Zaroff’s efforts to bring the eco-fashion story to the mainstream have led to
appearances on shows such as The View, The Today Show, E! Entertainment, The
Discovery Channel and ABC’s “Legends & Legacies,” as well as features in Newsweek,
CNN, Entrepreneur and People, just to name a few. Her work has also won her numerous accolades including the “Socially Responsible Business Award,” New
York Moves Magazine’s “2008 Power Woman Award” and Fashion Group International’s 2008 “Rising Star Award.” Zaroff recently took some time away from her
busy schedule to chat with Organic Processing about the roots of the eco-fashion
market and what it’s going to take to continue the momentum.
built our brand on—that social and
environmental responsibility are not
mutually exclusive with price, quality
and style. I wanted to shift the question from, “Why would I buy organic?”
to “Why wouldn’t I buy organic?”
“Certification is critical to
our brand’s success. It’s in our DNA.
It’s not a marketing proposition
that we’re trying to leverage to sell
our products—it’s who we are.””
OP: What was the inspiration for starting Under the Canopy?
Zaroff: Before starting Under the Canopy, I spent almost a decade in the natural and organic food and beauty world. As I became more immersed in the agricultural side, I learned that food and fiber were interconnected; 60 percent of a
cotton plant is ending up in the food stream and cotton is the most heavily
chemically treated crop in agriculture. I said to myself, “Why doesn’t anybody
know about this?” I went out to see what existed in organic cotton and all I
could find were frumpy, boxy t-shirts that had no style or color. I didn’t see a
reason why great textile products could not be made from organic cotton; the
market just needed to be expanded. So, I coined the term “eco-fashion” to fuse
the whole wellness and ecology story with real fashion, focused first on style,
quality, color, fit and feel—things consumers want—and then made sustainability and organics the value-added benefit that would set the brand apart from
the conventional counterparts. My concept was to drive the market from hippie
to hip; to launch not just a clothing line, but a whole lifestyle brand that embodied the interconnection of food, fiber and wellness.
OP: How did you go about developing the market?
Zaroff: It was really a matter of getting in on the ground floor, doing the trailblazing and convincing farmers and factories to buy into my vision. I partnered
with the Rodale Institute to help on the educational side of transitioning farmers from conventional to organic cotton, the same way they were working with
farmers to transition food. From there, I started looking for factories globally
that would embrace this as a future opportunity. From the beginning, Under
the Canopy was going from the farm all the way to the finished product. The
initial foundation of the brand was to position the final product at an affordable level and being vertically integrated allowed us to pass cost savings on to
the consumer. We give people a way to make a difference, and all they have to
do is buy a great product that they’re going to love. That’s the principle we
OP: What about breaking into retail?
Zaroff: When I started the company in
’95, retailers were not ready to embrace the concept, so I took it to market through a mail-order catalogue
and website. In 1996, I started out of
my home, mailing 1000 to 2000
brochures. My entire basement and
garage were my shipping area. By the
end of 2002, I was mailing over a million catalogues a year.
We expanded to retail when one of
our board members, Jim Sud, the senior vice president of growth and development for Whole Foods, asked me to
become the apparel partner for their
internet launch of WholePeople.com.
Everything was going forward, and in
2000, the internet bubble burst, and so
did WholePeople.com. But that
planted the seed with Whole Foods
and in 2002, Walter Robb, the president of Whole Foods, gave me the opportunity to put my vision together
and bring it to fruition. I worked hand
in hand for two years with key people
at Whole Foods, and pulled together
the entire launch of the organic fiber
category. We launched the prototype—a 2000-square-foot store-in-store
organic clothing and home products
boutique—at Whole Foods’ flagship
store in Austin, Texas in March of
2005. Since then, Whole Foods has
been one of our largest customers and
part of the roots of our brand. Within
six months of that launch, our brand
was in every Whole Foods in the country and we were part of the launches in
Canada and London as well.
Soon after the launch we started
getting a lot of media attention—there
wasn’t a week that went by that I wasn’t
being interviewed for TV or print