No other apparel industry is defined by a singular color like denim. It’s a unique quality that masks the darker side of denim manufacturing—indigo production.
“We find something really problematic about the standards of indigo today is that basically over 99 percent of the industry is using a petrochemical yeast synthesize dye solution,” Michelle Zhu, Tinctorium CEO at Kingpins Transformers, said in Amsterdam Tuesday.
“With that comes a massive use of toxic chemicals in the production process,” she said. “It involves volatile conditions, in fact even factory explosions happening regularly as part of the dye creation process and pollution in both the way that things are produced as well as in the dye application process and in waste water.”
Tinctorium aims to bypass these hazards. The company is creating a proprietary bio-synthesized dye solution that can eliminate the need for toxic chemicals in the color production process, and therefore, Zhu said, “be able to enable this rise of sustainable fashion.”
Specifically, Zhu said indigo is a two-part problem: it requires petrochemical synthesis, which relies on petroleum and it isn’t water soluble. “To actually apply it as a dye, we have to add equal parts of chemical reducing agents in order to turn the indigo into that water-soluble form,” she said.
Nothing is really going far enough into resolving this kind of two-part problem, Zhu said. Pre-reducedpl liquid indigo solutions don’t go far enough, she added, because they are still inherently based on petrochemical processes. Meanwhile, plant-based solutions are from cleaner sources but require more time, resources and come their own set of performance and consistency issues.
“We’re in this landscape where plants aren’t enough and chemicals aren’t quite doing the trick,” she said. “We think that biotechnology is able to create an alternative option.”
Thanks to science, what you see isn’t always what you get, even with some of the most familiar products. And consumers increasingly accept alternatives.
Case in point, plant-based hamburgers that bleed like meat by companies like Impossible Food Inc. and Beyond Meat are earning spots on restaurant menus around the world. Similarly, biomaterial companies that are more closely aligned to the fashion space are producing spider silk or leather in the lab, without the use of spiders or cow. “We know have such a richer understanding of biology as well as a rise in tools that we are able to observe phenomena that happened in nature and be able to recreate that in the lab,” Zhu said.
Tinctorium is doing the same thing by using fermentation biotechnology in order to grow blue dye. “What we do is we program and grow naturally occurring bacteria in order to produce the color we’re interested in,” she said. “We feed our bacteria with sugar which allows them to grow, and the bacteria are programmed to specifically secrete an indigo precursor.”
The company then combines the precursor with an enzyme to create a direct glucose indigo solution that can be directly applied to yarns using existing equipment as a substitute for indigo dyes.
The benefits of being able to use this substitute, Zhu added, is speed—the entire fermentation process happens in less than a couple of days—and it’s scalable. “The only kind of limit to the amount of dye you’re able to produce is just how big of a bio reactor tank you want to grow it in and how many cycles you want to run it through,” she added.
The dye is also easier to purify. “Because our bacteria are secreting the key molecule of interest, all we need to do is extract it,” she said.
Most important, the dye is sustainable. “Not only do we eliminate the toxic chemicals as part of the production process, but because we are able to apply that enzymatic treatment in order to directly create a pre-reduced solution, we’re also able to eliminate the need for reducing agents as part of the dye application process,” she said.
Going forward, Zhu said the plan is to begin creating prototype products, starting with a high-end capsule collection that demonstrate that their solution is workable for the industry.
“After that, we plan to release co-branded lines of garments with our initial premium retail brand partners in order to really start to drive the consumer movement,” she said. “And finally, when we do get to cost effectiveness and scalability for the industry, will then be able to move to enable mass-market partnerships because of course our ultimate goal is to make sure that it’s something that isn’t just workable for a small percentage of the fashion industry but the entire fashion [industry].”
And it doesn’t stop with indigo. While denim is the “perfect first step,” Zhu said the solution enables the company to create various kind of colors in the rainbow. “We’re starting with indigo, but our aim is far broader than that and we hope to enable an entirely more sustainable fashion industry,” she said.