Fixing Fashion's dyeing problem | Vogue international

Clashing, two-tone, co-ord, block... wearing colour is fundamental to our self-expression. But with dyeing techniques contributing so heavily to the climate crisis, our love of colour is going to make the world a much duller place unless things change, fast. “We need to change the whole landscape of the industry,” says Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion. He’s one of eight experts sharing their insight with Vogue on what’s being done to tackle fashion’s dyeing art. Here are the five key problems, and some potential solutions.

For Vogue international

1. The problem: Water waste

On a global scale, the textile industry uses between six to nine trillion litres of water each year, just for fabric dyeing. At a time when every continent is now facing water scarcity issues, that’s like filling more than two million Olympic swimming pools every year with fresh water, then not letting anyone swim in them. (Not that you’d want to swim in the toxic water of a dyeing mill.)

Possible solution: Biologically inspired materials

“I think there’s a lack of diversity around how two knowledge systems can create something new,” says Natsai Audrey Chieza, designer and founder of creative biodesign agency Faber Futures. Chieza is one of the leading voices in the growing biodesign movement, which integrates living things like bacteria into new materials, products and even artworks. “Design and science working together is about combining two different ways of knowing and doing, to try and tackle a problem.”

Chieza creates opportunities for collaboration between creatives and scientists on “planet-centred” products and systems. In 2011, her team recently discovered that a pigment-producing microbe could be used as clothing dye. The colour oscillates between pinks and blues, depending on the pH of the soil in which the microbe is found, and creates a beautiful array of effects on fabric including tie-dye. Crucially, it also uses 500 times less water then standard dyeing techniques, and totally cuts out harmful chemicals. “If you look more creatively at natural materials, or in this case designing with living systems, you can do something quite special,” says Chieza. “You can arrive at something fundamentally different.”

2. The problem: Chemicals

Almost three-quarters of all the water consumed by dye-mills ends up as undrinkable waste—a toxic soup of dyes, salts, alkalis, heavy metals and chemicals that are used to fix colour to our clothes. “Some of the chemicals used in Indian dye houses are actually banned in Europe—a conundrum for those of us wearing imported clothes,” Virginia Newton-Lewis, senior policy analyst at WaterAids. Filtering waste water is costly, too, and in the world’s dyeing hubs of Bangladesh, India and China, it is often illegally discharged into rivers, which turn into an acidic spew of colour. (In Mumbai the water once became so polluted that local dogs turned completely blue after swimming.) “These waste water chemicals can affect the local ecosystem, or the people who use the water for fishing, washing or even drinking,” explains Lalia Petrie, WWF textiles and cotton global lead. “They can harm plants and animals, and potentially enter the food chain.”

Possible solution: Dyes made from by-product

Biotech company Colorifix is seeking to roll out fabric dyes that are sustainable on three fronts: environmental, social and economical. Set up in 2015, the company converts molasses—the by-product of sugar—into colourants that can be used for textile dyeing. The method doesn’t demand extra arable land use (unlike some natural dyes), but can be applied to areas where sugar is already grown. Colorifix also replaces fixing chemicals—the most toxic aspect of the dyeing process—with the by-products of biofuels, which co-founder and CEO Dr Orr Yarkoni explains are a primary crop with a positive environmental function. Reusing waste materials “means that the whole process uses 10 times less water, and 20 per cent less energy”.

3. The Problem: Unemployment risk

Dye houses offer a vital source of employment and income in emerging economies—81 per cent of Bangladesh’s export economy, for example, is purely ready made garments. Women, who represent around 80 per cent of the global garment workforce, are most at risk of being affected by any systematic changes or products that aren’t carefully considered. So it’s crucial that biodesign envisions materials that are not going to cause mass unemployment.

Possible solution: State intervention

“Any radical change can have a hugely negative impact if it is not planned correctly,” says Yarkoni, noting that Colorifix has only replaced the actual dye, and not any jobs or machines. In Stanley-Jones’ view, too much reliance is being placed on technologists, like Yarkoni, to solve the climate crisis. “The only way real change can happen is if we rapidly share innovations that work and roll these out more quickly—everyone needs to have access to the same information, and technologies,” Stanley-Jones says. In his role for the UN, Stanley-Jones helps to coordinate different climate projects and actions by member governments, agencies and allies. It’s only through this integrated approach, he says, that the right types of incentives, investments and legislations can be thrashed out globally; ultimately create systematic change. “It isn’t just science and technology that we need to save us,” Stanley-Jones explains, “we also need unified action from the societies and governments of the world.”

4. The problem: Hardwired consumerism

The difficulty with sustainability is that it’s a term that encompasses so many different issues—so while it’s great to hear of a fashion brand championing low-impact dyeing, it’s futile if the product is then thrown away, or the supply chain turns out to be exploitative. The linear ‘take, consume, destroy’ approach has been around for centuries and it appears to be challenging for businesses to break with this tradition to influence change.

Possible solution: A circular economy

Championed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the idea of a circular economy envisions products that are designed and optimised for a continual circle of recycling and dissembling. If picked up globally, it would be the biggest shift in human consumption since the industrial revolution. BITE-Studios is one example—a luxury women’s wear brand with an aesthetic based entirely on a palette of natural dyes. “Using natural dyes is a way of communicating a deeper sense of mindfulness around products and consumerism,” explains creative director Elliot Atkinson. Crucially, the dyes are just one aspect of BITE-Studio’s sustainable goal. “We plan to buy back the collection pieces from customers, give them 20 per cent off their next purchase, and then create new pieces from the old stock,” explains BITE’-Studio's COO Veronika Kant. The idea is to create a circular system, redesigning, reusing and reselling the clothing. “We want to create a real connection between the client and the garment,” explains Kant.

5. The problem: Scaling natural dyes

Natural dyes are more environmentally friendly than synthetic—but they’re no silver bullet for mass production. Tricky to source, they can still require heavy metals to fix the colour, and often need arable land for planting.

Possible solution: Resurrecting artisan techniques

Ever since synthetic processes were introduced during the 1960s, knowledge about natural dyeing has dwindled to the point of extinction—but the climate crisis has spurred many artisans to reclaim age-old techniques. “The colours that come from plants go beyond just beauty—dyes are connected to a living being, a higher knowledge and wisdom,” says Mexican textile artist Porfirio Gutiérrez. Based in Oaxaca, his family is working on a book that commits thousand-year-old, word-of-mouth techniques—think cochineal insects for reds, tree moss for golds, pomegranate for blacks—to a wider audience. But though he’s a passionate educator, Guttiérez doesn’t see natural dyes as being sustainably scalable. “I don’t think multinationals should be switching to natural dyes,” he says. “Natural dyes were never meant for mass commercialism, they are for personal clothing and expression.” And while the most sustainable form of self-expression would be to dye and make our own clothes, it’s good to know that biodesign could have our back, too. “Right now, we are being forced to choose between style and sustainability, which has weakened what nature tended to present to us,” adds Chieza. “Working with nature, and not taking from it, is how we can innovate.”

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