To dye or not to dye: The fashion industry’s natural dye conundrum

Image shows a row of colourful t-shirts

T-shirts are dyed using different natural dyes. Photo by BioDye India.

  • Natural dyes are not commonplace in the retail textile and fashion industries due to the high cost of raw materials, inventory expenses, limited shade palette and colour-bleeding concerns.
  • Naturally dyed products are priced based on the yield of raw material, the concentration of dye in it and the expense involved in extracting the dye, which in turn depend on the climatic conditions and soil quality of that region.
  • Experts say changing consumer mindset is essential to encourage them to embrace naturally dyed products. Sellers of natural dyes need to inform consumers about the transient nature of natural dyes.

In recent years, the fashion industry has come under heavy scrutiny for overconsumption of natural resources and pollution of waterways with toxic effluents from the synthetic dyeing process. Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water, globally. The two dominant textile hubs of South Asia — India and Bangladesh — are witnessing a continuous increase in the toxicity of their river bodies.

To address these issues, a growing ecosystem of conscious individuals and institutions are finding ways to adopt sustainable fashion practices. In the last few years, fashion brands and organisations have started embracing circularity in fashion and are looking at the use of natural dyes.

Natural textile dyeing practices have been used in India since the Indus Valley Civilisation. Utilising various parts of dye-yielding plants and insects like lac resulted in a vibrant spectrum of colours ranging from blue to red and yellows. The sub-tropical plant indigo (Indigofera tinctoria), believed to have originated in India, even stirred the Indigo Revolt in Bengal in the 19th century. Despite its strong historical legacy, natural dyes have been a staple only within the craft-driven pockets across the Indian subcontinent. Synthetic dyes rose in popularity during the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century owing to colour fastness, brighter hues and affordable pricing.

“A naturally dyed product needs to meet the benchmark of synthetic dyes, in terms of fastness and other characteristics, if we want to scale up its [natural dyes] application on the commercial level,” Sidhant Sodhani, Founder and Managing Director of Sodhani Biotech told Mongabay India.

Image shows a cloth being dyed
Oxidation of yarn removed from a natural indigo fermentation vat. Photo by BioDye India.

Natural dyes are gentle on the body and on nature. Their effluent treatment is easier and wastewater can be used for irrigation. Yet, they have been infamous for their inconsistent nature. Dyers have a hard time meeting a particular shade; colour bleeding is another concern and most importantly, the final product is more expensive.

While natural dyes have witnessed an incremental demand amongst independent fashion labels, they are yet to make a breakthrough, commercially, at scale.

Scientific intervention

With a growing focus on sustainable fashion, entrepreneurs are leveraging the traditional craft of dyeing with advanced technological interventions in a bid to scale up the production of natural dyes.

Sodhani started his company in 2014 to revive natural dyes and bring them into commercial use. However, in the initial years, he realised that scaling up natural dye production using the traditional method — drying, crushing and grinding the raw materials into powder — would not be lucrative. “We were selling only 80-100 kg (of natural dye) per month,” he said. “With that low output, I knew we couldn’t sustain.

In 2018, the company shifted entirely to developing dye extracts and invested in research and development to improve quality. “Now we put 100 kg of raw material in the extraction machine and the amount of the product (dye extract) we get is somewhere around 8-10 kg,” says Sodhani. His company now processes close to 8,000-10,000 kg of raw material monthly and gets around 1,000-1,500 kg of extract, every month.

Image shows a pink flower
The indigo plant, Indigofera tinctoria, is used to extract natural dyes.. Photo by Pancrat/Wikimedia Commons.

Being water-soluble dyes, they are also compatible with existing infrastructure that are designed for processing synthetic dyes, making it easy to scale up their business. Sodhani Biotech extracts the colour compound from the raw materials and uses it as the main product. Since the extraction is done through solvents, at the end of the process they claim to recover 90 percent of solvents.

The company sources the raw material from different parts of India. Pomegranate and onion peels are sourced from Maharashtra and acacia bark is primarily from Haryana.

Despite a progressive roadmap in terms of scalability and financial growth, there is limited demand for natural dyes in the market as global and local fashion retail giants still prefer synthetic dyes.

“If a global fashion brand produces 80,000 to one lakh garments in natural dye in a year, they produce close to the same amount of synthetic products in a day. There is a huge gap in demand and supply of natural dyes,” said Sodhani, highlighting that the selling price of a product in natural dyes costs 9-10 times more than a synthetic garment.

Expensive raw material

Bosco M.A. Henriques, a molecular biologist and Co-Founder and Director of BioDye India has been promoting natural dyes in textiles for over 15 years. At the natural dyeing unit based in Sawantwadi, Sindhudurg, Maharashtra, Henriques has been blending technology with traditional methodologies to create products that are colour-fast and offer a wider colour spectrum.

“We have stirred traditionalists,” quips Henriques. “In India, we are accustomed to seeing naturally dyed products bleed, fade and have a restricted shade palette; when we started producing bright colours and colour-fast products, people began to wonder whether we were actually using natural ingredients.”

Henriques undertook extensive R&D in this field, starting in 2008 with his partner, the late Ann Shankar, to make natural dyed products a mainstream commodity; a goal that still remains elusive as the absence of a sustainable agriculture ecosystem makes the raw materials expensive.

For instance, Indian madder (Rubia cordifolia, known locally as manjistha) is primarily obtained from the wild at higher altitudes. The climbing vine yields a red colourant after three years of growth.  “We have developed methods to propagate manjistha and Naga madder (R. sikkimenses) in Nagaland but no farmers are ready to take it up since there are no models to satisfy their economic needs in the hilly terrain. It takes three years to grow the creeper on a host plant and then there are other animal-related problems as well,” Henriques told Mongabay India. “Similarly, lac (resinous secretion of lac insects used to make the red colourant) is also susceptible to global warming.”

Image shows a plant with black fruits
The Indian madder plant or Rubia cordifolia from which a red colourant is extracted. Photo by Vinayaraj/Wikimedia Commons.

The absence of economic models suitable for indigo cultivation in different geographic regions further impacts the cost of naturally dyed clothes. While a majority of the indigo cultivation is done in south India, where farmers are compensated to grow the crop, a different agricultural model in Uttarakhand increases the cost of indigo. As per current market rates, A-grade indigo procured from south India costs Rs. 4,500/kg whereas indigo in Uttarakhand is priced at Rs. 15,000/kg.  

“In south India, they use the indigo plant as a green manure. The farmers are very happy to grow indigo plant, since they are paid to cultivate the crop. The indigo manufacturer harvests the plant and then returns the green manure to the field,” says Henriques.

The cost of naturally dyed products is dependent on the concentration of dye in the raw material and the expense involved in extracting it. The climatic conditions and soil quality of that region influence the yield of the plant and the content of dye in it. Natural indigo cake contains 30-40% of the indigotin dye and dry madder stems 5-10% of the purpurin dye.

Image shows a tree branch covered with red insects
Lac insects on a branch. Lac is a resinous secretion of the lac insects used to make natural red colourant. Photo by Katja Schulz/Flickr.

“If I am buying dry madder stems for Rs. 350-600/kg and it has just 5-1o% dye; the effective cost is Rs. 3500-12,000 for one kg active ingredient (pure dye). This is a huge price difference compared to the substitute synthetic alizarin. This immediately contributes to the inflation in selling price of a natural dyed product, eventually contributing to the paucity of authentic raw material used,” points out Henriques.

“So, there is no way to reduce the cost until proper agrotechnology is developed to farm red and blue dye plants. Without this, the wild collection of red plants will just disappear,” he says, highlighting that infrastructure, inventory costs, labour costs and energy consumption are other factors that add up to the cost of naturally dyed products.

Shifting mindsets and empowering entrepreneurs

The looming threat of climate change, with unpredictable weather and catastrophic events across the globe, has inspired many to work towards revamping consumption patterns. In the ecosystem of natural dyeing as well, aspiring entrepreneurs are seeing an opportunity. But as Henriques points out, the investment in setting up infrastructure is massive.

Ahmedabad-based ColorAshram Foundation has innovated some solutions.  Founded by Namrata Bhutoria and Arun Baid in 2019, the foundation aims to create a community keen to expand natural dyeing. Both are also co-founders of True Tone Ink, an innovation-driven manufacturer of herbal dyes. Arun Baid has over 15 years of experience in recycling chemical waste and the Foundation’s herbal-dyeing technology is patented in his name. He is keen to share the technology with other manufacturers.

“At ColorAshram, we empower entrepreneurs by sharing all Arun’s inventions that can be used at a small scale. Our extensive training and consultation programmes help a person in starting a natural dye unit with Rs. five lakh,” Bhutoria explains.

“By sharing our expertise and guiding entrepreneurs, we are hoping to start creating a mini demand within their circle. Even if there are small brands making products with herbal dyes, the public is getting educated. We have to understand that big changes require a lot of time but until then, ants can start working,” she adds, highlighting that Baid has coined the word “herbal dyes” because he wanted to communicate that their dyes don’t use any adulterated ingredient.

Image shows people in a workshop
An eco-printing workshop in progress. Building awareness and educating customers about natural dyes is an important aspect of promoting natural fashion. Photo by ColorAshram Foundation.

ColorAshram is in the midst of shifting its activities to Mysore where they are opening Nature Color Academy, an institution that would impart hands-on training in natural dyes. Bhutoria envisions this place as a laboratory of ideas and collaborative partnerships with like-minded institutes and fashion designers. She hopes that they not only impart technical skills to their pupils, but also educate a larger audience about the impermanence of natural dyes.

“By virtue, nothing stays forever in nature. Everything has to age, fade and die. We have to accept the fact that naturally dyed fabrics will fade over time. But with science and technology, processes can be made better. That is why we aim to work with the mindsets of designers and companies working with natural dyes,” she says.

This means, she points out, “If you are promoting natural fashion, you will also have to convince people to accept the impermanent nature of the product. The onus of educating customers is on designers who will have to introduce a new language for them to accept natural dyes.”

Read more: Farm to Fashion: How national institutions are integrating sustainability in curriculum


Banner image: T-shirts are dyed using different natural dyes. Photo by BioDye India.

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