An Interview With Our Founder - Part I
Under the Canopy celebrates its 20th birthday this year! From day one, when Marci Zaroff founded the brand in 1996, it has stood for an unwavering commitment to sustainability. Now, with a brand new look and a beautiful (if we do say so!) collection coming out this fall, we are doubling down on our efforts not only to bring you sustainable products, but also to help provide valuable insight and inspiration to propel the sustainable lifestyle movement forward.
With that in mind, we are launching an interview series with industry leaders and lifestyle gurus whose unique perspectives and experiences can help inform us all. To kick the series off, we’ve picked Marci’s brain! She is after all, our founder, our on-going inspiration, and perhaps most importantly, someone who has dedicated her life to sustainability. We hope you feel as inspired by the transcript below, as we felt talking with her. And we hope you’ll join us as Marci carries the interview series forward. Stay tuned!
Marci, you have dedicated your life to and built your career in sustainability. Why? Why is sustainability important to you?
When I was 15 years old, I was given a book called "Living in the Light" by Shakti Gawain. It resonated. I was like, “Ahhh! Yes! This makes sense – that there’s more than what we see.” I started reading books about the environment and health because I wanted to go deeper.
Later, in college, I was into macrobiotics. I got into yoga. I got into all the things that supported this consciousness movement when it was still “woo woo.” I was learning everything I could, going to conferences on the environment and human health, because I was interested in it – it made sense to me.
How did you decide to found Under the Canopy?
When I graduated in 1989, I moved to New York, and I wanted to open a health food store and education center. It started out of my apartment on 53rd Street, and it started with doing cooking classes and lectures and workshops even before we had the space. It was called Gulliver's Living and Learning Center. It was the idea behind Gulliver’s travels of taking people on this journey to the land of health and wellness and self-discovery to make their lives better.
When the founder of Aveda and I met at an environmental conference, we completely hit it off. He basically said, “Let’s join forces. Let’s connect the dots of beauty and food.” So we opened the first Aveda concept salon in New York at Gulliver’s Living and Learning Center. Throughout my own conversations with Horst [Rechelbacher] about Aveda… I was like I want to do that with the home and fashion industry.
One day one of my clients said to me, “You’ve turned us on to all organic beauty products. What about fashion?” And I was like, “Let me ask you, if I create ECOFashion, sustainable fashion, will you buy it? Will you support it?”
Embracing the fusion of ecology and fashion became a catalyst for me to say, “I’m going to build this movement,” and with a strong support system behind me, I wanted to create a brand that would become a vehicle for this movement — a brand that could embody the lifestyle I was living and promoting.
That was how Under the Canopy started in 1995. At first it was my sisters and sister in law who were the models. I mean, it was very organic.
How has the sustainability industry changed since you launched Under the Canopy?
(Certified organic cotton. Photo via Bears for Humanity.)
You know, I feel like a little kid in a candy store now. When I started I had no one to turn to – I had no farms, I had no factories. People think it’s hard now – 22 years ago it didn’t exist. So I had to create it. One of my favorite quotes is from Jonathan Swift, “vision is the art of seeing things invisible.” Everything we see around us – someone thought about it and made it happen.
One example is the farm project I started for Fair Trade, organic cotton. I became part of the growth of this tiny farm and part of taking their cotton from the farm to the spinner and the ginner and ultimately to knitting and weaving product. That farm today has over 15,000 farmers, but then it was just starting. The progress we’ve made is very tangible. It’s not a bunch of marketing hype. It is real.
From the industry’s onset, I was also involved in creating standards because there was no way of providing accountability and transparency at the time. I was on the team of people in the 1990s who came together to write a standard for organic cotton, so that we’d have credibility and transparency. That standard is the GOTS standard.
There has been so much progress, but I’m curious to know what you think is next in sustainability?
What used to be about 'staying ahead' is now about not being left behind. Brands and companies that are not thinking about sourcing differently, producing more transparently, including the kinds of materials they’re using, etc. are going to be out of the game because today’s consumer has the Internet. This access to information has changed the game because today’s consumer – the millennial – is the first digital generation that can ask questions like... 'Who made my clothes? How are they being made? Where are they being made?' So it’s a new day in creating relevant and innovative products, brands and companies – authenticity, purpose and transparency truly matter.
A lot of people still wonder, what can I do? I can shop sustainably. I can recycle. I can turn the lights out. What do you think the most meaningful thing for an individual to do toward the environment is?
How does the consumer make an impact? First you understand the power of voting with your dollars.
Look at the organic food movement as an example. What started as a niche group of people saying I don’t want to put toxic chemicals in my body or send toxic pesticides into the air and water is now mainstream.
It’s only now that it’s starting to really click in for textiles. It’s now penetrated the next generation consumer, who’s grown up with organic and more conscious products. Their/your/our choices matter when we buy product.
What is important for people to understand about bedding and bath specifically?
We spend 6 – 8 hours a night wrapped in bed sheets, with our faces on a pillow. Our skin is our largest single organ and primary organ for absorption. A conventional cotton sheet or pillow case is ridden with toxic fertilizers and pesticides from the agricultural product itself, not to mention chlorine bleach, formaldehyde, heavy metals, and all the other harmful chemicals that are potentially added in the dyeing, finishing and processing of a cotton textile.
Not only are the sheets we sleep with being breathed in through our skin; so are the towels we put on our naked bodies, the robes, and other home textiles. Since we are not just what we eat, but also what we wear, our choices absolutely make a difference on every level to our health and wellbeing.
Is there anything else you feel is important to the background or history of the brand or for your vision of the future?
Under the Canopy embodies consciousness without compromise. We are not trying to be sustainable like many other products and brands. We just are. We were born this way over 20 years ago and have never wavered from our commitment to affect positive world change. It’s not 'we’ve got our eco collection over here and oh by the way, the other 90% of our products are part of the problem.' We are all in, solution-minded, the real deal. It’s not about buying our brand. It’s about joining our brand where you can look good, feel good, and do good in the world — all at the same time.