One of the key selling points of a piece of clothing is its shade. Color is so important to the apparel industry that entire companies (Pantone, Palette App, Data Color etc.) and teams of forecasters have invested their lives predicting upcoming color trends; Pantone’s annual color of the year now creates a buzz that reaches beyond the design world and captures the attention of consumers.

Us humans have been into color for a long time; the earliest indications date back to the Neolithic period and evidence found in China revealed that about 5,000 years ago people had begun making dyes using plants, barks and insects. In fact humans have spent the majority of their existence without using any unnatural substances to dye textiles, up until very recent history. 

Synthetic dyes were introduced in the 1860’s and quickly became commonplace in the apparel industry. Since then, the market has been flooded with chemical dyestuffs in the name of innovation, in turn making cheap, mass manufacturing possible. However, as global consumer awareness about the fashion industry’s harmful impacts on the environment continues to grow, companies large and small are striving to bring color back to its natural roots. 

If we want a future with more earth-conscious clothing options, reducing the chemicals used to dye and color garments plays an important part. In recent years, major leaps have been made in natural dye development with many members of the supply chain and crafters alike exploring new methods of implementing natural dyes on a large scale. If Stoney Creek Colors’ recent funding success to revive the natural indigo supply chain is any indication of the future, companies and consumers are on board for better dyestuffs. There have been some market ready innovations for large scale production from Tonello Wake, Archroma Earth Colors or Bossa’s new Colored Cotton. And simultaneously there has been a surge of small scale, community based resources for those looking to replace the synthetic dyes in their DIY projects with natural ones. However this still leaves a gap in the market for independent brands and small batch makers and designers.

One of the newest names in this arena is Terra natural dyes by Denge Kimya, a large chemical company who are using their mass market knowledge to scale the natural dye industry. Their two pronged business approach focuses on both large scale production solutions whilst making them attainable for small brands, designers, and consumers and folding in a community and consumer education based ethos. 

Denim Dudes used Terra's Sun Yellow shade for a DIY overdye.

“Our main area of focus as a company has always been manufacturers, so we are mostly experienced in this area. But regarding Terra we want to create a B2C product line. We are very open to and actually even prefer to work with designers, individual craft-makers and small brands who truly care about sustainability. Our dyes can work with both mass production and small batch wash houses as well as individual design works.” says Didem Aksoy, Denge Kimya, Shareholder, when we chatted with her about the future of Terra Natural Dyes.

Their events and workshops teach customers and dye beginners about the process, how to create custom colors and how dyes react with different materials. Terra and Denge Kimya are technically B2B companies with expertise in large production scales. The B2C aspect is really about extending the use and knowledge of natural dyes to the general public.

Terra natural dye workshop at Denim Days.
Terra workshop at Denim Days.

The name Terra is derived from the Latin name for earth, and in mythology it refers to the Goddess guardian of the planet. Most natural dyes are made from organic materials such as plants, flowers, bark, insects or crustacean shells and commercial food waste which are all materials that work in synergy with our environment. In order to utilize these materials on a mass scale, new supply chains are being formed. One of the most exciting prospects about Terra Natural Dyes is that in creating these new supply chains, especially post consumer or waste driven ones, they are utilizing what would otherwise be wasted. “As we are focusing on using waste, what we will develop locally will also be a pilot and we can share our best practices with other regions. The supply chain involves academia, local farmers, engineers, dye houses, and brands; this is very different from the transactional based supply chain flow. It is much more joyous and exciting for us to work with people who are passionate about building a sustainable and better future for all of us. Therefore our relationship becomes more of a collaboration than just a transaction.” says Aksoy

Terra is currently sourcing dyes from India, with 70% of their color coming from local farm waste. Using a cradle to cradle approach, Terra’s goal is to maintain a closed loop lifecycle for their products and localizing the supply chain. For the past few months Terra team’s have been meeting farmers from different regions in Turkey, and orchestrating how to utilize their fruit peels and plant waste as locally produced natural dyes.

Garment dyed with Terra natural dyes.

Setting up a whole new supply chain doesn’t come without its aches and pains, though. “First of all there are very few natural dye producers and the steady production amount is very limited compared to synthetic dyes. There are thousands of synthetic dyestuff suppliers in the world whereas there are only maybe a dozen when it comes to natural dyes.” Says Aksoy. Which can limit their ability to experiment with and develop better quality dyes. Another challenge is the seasonality of plants used to obtain natural dyes. Aksoy explains, “Not every dyestuff can be produced in every season simply because there is no harvest of the plant in that season, which might be a problem if you run out of stock as you would need to wait for the right season for the same dyestuff to be produced.” All of the challenges are even greater when using waste to obtain natural dyes. 

Another challenge is consistency. Because natural dyes come from well, natural resources, color, shade, fastness and longevity can vary from batch to batch.  Big brands are notoriously strict when it comes to color consistency in their clothing production, and achieving this consistency in large quantities of fabric or garments through natural dye can be difficult.

However, large-scale production is Terra’s expertise. Aksoy explains how they mitigate potential production issues and work with dye houses to ensure quality control, “We see ourselves as a team because we don’t only sell dyestuff but we provide service to our customers. So whenever there is a customer who is interested in natural dyeing, our technical team visits the customer at their site, works with them together to set the dyeing formula, provides training to the customers’ dyeing team and basically makes sure everything goes smoothly. Our team is on the site with our customers until they’re basically mini natural dye masters and fully equipped and ready to dye length in meters. And if there is an issue, we’re always on call and we go back to resolve the issue permanently with our customer.” Terra is also currenting developing natural dyestuff in liquid form to cut down on the preparation time.

Terra's expert team has mastered dye recipes based on how natural dyes interact with different fibers.

So what about price? As expected, natural dyes are much more expensive than synthetic dyes due to the labor processes involved at nearly double the price. All of this makes it that much harder for dye houses to switch to natural dyes. 

But what’s the cost of not converting? However challenging the shift in the industry might be, the environmental fall-out will bring far worse consequences. Global awareness of the fashion industry’s harmful impacts on the environment is at an all time high, with consumers, activists and industry professionals calling for change. The amount of pollution created just by the synthetic dye industry is alarming and plays a larger role in environmental degradation than we previously realized. Roughly 25 tons of water and petrol based raw materials are required to produce 1 ton of synthetic dyestuff, not to mention the mass amount of carbon emitted during this process. As Aksoy explains, “dyeing fabrics with synthetic dyestuff requires even more water and waste water becomes polluted with toxins and heavy metals. This waste water from synthetic dyes is thrown back to nature, adversely affecting the health of the ecosystem of all living beings. Imagine the harm being done considering the 20 percent of water waste in the world is a direct outcome of fabric dyeing and processing.”

On top of the environmental threats, the impact of synthetic dyes on human health is coming into public focus thanks to several evocative documentaries like River Blue and The True Cost and books like The World is on Fire but We’re Still Buying Shoes by Alec Leach and Unraveled by Maxine Bedat. The human lives most affected are the workers who produce and handle reactive dyestuff, as they often experience contact dermatitis, allergic conjunctivitis, rhinitis, occupational asthma or other allergic reactions. Synthetic dyestuffs are mostly carcinogenic, contributing to diseases such as dermatitis and skin irritation for both textile workers and consumers.

So, is the mass transition to natural dyes something we might see in the near future? Aksoy shares her thoughts:

“Unfortunately I don’t see this happening in the near future. Particularly for natural dyes it is impossible to meet the demand of textile dyeing with natural resources. Let me put it this way: even if we use all of the open space in the world to grow plants for natural dyes, we’re still not able to meet the demand of the industry."

Naturally dyed garment using Terra dyes.
Olive Green dye by Terra made from Mulberry leaves. Image via @longjohn_denimblog.

Other alternatives include recycled textile waste as color, such as Officina+39’s Recycrom dyestuff, whilst Pangaia has tapped lab grown pigment dyed technologies. While new innovations and dye developments may offer a much needed solution Aksoy raises another prediction for the future, “I believe the demand of the textile industry will drop in the coming years simply because we’re running out of resources and we just cannot keep our fashion behaviors or habits the way they are. I am also hopeful that the legislation and regulations will accelerate the much needed change.”

Regardless of the method, it’s clear that the industry is in need of drastic sustainable change when it comes to how we approach color in the apparel industry and it’s up to all of us to push for new innovations.

+ posts