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The Butterfly Effect: Biomimicry & Sustainability

The cost of colour

It's no secret that the fashion industry has a huge role to play in the impending climate crisis. Whilst fast fashion production methods, synthetic materials, and water usage are all commonly cited as villains, the cost of colour is rarely considered. Yet the statistics are astounding; 17-20% of industrial water pollution originates from chemical textile dyes, a staggering 72 toxic chemicals can be released into the water during the dyeing process, and 1.7 million litres of water are used every single day by the average dye factory.

"There is a joke in China that you can tell the 'it' colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers." - Orsola de Castro

The ripple effect

The wastewater from textile dyes is often toxic to life in local waterways, decimating the marine life that many locals rely upon as their sole source of income. This decimation of the aquatic population travels up the food chain, having a catastrophic knock-on effect to the biodiversity of the local area. How many species have become extinct as a consequence of a new trending colour? Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are persistent pollutants that remain in waterways long after their release, promoting toxicity, mutagenicity, and carcinogenicity.

Scientists and politicians can’t begin to quantify the ripple effects that these dyes will have on generations to come. Take the Citarum River in Indonesia for example where the numbers are damning. Nine million people live in close contact to the river which has lead levels 1,000 times above the US Environmental Protection Agency drinking water standard, and faecal coliform bacteria levels of more than 5,000 times the mandatory limits. In the years to come, the true effects of this environmental catastrophe will undoubtedly come to light.

The human element

The consequences of colour aren’t merely restricted to the world of sustainability. The chemical dyeing processes have both direct and indirect impacts on impoverished people in developing countries. In Bangladesh, some locals are forced to eat dead fish killed by the toxic dyes dumped in their river. In China, cancer spreads through villages next to polluted rivers and waterways. In India, the noxious Ganges river irrigates the farmland used to grow crops for human consumption.

Developed countries aren’t safe from the devastating effects of cheap dyes either. The endless flow of the water cycle means that polluted water from the Citarum river in Indonesia may end up as rain over the United Kingdom.

The human cost of cheap clothing cannot be ignored.

How could biomimicry help?

Nicknamed 'the living jewel', the Morpho butterfly is known for its striking cobalt blue wings. Surprisingly, these iridescent wings don’t contain any pigment. The layers of protein on the scales of their wings refract light in an array of directions to create an optical illusion.

Through the process of biomimicry, in 2010 Teijin Japan created Morphotex - the world’s first structurally coloured fibre. Morphotex uses nanotechnology to mimic the way colour is produced in the butterfly’s wings - creating a coloured fibre without the use of dyes. This saves the exorbitant amounts of both water and energy used in conventional dyeing as well as eradicating the problem of toxic wastewater dumping.

Is it the perfect solution?

Unfortunately, Morphotex uses films of either polyester or nylon to create the illusion of colour. Polyester and nylon are synthetic fibres derived from the polymerisation of crude oil and the use of finite resources has a huge detrimental effect on the environment. It ruins wildlands, negatively impacts surrounding communities, and fuels climate change. 70 million barrels of oil are used every single year to produce polyester.

Morphotex is therefore not a perfect solution but could it be used in conjunction with other methods to create sustainable colour?

Are there other options?

Puma used bacteria from the redback salamander to dye deadstock material in beautiful lilac tones for their Living Colour project. This innovative approach introduces a new way of working - one where we collaborate with living organisms to create natural solutions to a global problem.

Italdenim have patented a non-toxic dye fixant that reduces the chemicals needed to dye denim. By using chitosan (a waste product of the food industry derived from shellfish exoskeletons), this Milan-based brand has created an innovative solution to traditional toxic dye fixants. The added economic bonus is that it also saves money by allowing wastewater reuse.

The economic effects of sustainable biomimicry cannot be ignored.

"If you save chemicals, first of all, you save money. Then you save nature." - Luigi Cacciaá

Some say money is the greatest motivator of all. Will the economic benefits be enough to save the world’s waterways? We can only hope that the answer is ‘yes’ and that the might of the scientific and creative communities come together to tackle the problem of toxic dyeing methods through biomimicry or indeed any other method, with haste.


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