Real Leaders

The High Cost Of Cheap Clothes

  • After a decade in the organic food and beauty industry Marci Zaroff (above) recognized the “missing link” in the supply chain – ethics and sustainability.
  • She coined the term ‘eco-fashion’ and set about pioneering a market for organic and sustainable textiles.
  • Rethinking the fashion supply chain can cut costs, add value to collaborators and offer better-priced garments.
  • She shares her views with Real Leaders on how to keep the fashion industry pure, transparent and authentic.

In your opinion what are some of the obstacles to overcome in the fashion industry?

We have to break stigmas. One of these is the idea that in order to embrace fashion, style, quality, fit, colour and comfort, sustainability must be compromised. These two ideas are not mutually exclusive. People think sustainability costs more, but it depends on how savvy a brand or designer is in navigating a supply chain. A typical garment can change hands 7-10 times within a supply chain and many designers will deal with a factory only, leaving the supply chain to others behind the scenes. For the past 20 years I have gone to the source, starting at the farm gates and cutting out much of the inefficiencies of a typical garment supply chain. This has added value to the products and creates a competitive price.

The fashion industry is the second biggest colluder in the world, alongside coal, for air and water pollution. It represents about 10 percent of the world’s carbon impact and uses three trillion gallons of fresh water every year. Twenty percent of fresh water pollution comes from textile dying and 5 percent of landfills are textile waste.

What are some of the biggest changes and improvements in the industry that you have seen?

The emergence of the organic cotton industry, as an alternative to fibre, is still seen as a niche sector and viewed much like the organic food trend. Studies have shown that 84 percent of American consumers occasionally buy organic food, so I really see organic cotton as the next frontier.

It’s a growing industry that has emerged mainly from collaboration. I was part of a team that developed The Global Organic Textile Standard that saw different organic standards in the U.S. U.K., Japan and Germany come together as one premier global standard for organic textiles. Fashion crosses borders by nature and we’re now able to track material from farm to shelf. If you can’t create sustainability on a financial level, then as much as you want to do good for people and planet, it won’t work.

Who inspired you at a young age?

When I was 15 a friend gave me a book, Living In The Light by Shakti Gawain. It opened my eyes to the fact that there’s more to the world than what we see.

It struck me on a very deep level. I also discovered Aveda, the cosmetic company that uses plant-derived ingredients founded by Horst Rechelbacher. I met him in my teens and he became my mentor for 25 years. He taught me that you can actually align your personal and professional values. My favorite quote is, “Work is love made visible.”

In the very competitive and cutthroat fashion industry, how do you separate your business from some of your competitors?

Staying true to your vision is important. We all create our own reality, because we’re made of energy. Albert Einstein once said, “We can’t solve todays problems with the same consciousness that created those problems.” It’s about trusting our gut, following our heart and adding social purpose to a business.

Believing that I can create something that doesn’t exist while generating authenticity and true leadership has set my brand apart and people aren’t just buying my products, they’re joining my brand and what it stands for. Consumer products are very powerful in effecting positive change, more so than governments.

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In a predominantly female industry such as fashion, do you think more women are gaining the top leadership roles or do you think men still dominate? If so, how do you change this?

We still have a long way to go but progress is being made. I recently attended an award ceremony in New York and saw how empowered women have become. They are joining forces and it’s like 1+1=11. The more that women share success stories and support each other, the more exponential shifts we are going to see. It comes down to mentoring the next generation. A friend of mine is currently producing a movie called Women on Wall Street. In every Wall Street film preceding hers, women are either portrayed as secretaries or wives, yet dynamic and successful women already exist on Wall Street. The more we expose these types of women the more confidence it will give the next generation – showing that gender should never be an obstacle.

How would you describe a real leader?

Someone who has aligned their personal and professional values. As a real leader you need to be both strong and sensitive, empower people and treat others the way you want to be treated – not seeing the top guns and little guys as different human beings – but part of the same family. Embed the same values into your business that you’d find in your home – peace, love and happiness. It will help create an inner connection that makes you aware of our collective consciousness. You should strive to be a role model for others.

What mistakes have you learned from the most?

I don’t see anything as a mistake. I see everything as an opportunity to learn and grow. It’s human nature that until we experience the dark we can’t know the light. There’s no joy without pain. You can’t know what you really want unless you experience first what you don’t want. I achieve more when I build teams, and work with people who are open and communicative. It’s the key to successful relationships, partnerships and businesses. The days of dictatorial and authoritative attitudes are over. It’s about team – the “me” to the “we.”

What are some of the things that you would advise or that you would like to see happen to create a more sustainable world?

We need to create a new normal that doesn’t just consider how things look, but what kinds of materials and manufacturing methods where chosen. Millennials are the first digital generation that can pull back the curtain and ask, “Who made my clothes? Where is it made? What’s in it?”These questions are catalysts for making brands and retailers think about these issues.

After the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013, where 1,133 garment workers lost their lives, 60 countries demanded that the industry change. Lives were lost for fashion and people were no longer willing to sit back and support a destructive industry. Everybody wears clothing and if you can add value to these products by demonstrating social and environmental accountable, without compromising great style, price and quality you have a win-win situation – doing good, looking good and feeling good.

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