Plant dyes need brands to help gain momentum

Bio-based, sustainably produced textile fibres are becoming more common in the textile industry, yet textiles are still dyed using synthetic colours made utilising raw materials from the oil industry. Bio-based dyes offer an alternative, but their use is still marginal. A boost from big brands would be welcomed. Well-known brands could incorporate bio-based colours as part of their production chain and offer consumers appealing products.

The topic of plant dyes often becomes an either/or type of discussion, but that’s not what change is about, states Riikka Räisänen, Professor and leader of the bio-based dye research project, BioColour, together with Katri Pylkkänen, Advisor at Finnish Textile & Fashion.

– Our objective is to elevate bio-based colours as a relevant option for the synthetic ones. Bio-based dyes offer brands, as well as the entire industry, the opportunity to step up their sustainability and act according to their own values, say both Räisänen and Pylkkänen.

As regards the production chain of clothing and textiles, it is the fibre and material production part of the process that is the leading cause contributing to negative environmental impact and carbon dioxide emissions. Major advances have been made towards circular economy and responsibility over the past decades. This is reflected in the product range available in stores. The consumer can now choose from a variety of sustainably manufactured textiles.

Textile processing, such as dyeing, is responsible for around 20 percent of the water pollution globally. Plant-based dyes constitute around one percent of all dyes used today.

– With all the effort put into developing great, environmentally friendly and responsible textiles, it seems a bit contradictory to dye them using synthetic colours made out of raw materials that come from the oil industry. We cannot keep making these choices that haven been proven to be bad, says Räisänen.

Lapuan Kankurit have coffee-dyed products in their collection. VM-Carpet rug designed by Tuulikki Peltonen is dyed with willow.

Plant-based dyes require new thinking – from logistics, too

Synthetic dyes are holding up well in the textile manufacturing process for many reasons – it is a conservative industry, investing in machinery is costly and there are no fully developed processes or logistics for utilising plant colourants. Räisänen’s research project is currently the first in the world to compile a database for the industry regarding the use of bio-based dyes.

From the point of view of a sustainable production chain, the dyeing of textiles should take place as close as possible to the manufacture area of the textiles. There is not much textile production in Finland, but there is extensive textile industry in Europe, for example, in Turkey and Portugal.

– Maybe we – the companies and consumers – in Finland should change our way of thinking in terms of what we consider as locally produced? There is no point in transporting dyes or yarn from Finland to southern Europe, and the right back. Maybe we should we begin to consider textiles made and dyed in Europe as locally produced, Räisänen ponders.

The use of plant-based dyes in itself does not make the process more environmentally friendly. Assessing the matter should cover all stages, such as: the raw material used in making the dye, the kind of process it involves, whether the extraction is done with water or solvents, the temperature the process requires, and can the biomass be re-used after the process, for example, for producing bioethanol, or can it be composted.

– So, the actual production of plant colourants can also be done in a more or less environmentally friendly manner.

Plant-based dyes could be the thing for fashion houses

Plant colours are produced in small batches so there is greater variance than with synthetic colourants.

– The largest fashion houses in the world are continuously chasing the angle that makes them unique and stand out from the rest. However, making increasing use of plant dyes is still not something they have learned to utilise. For them, the most important thing is to produce and sell a dress that is the exact same shade as the one that’s been seen on a celebrity, Räisänen says slightly amused.

A change of mindset is required.

“Inconsistency in a product is considered as a flaw in the clothing industry. You could rather think of it as part of a story”

– Inconsistency in a product is considered as a flaw in the clothing industry. You could rather think of it as part of a story, Pylkkänen says.

Companies are needed as pioneers in the commercialisation of plant-based dyes and to show consumers the shades that can be produced using natural colours. Slight variance in colours is typical for bio-based dyes. The result is not necessarily as vibrant as with colourants that are synthetically produced.

– The image the consumer has about what plant dyes can offer, is quite narrow. The market needs beautiful, appealing designs enhanced by the additional element introduced by natural colourants, says Räisänen.

The colours produced using plant-based dyes can also change or fade in use, for example, if the product is washed often.

– The nature of sustainable aesthetics should be discussed more. A garment or a textile is not unusable if the colour has slightly changed with use. The most important thing for the consumer is to know how to take care of a plant-dyed product for it to maintain its good condition. Sustainable aesthetics is part of a wider trend of appreciating and taking care of clothes and items, Pylkkänen says.

Marimekko on tehnyt useita luonnonvärikokeiluja. Nämä tuotteet ovat värjätty muskottipähkinällä.

From coffee production waste to the dyeing mill

Last autumn Nevertex, a company known for its knit accessories, manufactured a test batch of coffee-dyed beanies and scarfs as business gifts. The idea was born when Natural Indigo, a company specialised in plant dyes, got in touch.

– They wanted to test dyeing using coffee production waste from the coffee company Paulig. We embraced the opportunity to join the project, says CEO Reijo Kinnunen.

The first thing to be researched was what kind of colours could be created and what kind of merino wool or cotton yarn could be used. The test batch was made using an ecological bluesign-certified merino wool yarn from Austria that was already familiar to Nevertex.

The dying was done close by in Lappajärvi, in a dyeing mill the company has worked with previously. This made logistics easy.

“We got amazing autumnal colours of consistent quality. We were able to create a truly sustainable product with the choices we made. Our business clients were really interested in our products.”

– We got amazing autumnal colours of consistent quality. We were able to create a truly sustainable product with the choices we made. Our business clients were really interested in our products, and every item we manufactured was sold.

Nevertex would be interested in utilising plant-based dyes in the future also. The process, though, would need further work.

– We don’t usually get yarns dyed ourselves, so it would be great to have large industrial yarn manufacturers selling also plant-dyed products. That would make it easier for companies of all sizes to also begin offering them as part of their selection, says Kinnunen.

Brands to lead the way – investors will follow

The mainstreaming of plant-based colourants could start with brands, state Pylkkänen and Räisänen contemplatively.

– If plant-dyed yarns and textiles were something that was required from the top, by brands, the production chain would find ways to fulfil those needs, they say.

Some of the biggest Finnish brands, such as Marimekko, Nanso, Lapuan Kankurit and VM-Carpet, have already experimented using plant-dyed materials for some of their products. These types of pioneers are wanted.

There are examples both at global level and in Finland that investors are interested in sustainable textile production and plant dyes.

– Investors contact me asking who they can back. There clearly is a need for new entrepreneurs and for the next step towards industrial production, says Räisänen.

Even though the utilisation of plant dyes is still on a smaller scale, it is gaining momentum.

– Within the last five years, the use of and interest in plant-based colours has grown exponentially. When the time is ripe, the changes will be rapid and significant. I see that time coming soon, Räisänen says.

BioColours Director Riikka Räisänen, Finnish Textile & Fashion Advisor Katri Pylkkänen ja CEO of Nevertex Reijo Kinnunen

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