This summer, a group of scientists at CSIRO in Canberra have developed a method to grow cotton that has the potential to wipe out the need to dye the fabric by genetically modifying the fibre. Their experiments have ‘cracked cotton’s molecular colour code’ in order to diversify the crop from its natural off-white or the earthy green and brown hues of naturally coloured cotton, into potentially every shade of the rainbow. In just a few month’s time, they’re hoping for their first harvest of brightly coloured cotton fibre, revolutionising Australia’s $2 billion cotton industry by eliminating toxic dyes from the production process.
“Having the cotton produce its own colour is a game changer.” – Dr Colleen McMillan, senior research scientist
The innovation comes at a moment when the environmental impact of textile dyes is reaching a breaking point. Mainstream dyeing techniques used extensively across the industry still use carcinogenic chemicals that threaten the health of factory workers. What’s more, the irresponsible disposal of toxic waste from processing plants pollutes waterways that millions of people and animals rely on as their lifeblood, with nearly 20% of all water pollution originating from textile dyeing treatments. It’s said that in some parts of China and India, local communities can predict the next big colour trend in fashion by simply looking at the colour of the river, which 2016 sustainable fashion documentary RiverBlue showcases in graphic and heartbreaking detail.
But these colourful chemicals are just the tip of the iceberg. The true cost of colour is arguably it’s water footprint. Unless waterless dye technology is used, approximately 200 tonnes of water is required to make just one tonne of fabric. Cotton is also already an incredibly thirsty fabric before it even reaches the dyeing stage, with around 10,000 litres used for every one kilogram of cotton. When used in denim production, intense dark shades like indigo and black are often regarded as the most polluting and resource-intensive colourants, so if cotton growth in fashion-friendly colours takes off, the industry’s water consumption could take a much-needed nosedive.
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Ethical fashion writer Elizabeth L. Cline has challenged the scientific discovery, reminding us that the concept of coloured cotton plants is in fact an ancient technology developed by indigenous cultures in the Andes region over four thousand years ago. More recently, coloured cotton has slipped under the radar as one of the biggest eco-trends of the 1990s, used extensively by California cotton breeder Sally Fox.
Another criticism of this ‘new’ cotton technology is that it is essentially yet another GMO (genetically modified organism) seed ripe for monopolisation by the likes of Monsanto, a vast multinational corporation which holds unthinkable power over cotton farmers around the world. Monsanto controls about 95% of the cotton market through its privatisation of GMOs, which has colossal consequences for agricultural workers. This includes a shocking 300,000 suicides in India alone as a direct result of crippling debt, yield instability and even threats of jail time and violence incurred from the trap of Monsanto’s empire.
It is also important to mention that while it can be seen as more sustainable than synthetics, cotton is not necessarily any kinder than fashion’s other favourite fabric, polyester. Just because cotton is biodegradable and renewable rather than a microfibre-releasing plastic made from crude oil doesn’t mean the industry’s focus should be on improving such a problematic plant in the first place. More low-impact fabric alternatives include other plant-based materials such as hemp, bamboo, nettle and linen as well as man-made cellulosic fibres like viscose, modal and tencel. However, cotton still makes up over a fifth of all new garment production (although only about one percent of this cotton is organic), therefore any innovation that aims to make the natural fabric more sustainable is welcome in a sector that is still so reliant on such excessive water and pesticide consumption.
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Looking forward, the same group of CSIRO scientists behind this colourful cotton project are also still in the process of developing cotton plants which could eventually generate wrinkle-free fabric. Hoping to eradicate the environmental impact of ironing clothes and the intense chemical treatments such as formaldehyde used to create non-iron shirts, the team have spent the last few years testing thousands of cotton plants to develop new varieties with greater elasticity than their synthetic counterparts.
Other researchers are turning to natural dyes and regenerative agriculture to transform fashion’s footprint from it’s desire for an ever-growing spectrum of colours on the catwalk. Fibershed is a non-profit enterprise driven by regional communities which, as founder Rebecca Burgess recently told Atmos, was born from a dream to “decouple the color from the toxicity” through ancient forms of ecological technology. Perhaps the secret to dye-free textiles is not in the laboratory, but in the soil after all.
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Cover image of garment fabric being hung out to dry taken in Narayanganj, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Sk Hasan Ali.