The Problem with 'Natural Dyeing'

In Indonesia, sustainable fashion is a topic that is only recently gaining traction. As the most resource intensive process, a lot of focus has been put on natural dyeing that is seen to be the environmentally sound practice. However, witnessing the industry practice first-hand, I realized that not all 'natural' dyeing is made equal - and even as it pains me to share this (as I do not wish to point fingers or blame), I feel the need to share an insight with you you.

As many of you know, one of the most potent and widely available naturally dyed fabric is the Indigo blue. Natural Indigo in Indonesia is extracted from the Indigofera Tinctoria leaves through a process of fermentation in water - but it won't work on its own. If you were to put white fabrics in this Indigo water, the indicant (aka. the blue particles) actually won't stick. It's like it's asleep, floating in the water waiting to be activated.

Now, to actually use it to dye, you need to 'wake it up': putting the Indigo dye in the process of reduction, which means changing the chemical structure of the dye to make it stick to fibre. To reduce Indigo, most commercial dyers in Indonesia use chemicals that are extremely strong, reliable, fast - and therefore, cheap.

Hydrosulphites are the most common, and here is the problem I was talking about earlier: they're actually toxic and doesn't stop reacting even after the waste water is dumped (often in the river, justified by the fact that it's 'natural'. It's not.)

These chemicals are easy to buy, easy to use and essentially undetectable in the final product. Now I hope this gives you an idea of the complication. Stating that you use 'natural dyes' doesn't automatically means that it's more sustainable - or responsible for that matter.

There are actually traditional, natural ways to reduce Indigo - one that our ancestors have used through generations. We use a blend of Javanese brown sugar and fructose (fruit sugar), which are food grade (it's the same with what you would use to bake with!). Using these sugars make our vats smell like you're making jamu (traditional health drink), costing us a lot more both in time and production cost - but we do it because we believe it's important to pioneer a new standard in this intransparent industry.

Now back to the point of this post. This was never meant to boast or to scare you from buying fabrics from other brands - but merely to inspire you to be critical. There is a lot of greenwashing practices happening (ranging from dyeing dyed-fabrics or using 'vegan' leather when it's made from harmful polyurethanes). We are far from perfect, but I do hope that we will all learn together to keep pushing the boundaries of what it means to be sustainable.

I am a firm believer that we all have a voice, a powerful one, and the more we use it, the faster change will happen.

Until then,