Natural Dyes: Use in Large-Scale Companies

Natural Dyes: Use in Large-Scale Companies

Natural dyes and the ambiguity of their usage have fascinated me for quite some time but it has taken me a while to assess their application in my design practices. Is it actually sustainable to use them or would it just mean shifting the problem from unsustainable production to greenwashing?

Ever since my uni job as a researcher for Sensibility for Sustainability in partnership with Fashion Revolution, I have been collecting industry professionals’ opinions on the subject and trying to form my own, independently.


In the whirlwind that the first working years of a young designer can be, I seemed to have put the subject on the back seat, however, a recent event sparked my interest in it again.

This cold April lead me to visit Stockholm for the first time – it was a work trip but I could manage to wander around the streets and visit a few places. One of the most impressive (and very popular) sights I came across was the Vasa museum, where the Vasa ship is currently stored. It is a vast vessel, built in the 1600s and sank almost immediately after setting sail, later dragged up and recovered to its brilliance for the public to admire. One particular detail about this ship dawned on me as very curious (and eventually brought me back on the subject of natural dyes) – scientists had managed to produce a 3D rendering and a small model of the ship in full color, based on minerals they found in the wood. Each of those minerals would correspond to a certain shade, for the production of which it was used as a component.

These beautiful natural shades, displayed behind the plain glass in the Vasa building got me craving for the same richness and depth of tones in the textile industry. But why aren’t more brands using them if it were all that simple?

To answer this, I will first start by explaining more in depth:


  1. What are natural dyes and how were they used?


Simply put, natural dyes could be minerals, herbs, plants, shells, insects, food waste, or any other source of color that comes from nature. Commonly used sources of natural dye are indigo, madder, woad, saffron or bacteria-derived byproducts (usually fruit and veggies waste).

In the past, dyestuff was only natural, and it was very expensive, but more interestingly, it was also used deliberately. In China and Japan, the so called ayurvedic dyeing was ingrained in medical culture. Ayurvedic techniques used herbs with beneficial medical properties to dye fabrics with, especially when it comes to skin-related treatment. Such plants back then were cinnamon, Thai ginger, acacia, turmeric, holy basil, and others. In Japan safflower, for instance, was used to improve blood circulation and regulate blood pressure, and therefore, was often used as dyestuff for underwear, in order to reduce menstrual cramps for women. Another ingredient, sapanwood, was used in India for its antibacterial, vasorelaxant, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

Apart from their healing properties, natural dyes were also providing a unique color result, as factors such as water used and year of collection of the raw materials, would impact the final color shade. So if natural dyes are so good…



  1. Why did people stop using natural dyes?


As it is with all the other answers to big questions, money and time are usually the answer. With their creation in the 1850s, synthetic dyes provided a vast variety of shades, which could retain their intensity for much, much longer and could be used on a wider range of fabrics – here it is also important that synthetic fibers start coming into play more often.

What is even more important, the costly ingredients for the natural dyes didn’t need to be harvested, cultivated, collected and processed, which had been really time-consuming up to this point. Also, the use of synthetic dyes provided a much more predictable result, making garments more marketable and long-lasting.



  1. So, then, what’s the problem with synthetic dyes?

The downside of these innovative dyes is that they’re made out of fossil fuels and contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals. Of course, the obvious answer would be that nobody wants that stuff next to their skin. But as only 5% of all raw materials in the production actually end up as part of the garment, that means that the other 95% of toxic shit also ends up somewhere (and it is not in a black hole). Most people, even the ones that are not vaguely interested in fashion, know of the problems with toxic waste and drinkable water in countries like China and Taiwan, where production of fashion items mostly happens. There is a number of documentaries, educating people on the subject and every 7-year old brought up in a minimalist-vegan-strictly-no-sugar household can recite the names of all the rivers in China with no photosynthesis, irreversible loss of life and important ecosystems.

The problem is, currently, there is little alternative – so end users have a very limited choice, or the choice is mostly made for them. There is next to no regulation, even now and the trail of damage is left somehow so far away from the end consumer and the brands responsible, it makes it difficult to take seriously.


  1. Why aren’t we all using natural dyes then?


It is instinctive to assume that if dyes come directly from a natural source, then they do not pollute our environment. But, in reality, there are very few natural dyes that are strong enough to use without a fixative. Those ingredients, called mordants, are substances, such as chromium, iron, tin and aluminium, used to help the dyestuff bond with the fabric. All substances, mentioned above, could be very toxic and their usage would create the exact same problem as using synthetic dyes. In this case, however, traceability is made even harder, as products would be advertised as naturally dyed, creating good marketing soil for greenwashing. Even if brands decide to trade the vivid shades and some finishes and treatments, created using mordants, for  really sustainable and transparent production, natural dyes would make the products really expensive, as natural dyes require more effort and time to be produced and used. What is even more challenging to overcome is the vast amount of water used in the process of natural dyeing, especially on a commercial scale. Another highly valued resource that would still be exploited in the process is land. Terrains and fragile environments that could otherwise be used to grow food cultures would be exploited for natural dyestuff and the respective natural materials that could be colored with natural dyes. In this case, the problem with using plastics would be solved but the solution would, so to speak, create another issue with availability of land and water resources, creating more demand for raw materials.



  1. Examples of brands using natural dyes.


Even after mentioning all the downsides of natural dyes, in recent years, the battle for sustainable production has provoked more and more brands to tap into the deep waters of natural dyeing in the hope to create a better production environment.

Amongst the smaller brands and sustainable start-ups, there has been a demand for natural dyes and sustainable practices in general. Implementation of sustainable practices for large brands, however, could be more complex.

One of the pioneers in modern day natural dyeing is Italian brand Tintoria di Quaregna, who has so far partnered with many fashion brands in creating sustainably colored collections. They incorporate more than 200 natural ingredients in order to create a commercial range of environmentally friendly shades, suitable for natural fibers.

Company BioDye has made a significant step in solving major issues with natural dyes in commercial production. It uses natural ingredients and non-toxic mordants, which makes natural fibres used biodegradable. Additionally, fabrics are provided with intensified UV-absorption in order to retain colors for much longer than natural dyes would normally allow. The sustainable practices of BioDye reportedly go beyond production consciousness – they also care to provide rural women with income, whilst re-vegetating forests and using their solid waste as manure.


Small businesses such as Blindness have also managed to convert notoriously polluting processes like indigo dyeing into naturally friendly practices. In this case using fermentation to extract the pigment successfully.

Another brand which pays tribute to the original ayurvedic techniques of natural dyeing is Sustain by Kat. Their brand philosophy is to only use healthy dyestuff such as madder root, indigo leaf, myrobalan rhubarb, pomegranate peels, oak galls, and logwood. They also produce ayurvedic underwear, dyed with safflower, known to reduce period cramps.

An interesting take on naturally colored textiles adds American company Harvest & Mill. Besides their sustainably dyed clothing, they also provide an undyed option of all of their designs, letting the original colors of fabrics do the magic.


What may seem like a logical solution to natural dyestuff supply is sourcing by-products from other industries (such as food industry) instead of looking for virgin materials. This is not an easy task due to the nature of food (not all food waste is suitable for dyeing) and interest from other parties (restaurants, supermarkets and individual users have to also be onboard with the final goal). Miranda Bennett replaces oil-based dyes with exactly this process, borrowing by-products from the food and agricultural industries.

MUD Jeans are too worth mentioning when it comes to creative dyestuff sourcing, since they extract their beautiful jeans pigments from rocks, giving them beautiful earthy shades.


A step further goes US-based KENT, creating fully compostable underwear. All ingredients for its production (including dye) are of natural origin, so each underwear piece takes about 90 days to be fully composted and to prepare the soil for future plants to grow, providing conditions for more fertile virgin material source.

  1. Possible or impossible on a large scale?


The amount of fashion giants, (even fast fashion brands) turning to natural dyes can indicate two equally likely assumptions about the direction of commercial scale natural dyeing.

On one hand, natural dyes are being developed in a more lasting and commercial manner which suits more companies that are not likely to risk longevity to obtain sustainability for their collections. As already mentioned, huge progress has been made to enhance the durability, saturation and shade variety of natural dyes. Therefore a lot of larger companies, such as Levi’s, Converse, Mango and H&M, are progressively including them in their ranges. Following many ‘Oopsies’ in the industry from the past few years, Oeko-Tex® Standard 100 and other sustainability meters are generally taking care that green washing is reduced and unsustainable brands are basically ruled out of the competition.

This is, however, bringing us to the other side of the coin, where sustainability standards could be vague or information incomplete. Even if textiles and dyestuff respond completely to eco standards, that doesn’t mean they’re completely free of harm for nature or people, which is a fact often disregarded and could, therefore, enhance opportunities for greenwashing. What is more, even if the dyestuff is completely free of chemicals, mordants are often toxic or even carcinogenic. While harmless mordants (such as salt and vinegar) could find place for domestic use, on a larger scale the correct usage of mordants is more difficult to regulate. And as the sustainable dye narrative could be incredibly interesting and relevant commercially, it is still needed to develop tools to regulate more closely how large-scale design companies and manufacturers are using this narrative. For the moment, the complete opacity of production practices and the lack of strict standards, education of the end consumer, as well as more cost optimized practices, are standing in the way of implementing natural dyeing for sizeable companies. This is not to say we can’t be hopeful for the future of natural dyestuff development – after all, a great progress has been made in the last decade. Just check all the facts.



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