On the 24th of October 2021, Norwich Science Festival hosted the event ‘Hello Future Fashion’, a panel of those representing their companies calling for a change in the fashion industry. One of these panelists was Duncan Rowe, the CTO of Colorifix, whom I had the pleasure to interview about Colorifix’s revolutionary methods in biotechnology.
Colorifix was founded in 2016 after synthetic biologists Jim Ajioka and Orr Yarkoni learned of the impact of chemical dyeing on the environment and local health in Kathmandu, Nepal. This occurred during their quest to develop biological sensors monitoring heavy metal contamination in drinking water. Several investor partners – such as Cambridge Enterprise and H&M – have helped them succeed in their company aims. Since then, the company has won Andam’s Innovation Award, with some companies and designers even following suit to adapt to their processes.
At the start of this interview, Rowe and I first discuss Colorifix’s revolutionary dyeing process.
- Q – Firstly, how does your process of dying clothes work, and how is it more sustainable than the traditional method?
A – Firstly, traditional dyeing involves vast amounts of energy, water, and chemicals. Reducing water during the dyeing process is already in use, however, for chemicals, the limited progress in this area is due to the slow implementation of regulations concerning chemical dyeing processes. More than 70 chemicals are involved in the traditional method, some of which are understood to be toxic or carcinogenic. Over decades, this buildup has inflicted a lot of damage to local ecosystems.
Our team at Colorifix calls for a change in the industry. We wish to do so without intervening in garment workers’ lives in affected countries, such as with production speed – as people’s livings will often depend on fast production.
The Colorifix biological dyeing process involves natural pigments and biotechnology. We first use the genetic information from open genomic databases describing nature’s organisms (animals, plants, insects, microbes). We then use their DNA to locate the exact genes that lead to the organism taking on its pigment. Next, we engineer a microorganism with this DNA, and this microbe produces the desired colour.
In this process, we also witness a return to nature through using DNA codes from nature that make enzymes as the chemical catalyst – as opposed to the synthetic route. The synthetic route will make chemical dyes through the use of petrochemicals, made via fossil fuels.
We scale the process to make pigments from microorganisms through the process of fermentation. With fermentation, comes reduced energy costs alongside our efforts to reduce water and excess chemicals. This works by having microorganisms grow via renewable feedstocks made from cheap and natural plant-based materials or sources.
The microorganisms convert carbon from carbohydrates into pigment. It is this pigment that is transferred directly onto fabrics without the need for any additional chemicals as part of the biological dyeing process. All in all, we have finetuned a faster, more efficient, and low-energy method of dyeing clothing.
On Colorifix’s official website, their featured introduction features the subtitle “Going Back to Nature”. As seen here, the team aims to use the naturally occurring codes of nature – rather than using petrochemicals – to generate new colours. The colours also reflect the natural hues seen within the environment, implying a new segue for fashion and its interesting relationship with colour. With nature’s colours on the clothing rack, I wonder if this will prompt us to think about the textile industry’s impact on our beautiful world?
- Q – Your CEO Dr. Orr Yarkoni said in The Eastern Daily Press that “We (Colorifix) don’t compromise on the quality of the product just because of sustainability”. He expands on this to talk about financial sustainability and preventing “social disruption” with limited change to infrastructure in your methods. Why is this so important in the grand scheme of revolutionising fashion and other industries?
A – For instance, Nepal has experienced a lot of damage to its natural watercourses. Colorifix wants to give countries relying on textile imports (China, India, Bangladesh, Nepal, etc.) another option in order to avoid further water pollution.
The textile and fashion industries are huge in these countries. Our mission is not to take that source of work away, but to provide work assuring that ecosystems are intact – thereby preventing disruption of local communities.
People’s livelihoods, on top of sustainability, is an issue at hand. Colorifix recognises that in order to prevent social disruption, people’s way of living needs to be maintained. Through our method of a closed fermentation vessel to extract pigment, chemicals are not spilled out in the open. Therefore, people can still work without there being an adverse environmental impact.
- Q – H&M have backed your research, subsequently launching their “Colour Story” earlier this spring with an emphasis on eco-friendly dyes. With your CEO rejecting sustainability as a mere ‘trend’, do you think your work could reform fast fashion’s status as a wasteful, polluting industry in the long term?
A – H&M, the single lead fashion company investing in Colorifix, is a huge help in boosting our mission. Colorifix is only a few years old, so this is a big achievement in such a short amount of time. Through demonstrating their colour story, comes awareness. “With awareness comes momentum – so we get our story into the big wide world”.
Regarding the image of fast fashion, there is hope for reform. In Norwich Science Festival’s Hello Future Fashion panel, I was asked what I’d do personally. See, my school uniform in the 1980s had a lot of leeway, and so I stood out wearing a tan jacket all the time, while the others wore all black. Years later I didn’t see how I could get rid of it. By the 90s, a lady who sold vintage clothes took it in, and through that process, my jacket had value once again. I suppose I hope that fashion essentially recycles – that clothes regain value time after time – rather than being thrown away. An overall reduction in consumerism would be ideal.
The rate of Colorifix’s impact in such a short time indicates how urgent the industry is for other options. I found it interesting how Rowe mentioned the recycling of fashion. I then commented on how second-hand shopping and older styles were becoming more popular among young people. I then asked Rowe about individual designers such as Stella McCartney, who promotes sustainability in her public statements, and the general impact of a celebrity face or ‘influencer’ promoting their company.
- Q – With Stella McCartney using your method in her V&A exhibition, what does this then mean for individual designers as opposed to fashion companies?
A – Working with McCartney and her brand was an important leap. She is generally confident in showcasing companies alongside her mindset of sustainability. Her perspective is extremely important, and can definitely shape other designers’ points of view. As designers, public figures, and influencers – this then strengthens the dialogue in regards to the field of fashion and textile companies.
- Q – Lastly, do you see your research having a long-term, global impact? Do you think everyone will comply, and why so/why not?
A – It is inevitable that things will have to change. The current way of doing things in the industry is unsustainable and has limited potential to survive. Colorifix’s techniques may as well be adopted. I have faith in its potential, considering its recent successes of H&M’s ‘Colour Story’ and Stella McCartney’s exhibition. So yes, I do think that we will have an impact.
A big thank you to Duncan Rowe and Colorifix for agreeing to this interview, and for transforming the industry into a more sustainable environment for fashion – a mode of self-expression that we here at UEA all know and love.