farm and factory to the PR, has to be connected.

Nadia: Is this why it is so difficult to enforce multinational regulations?

Marci: There are inherent complexities with regulation. The challenge with the textile industry is that it is a global industry, and historically, certifications have sometimes differed between countries. As an example, I was on the team of people who wrote the first USA Certification of Organic Fiber Textiles, and in our trying to implement them across borders, there were huge inconsistencies with other countries’ standards. So how do you reconcile that? You need collaboration, and that’s what four different countries  –USA, Germany, the UK, and Japan- did when we created the Platinum standard for organic fiber textiles, known as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). This standard takes every part of a finished textile into consideration, from the farm (must be Certified Organic fiber) to the dyes, finishes, transport, packaging, labor, etc. It is a comprehensive authentic 3rd party accredited certification, which speaks to the very highest standards of excellence as a truly organic/sustainable textile product – for both apparel and home fashions. A recent breakthrough includes the USDA’s recognition of this standard as the textile counterpart to their USDA NOP seal that most people recognize on organic food products.

Nadia: Are there any companies that you think are taking the right steps towards sustainability?

Absolutely. For the mass-market, H&M has launched their “Conscious Collection.” Nike, Puma, and Adidas use sustainable fibers in their products. In high fashion design: Stella McCartney, Donna Karan, Ilaria Venturini, Fendi, and Vivienne Westwood have all introduced Eco-Fashion. Eileen Fisher also has begun integrating organic and sustainable fibers into her collections.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

Vivienne Westwood is using her Red Label to create awareness about climate change.

In addition to Under the Canopy and Portico, there are several other pioneering fashion brands making sustainable fibers and transparent ethical sourcing practices their focus: Lara Miller, Linda Loudermilk, Edun, People Tree, Kuyichi, Madera, Stewart & Brown, LoomState, and soon to be launched – FASE (Fashion-Art-Soul-Earth)!

Eco-fashion designers at NY Fashion Week share their mission to fuse style with sustainability, and counter ‘fast fashion':

Nadia: I of course would love to hear about your label FASE, why you launched it, and how you hope it will change the perception of Eco-fashion and the face of fashion in general?

Marci: I wanted to address this new FASE-to-face movement, and the idea that we are all connected, from the people making the products to the ones who are buying them. In Spanish the word means ‘phase,’ so it also has a double meaning of entering into a new phase of humanity and social justice, of shifting the old broken paradigms. It’s time we do an about FASE and FASE forward, to FASE the facts, to FASE the future. FASE offers a new engaging and experiential platform to make people think, and connect. With its cache, creativity, accessibility and influence, I believe that fashion is the most powerful vehicle for change in consumer products.

Fashion is a form of expression and a way for people to make a statement. I don’t think the answer to consumerism is so black or white that we should tell people, ‘stop shopping.’ It’s really about shifting the paradigm of the fashion industry to a slower, more conscious, more sustainable way of engaging with the textiles we wear and use and the people who make them.

Nadia: And can you tell us more about your upcoming documentary Thread (trailer below)?

Marci: We hope that Thread can do for fashion what Al Gore did for climate change, which is to educate consumers about what is going on behind the scenes, to unveil the harmful human and environmental impacts behind the fashion industry that hides under the guise of glamour.

Beauty has always been inspired by nature, but because of modern-day society and commercial pressure for “more, faster, cheaper fashion”, and the industrial movement which has depleted and destroyed our Earth’s natural resources, we’ve destroyed the essence of true beauty.  Fast fashion is destroying our environment, the ecosystem that is a part of every one of us, disconnecting us from each other and from the roots of real beauty. Sabotaging our planet is compromising humanity’s ability to radiate from within, to be alive, thriving and confident, revealing the ultimate source of beauty. Universal consciousness is the soul of authentic beauty, with the notion that we are all interconnected on a very deep, energetic level.

I believe that in 2012, we have entered a new era of consciousness, one which will awaken us to come full circle back to our roots in nature. The Internet, social media, documentaries and YouTube are allowing us to pull the curtain back on what we’ve been taught and brain fed by mainstream media. We are finally able to counter advertising that feeds us false messaging, or denounce companies that employ non-sustainable practices that hurt the environment and people.

Nadia: As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “By the time you have finished your breakfast, you will have relied on half the world.”

Marci: And we should start every day with a sense of gratitude and abundance.

Nadia: Any last thoughts before we wrap up this series?

Marci: Yes, I just want to make it clear that this movement is about best efforts and better choices, not about perfection. With a commitment to consciousness, responsibility, authenticity and transparency, together, we can make a real difference, where the “alternative” can become the new “norm.”

For updates on Marci Zaroff’s other Eco Fashion ventures, check out her website at marcizaroff.com.

Thread Documentary Trailer:

Further Reading:

My Related Posts:

10 Comments

Filed under Critical Fashion

10 responses to “Ethical Fashion: How to Navigate the Industry

  1. Dawisha, Adeed Dr.

    Alleluia Sista.

    At some point I thought it would never see the light of day!

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  4. Thanks so much for this interview.

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