Fashion fix – brands swap synthetic dyes for natural dyes
When Allie Cameron set out to create a lingerie brand with minimal impact on the planet in 2016, she knew natural dyes were going to be non-negotiable for her. Although synthetic dyes were often cheaper and more readily available, she was convinced that making underwear without synthetic and potentially toxic dyes was worth it.
Five years later, Hara, Cameron’s brand based in Melbourne, Australia, is a cult favorite, offered by international retailers Garmentory and The Lobby and with 275,000 Instagram followers. The rainbow of underwear he offers is colored with combinations of just three plants: turmeric, indigo and madder root. Hara’s pieces are simple, but bright hues and trendy styles give a youthful feel: there are canary yellow bike shorts, cherry-colored high-waisted briefs, and tailored lilac flared lounge pants.
“Natural dyes are one of the main reasons people buy from us,” says Cameron. When she first started, “hardly anyone talked about or used natural dyes,” but Cameron has seen interest grow rapidly since then.
Hara is one of a cohort of smaller brands that have advocated for natural dyes in recent years. Max Kingery, co-founder of the Olderbrother brand, is another; the brand uses materials such as mushrooms, hibiscus flowers and tree bark to color its clothes regardless of gender. Kingery likens working with natural dyes to shopping at a local farmer’s market rather than a supermarket chain: the former tends to be better for the planet and just plain enjoyable.
Conventional textile dyes flow into nearby rivers at manufacturing centers such as Bangladesh, where they dye rivers black, kill fish, and cause skin disease, gastrointestinal problems and cancer in communities. neighbors. Azo dyes that can break down into carcinogenic chemicals have been banned in the EU and a handful of other countries in recent years, but there are still over 100 other potentially carcinogenic synthetic dyes on the market.
More and more brands are turning to natural dyes for these reasons. Independent labels Mara Hoffman and Sideline recently started collaborations with natural dye artists Cara Marie Piazza and Ellen Mae Williams, respectively.
And even the biggest companies are starting to jump in on the action: Levi’s and Converse are incorporating plant-based colors into at least some of their inventory, and fast-fashion giants Mango and H&M have also launched this year. natural colorant capsules. collection of ‘mineral-dyed’ loungewear in soft tones of blue and khaki, while the latter used vegetable dyes to tint pieces such as a poncho-style hoodie.
Kathy Hattori is the president of Botanical Colors, which has worked with Converse, Madewell and Eileen Fisher on natural dye. She says natural dyes not only create a great story, they also create qualitatively different colors. Unlike synthetic dyes, which tend to be saturated but very flat, natural dyes allow for more shade.
“Most dye plants contain multiple sources of dyes or chromophores and because of that, even though the main color looks red, there are other colors that help shade it very subtly,” she says. “Our eye picks up on this, even though our brain doesn’t quite process what it is.”
There are other good reasons to move away from the synthetics that are so often treated as standards. According to Sarah Bellos, whose company Stony Creek Colors has partnered with Levi’s and Patagonia on large-scale natural indigo dye solutions, it typically takes half a pound of cyanide and a pound of the possibly carcinogenic aniline to make a synthetic indigo book.
“Synthetic dyes are disappearing from foods and cosmetics,” Bellos says. “It’s going to spread into textiles as we understand better that these dangerous chemicals still exist in the clothes we wear today.”
As obvious as it may seem for brands to ditch the harmful chemicals that are part of the synthetic dye process, natural dye enthusiasts admit that it is not as easy as it sounds. Cameron recognizes natural dyes as one of Hara’s greatest assets, but also the brand’s “downfall”, while Kingery says “every aspect” of working with natural dyes is “extremely difficult and restrictive.”
Making sure the hues are colorfast and consistent can be tricky, Cameron notes, and the color palette, while beautiful, is more limited. Plus, it’s just not as easy or cheap to get hold of natural dyes as it is to buy synthetics, and natural dyes don’t adhere well to anything other than natural fibers – which excludes them. natural dyes for all polyester clothing, the most commonly used in the world. used fibers.
From Bellos’ perspective, many of these issues stem from systemic issues. The fossil fuel industry that drives the petrochemicals used in synthetic dyes is often subsidized, for example, while the supply chains of natural dyes are not.
“The reason it’s harder to use herbal colors today is that no one has invested in bringing them to real scale,” she says.
Bellos is working to change that by trying to transform the entire supply chain, from seed genetics and cultivation practices to brand partnerships, starting with indigo growers and processors to United States. Along the way, she became convinced that the benefits of natural dyes go far beyond making our clothes less toxic.
When grown, harvested, and managed with care, indigo plants make the soil healthier by converting nitrogen from the atmosphere into a kind of natural fertilizer in a process called nitrogen fixation. They can also serve as a carbon sink that extracts greenhouse gases from the atmosphere, she says. Plus, scalability isn’t entirely unrealistic, at least with indigo.
“If indigo cultivation were in rotation with less than 1% of the world’s cotton supply, which is grown on less than 3% of the world’s cultivated land, that would be enough to replace all of the synthetic indigo in the world. planet, ”she said.
To get there, more investment is needed. And further research and development could resolve some of the color fastness and consistency issues Cameron raised. Whether or not these goals are achievable is not a scientific question – this has already been proven, Bellos says. The real change will come as more and more people decide that removing petrochemicals from the supply chain is worth the investment of time, energy and money.
As far as Hattori is concerned, the switch from synthetic dyes to natural dyes is already underway.
“The amount of interest has just exploded over the past two years,” she said. “There is this intense desire for people to come back to a much more ‘real’ experience, and the natural dyes are about as real as they get.”
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