The pigments stem from Earth-friendly materials, are supply chain-ready and do wonders to eliminate wastewater. So why isn't every manufacturer using them?

Welcome to Sustainability Week! While Fashionista covers sustainability news and eco-friendly brands all year round, we wanted to use this time around Earth Day and the anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse as a reminder to focus on the impact that the fashion industry has on people and the planet.

Every shade on the color wheel is accounted for at Audrey Louise Reynold's Brooklyn dyehouse, where tangy, lemon-yellow cottons sit alongside powdery pinks and frosty blues. The hues are so vivid that, at first glance, you probably wouldn't guess that they came from some of the best stuff on Earth.

Reynolds is self-taught in the purest sense: She began playing with all-natural dyes — in her case, the ink that plants emit when compressed — when she was a toddler. "As soon as I could walk, I would be going out into the garden, dragging plants inside and pushing them onto the wall," she says. In 2010, The New York Times dubbed her "the fashion world's artisanal dyer," and she has the industry credentials to back up the title. Her clientele range from indie labels like Kaelen and The Elder Statesman to veritable giants like Nike and J.Crew, and she now has her own line of gorgeous, completely scalable dyes carried at Whole Foods, various fashion retail stores and her own online shop.

The dyes that have become the tenets of her business — minerals, seaweed, squid ink, coral, shells, plankton, flowers and soil — are the same that stained her clothing as a 2-year-old. 

Dangers surrounding synthetic and artificial dyes have been splicing into the news cycle for decades, but only recently have influential industry players acknowledged all-natural dyes as viable substitutes.

Textile dying and treatment is the second-largest polluter in the world, only usurped by agriculture and, with it, big oil. In a 2014 report, the World Bank estimated that textile production is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution globally, with the emission of as many as 72 toxic chemicals reaching the water supply. Once the synthetic materials reach the wastewater being dispersed from manufacturers, they heat the water, increase its pH and saturate it with those chemicals that left the factory; from there, they can go on to seep into fish or farmland upstream.

This effect can be seen most egregiously in Southwest China's Pearl River. An inky blue discharge, indigo, bleeds into the South China Sea from the denim mills in Xingtang. Xingtang makes roughly two-thirds of the world's denim clothing annually — the local plants employ up to 220,000 people — but the pollution and resulting labor conditions are so dire that, according to Chinadialogue, many lifelong Xingtang residents are refusing to work in the factories.

It's not as if environmental precautions haven't been installed to combat the hazardous consequences of wastewater. China enacted its own legislations in 1979 with its Environmental Protection Law, while its Water Pollution Prevention and Control Law came five years later. After a string of pollution accidents, including the toxic Songhua River benzene spill in 2005, China amended its legislature to avert such incidents.

But rising raw material and labor costs, among other factors, have generated a demand for something better, easier and safer within textile production. Natural dyes fulfill nearly all of these requirements, with benefits to spare, and have only just begun to be embraced by mainstream manufacturers. Just this May, Cotton Incorporated linked up with Swiss dye specialist Archroma to collaborate on a pigment created from cotton plant residues, the first of its kind.

An assortment of natural materials including for turmeric, eucalyptus and chamomile to be used for dyeing purposes. Photo: @baigesdesign/Instagram

An assortment of natural materials including for turmeric, eucalyptus and chamomile to be used for dyeing purposes. Photo: @baigesdesign/Instagram

As an early adopter of natural dyes and washes, Patagonia has long partnered with Swisstex California to dye its T-shirts. According to a 2011 report, Swisstex's facility uses natural gas as its energy source, consuming half as much energy as an average dyehouse in the U.S. and 80 percent less than the average dyehouse in Asia. The retailer has also been explicit about its supply chain partners for years, very rigorously vetting them and listing them for consumer perusal on its website.

On Wednesday, Patagonia took its commitment to natural dyes to new heights with the launch of its Clean Colors Collection, a line of five women's and seven men's styles dyed entirely by plant-based dyes — like the by-products of food waste, dried beetles and the excrements of silkworms — as well as Archroma's patented EarthColors, or biosynthetic dyes made from agricultural waste.

"Dyeing has been a key area of focus for us as a company for a long time," Sarah Hayes, Patagonia's Senior Material Research & Innovation Manager, tells me over the phone from the West Coast. "We look at it from a water-intensive process and also look at chemical safety."

Patagonia's mission statement — "build the best product; cause no unnecessary harm" — guides every facet of the company decision-making. Natural dyes require patience along every step of the production cycle, as well as cooperation with the appropriate supply chain partner.

"Once the dye is created, you still need to bring it to the textile mill that's going to do the dyeing," says Hayes. "They need to make sure their equipment is set up to run it. It can take a couple of trials to optimize the process, and it takes us a little while to pick our colors. It always takes us longer than we wish it would, but it's a journey."

Hayes explains how, at Patagonia, much of the preparatory legwork involved extensive research, followed by lengthy testing; not all natural resources are created equal, even if they're plucked straight from the ground. 

"They were used for thousands of years and they come from renewable resources, but they also come with their complications, and we want to make sure we're being responsible and making the most responsible decision about what resources are being used," she says. Patagonia's production team works closely with its supply-chain partner Esquel, a global textile and apparel manufacturer based out of Hong Kong, on everything from the machinery that's running the dyes to any extra chemicals that bind the dye to the fabric.

Reynolds, whose business is lauded for this very attention to detail, is the singular driving force behind her production and sources primarily from "really tiny, family-owned farms." Even when she works with her heavier-handed clients, the process begins with the story. "They want to create something that's viable for press, something that sets them apart from producing in a factory," she says. She gives the example of a company that is inspired by the ocean, but nothing in their line is natural or from the sea itself.

"I'll say, 'Okay, I have an idea," she says. "I'll go to the ocean and get ocean water and use it as my dye base for the water, and then we'll use algae and squid ink and things from the sea, things that actually, literally evoke the same story that they're trying to impart."

Looks from Audrey Louise Reynolds' unisex, naturally dyed collection. Photo: @audreylouisereynolds/Instagram via @bb_pictures

Looks from Audrey Louise Reynolds' unisex, naturally dyed collection. Photo: @audreylouisereynolds/Instagram via @bb_pictures

For her larger clients, Reynolds' fees start at a baseline with all of her stock colors and prices factored in; she then shows them how they can create a custom hue that can match any Pantone color, but that comes at a development charge. In the case of the latter, not only does it take time, but it's also expensive, meaning there's a barrier to entry for much of the fashion world.

"It's not simple," says Hayes. "The way the industry's evolved and [the way] supply chain partners are set up for maximum efficiency, price is kind of king. It's easier and faster and cheaper to run the synthetic dyes that we've been running."

Consumers have grown used to their garments looking, feeling and acting a certain way. Though Reynolds has worked with clients to replicate even the sharpest Pantone shades, the range of colors available with synthetic dyes is much wider. "I feel like customers have gotten used to the rainbow of colors that's been available," says Hayes. "When you dye with a natural dye, they do have different properties." Hayes mentions that natural dyes can fade in the sun, which could be a dealbreaker for shoppers looking for their clothes to remain ageless.

With those like Reynolds leading the charge — and with Patagonia now on board — it can be expected that fashion will incorporate natural dyes more in the seasons ahead. Ideally, Reynolds sees that taking the form of a choice that brands — even those with mass production needs — can make in the production stage, where natural dyes are included in chemical dyehouses alongside synthetic ones. 

She's also in the process of developing a catalog of natural dyers around the world, which she hopes will come to fruition in the next five-to-10 years. "I'm trying to vet the system and see, how can we form some sort of guild or alliance between us that helps natural dyeing stay at a reasonable price," she says.

Hayes believes that the consumer needs to show an interest in natural dyes for the brands to fully invest, because it is an investment. But to do that, the consumer has to fully learn why they should care. "It might [involve] re-educating the consumer to a degree, producing clothes with natural dyes that look really great and will help adjust viewpoints," she says. "If the customer's asking for things, then the industry will bring it to them."

Doing so will not only better the environment, but will also allow for experienced dyers like Reynolds — and those small businesses she uses for her sourcing — to thrive. "There's so many people in our daily lives that work super hard, so I just want to create a huge platform to support artists and artisans and fiber farmers, and people who give a shit."

Homepage photo: @sashaduerr/Instagram

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