October 29, 2013
Sustainable fashion brands, Portico Brands Group and Under the Canopy are pioneering the business of ECOfashion with natural home and personal fashion immersed in fair trade and environmentally-focused manufacturing practices. In this exclusive interview with Eco News Network, Marci Zaroff, President/CMO of Portico Brands and UTC and Producer of the upcoming documentary THREAD, shares her vision for products, “Inspired by nature; crafted with integrity.”
Eco News Network: How was Portico Brand Group (PBG) first started and what is the background behind the brands?
Zaroff: In 2013, Portico Brands was acquired by Hilco Global as a roll-up of three innovative sustainable lifestyle brands. The initial brand in the group, Portico, was founded in 1988 as a retail destination for decorators, designers and style connoisseurs. When Portico wanted to communicate its enhanced commitment to the planet, we created a fresh tagline: Inspired by nature; crafted with integrity. Portico also acquired Under the Canopy (UTC) and the brands joined forces to share core values and operational efficiencies. UTC was the pioneering brand of ECOfashion, a term I coined in 1995 to fuse style with substance. From its inception, UTC had built a grassroots following, then launched its organic apparel, bedding, spa and bath collections in leading retailers nationwide including Whole Foods, AVEDA, Macy’s, and Target. FASE, an acronym for Fashion-Art-Soul-Earth, is the third brand in our group. Still a blank canvas, the FASE brand will launch later in 2014.
Eco News Network: What got you interested in environmental sustainability and Fair Trade?
Zaroff: Inspired by my love for nature and global community, and having become a vegetarian as a teenager, I immersed myself with wellness and environmental books and conferences both in high school and while attending business school at UC Berkeley. I always had a deep affinity for the 5 P’s – people, planet, profit, passion and purpose, and like my mentor, AVEDA founder Horst Rechelbacher, I had a calling to leverage business as a vehicle to affect positive change. I discovered early on that taste or style were not mutually exclusive with environmental responsibility or social justice. In 1990, I co-founded a school called Gulliver’s Living & Learning Center, known today as The Institute for Integrative Nutrition, to take people on a journey of health, consciousness and self-realization. When I discovered the interconnection of food and fiber in agriculture and the missing link in the wellness equation, I founded Under the Canopy as a sustainable fashion brand to give consumers what they were seeking in the way of modern design, quality, fit, color and price, while making a difference to human health, the environment, worker welfare and future generations. The premise is that we all live under the canopy of the planet’s eco-system together.
Eco News Network: What are some of the measures that Under the Canopy has taken to outperform traditional eco-sustainable practices? What makes it different?
Zaroff: As a pioneer of eco/ethical textiles, Under the Canopy’s commitment from farm to finished fashion has been unparalleled. I was on the small team of people in the 90’s who developed the first USA organic fiber certification, which segued into an international collaboration and platinum Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). Our sourcing and development systems ensure that our process includes working directly with the farmers and factories that have grown and sewn our products. Not only is 100 percent of our organic cotton certified by an accredited third-party to be pesticide, herbicide and GMO-free, but our factories undergo rigorous audits and are either GOTS and/or Oeko-tex certified as well. We use only low-impact dyes and finishes, all compliant to GOTS, which are free of formaldehyde, heavy metals, chlorine bleaches and other toxic substances, while having less than a five percent runoff into the environment versus conventional dyes with a 55 to 65 percent runoff. Our hangtags and packaging are made from post-consumer recycled paper and other sustainable materials as well.
Eco News Network: What inspired you to come up with the concept “Beauty with Purpose” and what exactly does it mean?
Zaroff: The essence of beauty has historically been inspired by nature, but with the consumer faster, cheaper, more mentality, the idea of beauty has been compromised by harmful chemicals and unethical manufacturing practices. Thus, business as usual is not sustainable. Beauty with purpose speaks to redefining beauty as meaningful, inspirational, functional and with substance – meant to touch every level.
Eco News Network: Some people may argue that “ECOfashion” is an oxymoron, how do Portico Brands and Under the Canopy make environmental sustainability and fashion come together?
Zaroff: First and foremost, we always lead with great design, modern colors, true value and innovation. People buy our products because they love them, and then there’s the aha add-on of wow, and it’s also organic/sustainable! Our mantra is to break the stigmas of ECOfashion: that style or quality need to be compromised for a product to be eco-friendly; that a consumer has to pay much more for responsible fashion; and that there is no way to know if a product is truly sustainable. At Under the Canopy, we focus on fashion first, but with a deep commitment to the highest standards of environmental sourcing, manufacturing, integrity and transparency. We build efficiencies in our supply chain and create vertically integrated manufacturing – whenever, wherever possible – in order to be cost competitive with our conventional counterparts while adding value to our products. Our collections have been called affordably luxurious since we offer a look good, feel good, do good experience at prices equal to the often stale and chemically-ridden fashion in today’s market. We were built on the principles of sustainability. It’s who we are, it’s in our DNA; not who we are trying to be. I am on the Board of Directors of the Organic Trade Association and the Textile Exchange and am an Advisor for Fair Trade USA. Connecting the dots from the source, overseeing proper protocols, compliance and certification and then driving communication platforms, education and outreach are ways we assure that are products, brands and company are fully authentic.
Eco News Network: What are some of the key Fair Trade and sustainable business components of Portico Brands, and by extension, Under the Canopy’s development, distribution, and business model?
Zaroff: Having been instrumental in the development of the GOTS and first USA Fair Trade Textile Certifications, my role as President/CMSO (Chief Marketing & Sustainability Officer) of Portico Brands is to work with our sources, suppliers and trade organizations to make sure we are crossing our t’s and dotting our i’s on the sustainability frontline. I keep my finger on the pulse of innovations in technologies that are minimizing chemicals, waste, water and energy. As a brand management company, we partner with our licensees and vendor partners to assist them through certifications, navigating the requirements, complexities, efficiencies and other components of their supply chain. I connect my sources together for a holistic and cohesive process, while monitoring both progress and integrity. Through the years, I have visited the farms growing our organic cotton the factories making our yarns, fabrics and finished products – from India and Asia, Turkey and Austria, and Peru and Haiti.
Eco News Network: What is your favorite product in your line and why?
Zaroff: Our signature Kimono robe is loved by everyone! It’s an uber cozy, one-size-fits-most, brushed interlock Kimono made from 100 percent certified organic cotton. It’s also the first truly Fair Trade Certified robe in the USA, made with fair working conditions, no child labor and other ethical practices, but raising the bar on social compliance by guaranteeing living wages for the workers! Consumers and spas love the robe’s value at only at only $49.99, and its style.
**Eco News Network readers get 20% off the UTC Kimono Robe at UTC Kimono at Bed & Bath Store using the code “ORGANIC2.”**
Eco News Network: What other companies and brands do you admire as examples of innovation and sustainability?
Zaroff: Three of the most pioneering larger companies that have been at the forefront of driving innovation in sustainable textiles are Patagonia, NIKE and Marks & Spencer (in the UK). From the early years of this movement, we have all collaborated via the Textile Exchange on raising the bar of fibers, materials, manufacturing and industry integrity. I have always loved M&S’s commitment to their “Plan A: because there is no Plan B.” Under the Canopy and these other companies have all shared a top-down commitment to revolutionizing fashion and textiles, shifting the paradigms and spearheading innovation and educational efforts. Patagonia’s dedication in the outdoor retail market, and NIKE’s in active wear, have inspired countless other global manufacturers and retailers to change their thinking and their practices.
Eco News Network: What’s next for Portico Brands? How about for Marci Zaroff?
Zaroff: Portico Brands is at a very exciting and pivotal juncture. Both Portico and Under the Canopy have recently launched stunning sustainable bedding and bath collections at leading spas/hotels and retailers including Hyatt, Hilton, Ritz, Auberge & Destination Resorts, Bed Bath and Beyond, Home Outfitters, Dillards, Neiman Marcus…and others. In 2014, we will be expanding those offerings, while introducing organic loungewear collections and ethical bath and body products (amenities and retail), plus ECOfashion ready-to-wear apparel, active-wear and accessories! For me personally, in addition to my love and profound commitment to Portico Brands and Under the Canopy, I am working with supermodel Amber Valletta on a documentary film called THREAD, aimed at unveiling the human and environmental impacts of the fashion industry, writing my first book while increasing my global public speaking and mentoring efforts, and helping to co-create and curate my husband’s company I AM enlightened creations.
Eco News Network: What is the most important thing about your company that you would like Eco News Network readers to know?
Zaroff: In the spirit of one of my favorite quotes by Jonathan Swift, “Vision is the art of seeing things invisible,” we are deeply committed to raising the bar and thinking out-of-the-box, since we cannot solve today’s problems with the same thinking that created them. Through education, collaboration and innovation, we will continue to inspire the next generation, the “millennials,” as this is their future and support amazing organizations such as Teens Turning Green, of which I’m on the Board. As both an ecopreneur and mother of two teens, with the belief in the native saying, “we do not inherit the land from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children,” we know at Portico and Under the Canopy that our business and products are powerful vehicles for transformation and positive change in the world.
More about Marci Zaroff
Founder of Under the Canopy and FASE, Marci Zaroff coined the term and pioneered the market for ECOfashion®. She currently serves as President/CMO of Portico Brands, Producer of the upcoming documentary THREAD and Operating Partner of 6Pacific Capital. A graduate from UC Berkeley’s Haas Business School and also co-Founder of The Institute for Integrative Nutrition and I AM ENLIGHTENED CREATIONS, for over two decades, Zaroff has been an internationally-recognized ecopreneur, expert and educator of green business, social innovation and an organic/sustainable lifestyle. Board Director/Advisor of the Organic Trade Association, Textile Exchange, Fair Trade USA and AllergyKids Foundation, Zaroff was instrumental in defining the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and the first USA Fair Trade Textile Certification, driving authenticity, environmental leadership and social justice worldwide. Marci is featured in the newly released book: ECO AMAZONS: 20 Women Who are Transforming the World and has received countless recognitions, such as the Natural Product Industry’s Socially Responsible Business Award, New York Moves Power Woman Award, Fashion Group International’s Rising Star Award and a prestigious Henry Crown Fellowship of The Aspen Institute. For more info on Marci visit www.marcizaroff.com or @marcizaro on Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest.
Photos courtesy of Portico Brands and Under the Canopy