There’s so much industry chatter about sustainable denim these days, with brands exploring everything from water wastage to chemical use. But if we’re to make real, holistic changes to our industry we have to think about every single facet. From cotton plant through to finished jean there are an overwhelming amount of elements that go into the denim process and every aspect needs scrutinising. Today we’re going to be exploring the beautiful yet unpredictable world of natural dyes after discovering a couple of wonderfully interesting people and processes over the last 6 months. The first discovery was back in April at Kingpins fabric trade show in Amsterdam when we heard about Tonello’s soon to be released WAKE technology. The second was in July at Denim Days NY where we met natural dyer, Cara Marie Piazza.


Cara Marie Piazza in her studio

Despite being very different businesses (Tonello being a global garment machinery company and Cara Marie being a passionate young woman with a tiny studio in Brooklyn) both shared a common passion that piqued our interest and taught us about the benefits and beauty in harnessing the colour in nature. But before we explore these positives, let’s take a look at the current industry set-up.

Around 20 Chemicals are used in the making of each pair of jeans, according to the Textile Learner blog. Some are used in the yarn dying and textile weaving stage and others are used in the laundering stage. According to the River Blue documentary, ⅓ of all water waste from the denim industry is untreated and filled with chemicals released back into the environment. But not all chemicals are bad. There are chemical reactions in nature that don’t harm our environment and there are chemicals of synthesis that are good enough to replace what is considered hazardous. There is currently a lot of talk from companies like Levi’s to achieve zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020.


Synthetic Dyes

In the dyeing process, synthetic fixers are the industry standard, according to Cara Marie. The petroleum based chemical industry heightened the popularity of synthetic dyestuffs and fixatives in the 20th century, making synthetics with higher performance qualities cheaper and more accessible for mass produced goods. Like many up-and coming industries, at the time there was no information of the harmful, long term effects of these production methods. They simply made things easier, quicker and more controllable. Now we know better : AZO dyes contain p-Phenylenediamine (PPD), which can trigger skin allergies and dermatitis” Cara Marie tells me “AZO dyes are also carcinogenic and known to cause cancer. Typically 35% of a synthetic dye bath is also washed away meaning that 35% goes into waterways, and the other 65% into your clothes and onto you” 


Older Brother naturally dyed totes


So as the world sits up and listens to young powerful individuals like Greta Thunberg, more and more brands are exploring organic, chemical-free practices, the way that nature intended. Portland based Older Brother, founded by childhood friends Max and Bobby is a meticulously planned, holistically sustainable brand. Their garments and hangtags are 100% biodegradable, their buttons made from shells or nuts and all their dyes are natural. In an interview with oi polloi they say “from a young age we asked questions about where our food came from. Who was growing it? Where did it come from? Were Chemicals used? We are very intentional about what we put in our bodies. We emphatically agreed to take the same level of consideration of the slow food movement and bring it to clothing with our own light-hearted spirit.” Each of their natural dyestuffs and mordants are detailed to read on their website.

Story MFG are another brand that have put Mother Nature first from the outset. Their current FW collection is actually named ‘Earthtone’ and features organic cotton garments dyed with flowers, fruit and leaves. They work diligently with a community out in Auroville, India to produce all their apparel by hand and they give their clothing humorous names like ‘Grateful Dye Tee’ and ‘Polite Pullover’ with slogans like ‘Number 1 Best Planet’ and ‘Earthshine Clean Team’ hammering home their brand ethos.
Story MFG

So clearly the ideal situation is to eliminate synthetic dyes and fixers across the board; a feat easier said than done. Cara Marie, Older Brother and Story MFG are admirably promoting positive change but their small batch runs involve controlled, slower pace production. They serve as an example to our industry that natural dyes are possible but because of their current size, they don’t give me hope that we can shift the industry standard. If we can’t apply these smaller brands’ techniques on a mass scale, how can we tackle the 2 Billion pairs of jeans ( being made each and every year?

“Ingredients are like people; Cara explains: “different, special and unique. A variety of variables can affect your desired color outcomes. Natural dyes have a terroir, like wine. Everything from the pH of the water used, the soil health of where the dyes were grown, time after harvest, freshness and even your mood can affect achieving the same results twice. The problem with trying to use all-natural dye methods in mass production settings is the inconsistency in results” 


Natural dyes from Cara-Marie Piazza

A colour company who have been working on that scalability are Achroma, they embarked on a collaboration this year with sustainability enthusiasts, G-Star to create a capsule collection using dyes made from plant waste. The Bluesign and GOTS approved dyes are traceable, require less water compared to conventional synthetic dyes and use 100 percent of the raw material, meaning waste management is built into its own production.


G-Star x Achroma Earth Colours

But in a way this range almost goes to prove how hard it is to scale. It’s a wonderful step in the right direction and all sustainable progress should be commended, but a little light googling reveals that Achroma’s dyestuffs are naturally derived yet produced by chemical synthesis. Only 3 out of the 7 natural dyes Achroma currently offer are made from 100% natural waste, the others range from 70%-90% and all still require a synthetic fixing agent. This means that they are technically only classified as ‘bio-synthetic’. Like I said, an amazing start but not absolutely ideal. So how does a brand as big as G-Star, Levi’s or Even Zara tackle the impossible challenge of achieving 100% natural? Because let’s be honest, these are the brands that need to make changes in order to make a significant impact on our future environment.

Enter Tonello and what they describe as ‘The new frontier of garment dyeing.’ The first of its kind, Tonello’s new WAKE technology is the first 100% organic dyeing system, using organic and fully compostable raw materials. Speaking on the concept Alice Tonello, Head of Marketing & R&D, and second-generation of the Tonello family, said “For us at Tonello, it’s important to add a valid alternative in dyeing, increasing the opportunities to switch to natural dyes.  Not only for niches but, why not, for certain productions, as well.” Aware of the environmental concerns around synthetic dyes, the new technology is the result of years of research from the Italian technology provider and one they hope will commercialise natural alternatives for the jeans industry too. “Wake is healthy both for us and for the environment because it uses only plants and vegetable waste, such as flowers, berries, and roots, dried and infused, with no chemical additives that are harmful” explained Tonello of Wake technology. Using it is easy too, with the company explaining it to be like “preparing an herbal tea.”


Tonello WAKE

An industry first, Tonello guarantees that Wake features some other benefits including a reduced carbon footprint and great savings in water and energy. And of course this means that, with a process so natural any solid, compostable, or biodegradable waste can be directly disposed of in nature, without the need for filters. One of the challenges that Tonello feel brands might face when adopting the technology include accepting the limits in colour fastness which are good enough to resist washing but low to light and perspiration.


Tonello WAKE

Now, we have visited a great many factories and to us, this offers the industry a real revolution, because by developing a system that can be added to an existing Tonello machine makes it cost effective and accessible for factories and allows for larger scale production using natural dye ingredients.

The work of silo experts like Cara Marie Piazza and small brands like Older Brother and Story MFG warm my heart, feed my soul and give me hope for our industry. But if we are to tackle the real problem and create a safe world worthy of the young generation, it’s the corporations and mass market brands that need to make changes. If they can’t scale sustainability, it won’t work. 

We’re keeping our fingers crossed for 2020 being the year of the safe, respectful, totally scalable and fully natural dye. Tonello, the future’s in your hands!

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Trend forecaster, denim designer, industry journalist and author of Denim Dudes.