#015 We Borrow From Nature, not take from it…

The textiles industry is one of the biggest polluters in the world. The annual clothing volume for the UK alone requires over 20 billion litres of water to dye. “We are looking to change that: with the help of nature and science.” That’s how a biologist Orr Yarkoni, CEO and Co-Founder of Colorifix, ended up in the Fashion Industry. Using his knowledge about microorganisms to bring real change to the dyeing industry. 

“At Colorifix, we Borrow from nature, not take from it. We use synthetic biology to copy how nature makes colours, by looking at DNA, which we use in the dyeing process. We are trying to significantly improve how we put colour into our daily lives.  We want to give the industry access to this new technology in a way that doesn’t come at a huge cost and can produce great environmental savings.”

Coming up in this Circular Story

  • Alternatives for dying clothes;

  • Where dyeing comes from;

  • How a biologist got in the fashion industry

  • Dyeing based on a fermentation process.

Watch their Circular Story here!

A BIOLOGIST IN THE FASHION INDUSTRY

My co-founder Jim and I have always had a passion for the environment. We were working on a water quality project involving synthetic biology when we became aware of the scale of the problem in textiles and fashion.  We then found the best way for us to apply our core skill set to this industry and provide what we think is a real, viable solution for change.”

“Around March 2013 Jim and I were in a meeting discussing the water pollution situation in Nepal, and about how many of the chemicals that people were concerned about came from the textile industry, specifically dyeing. We said wouldn’t it be cool if instead of getting the bacteria to just change colour can we get it to change the colour of the fabric.  

The Eureka moment was when we started testing it in the washing machine. When the same colour appeared over again we knew it: Wow this works! “

Fermentation with colours

“We use synthetic biology to copy how nature makes colours. We then grow these colours using microorganisms (very similar to how you make beer but instead of alcohol, we’re making colours). This means our pigments are made from entirely green and renewable chemistry, as opposed to hazardous petrochemicals.  

Our technology also causes the transfer of these pigments from the microorganisms to fabric, meaning it not only produces dyes but delivers them onto the fabric, effectively dyeing it. All of the ingredients of our dye liquor are agricultural by-products that have a significantly lower impact on environmental pollution than current methods.  We don’t use mordants, linkers, or binders, meaning we significantly reduce the chemical footprint of the dyeing process and therefore the amount of pollution. “

Petrochemicals

Petrochemicals (also known as petroleum distillates) are the chemical products obtained from petroleum by refining. Some chemical compounds made from petroleum are also obtained from other fossil fuels, such as coal or natural gas, or renewable sources such as maize, palm fruit or sugar cane.  “Beyond this, we also dramatically reduce the use of water used in the dyeing process, up to 90% for some materials and we dye at much lower temperatures, resulting in energy savings.  Our distribution model means we minimise shipping distances for large volumes as instead of sending 50 tonnes from our facility in Cambridge we can send 5 grams from there and have that grow at the customer site or very nearby, cutting the carbon footprint in the process. “

 

Unlike most dyeing technologies Colorifix works across an incredibly wide range of materials (naturals, synthetics, blends) at multiple stages of processing (yarn, fabric, garment) and works with existing dyeing machines that the industry is using today.

HISTORY OF DYEING:

Mauveine, also known as aniline purple and Perkin’s mauve, was one of the first synthetic dyes. It was discovered serendipitously by William Henry Perkin in 1856 while he was attempting to create a cure for malaria. It is also among the first chemical dyes to have been mass-produced.

Flax Flower

BRANDS CAN CHANGE THE ECOSYSTEM

“Our important partners are brands, mills, and dye houses. We want to give them access to this new technology in a way that doesn’t come at a huge cost and can produce great environmental savings. Brands are the first point of contact for us as they sell the final product to the customer and they need to understand what the unique benefits of the products are in order to generate demand for it.  

Mills are our primary customers. They are selling the product on to the brand and essentially run the supply chain up to a retail point. Dye Houses manufacture the product for the mills and, generally, mills put us in contact with the dyehouse they are using such that we can provide tech transfer and services towards making the mills orders. Ultimately, we want to help our customers save water and energy as well as reducing their waste management costs.  

The potential is to reduce the current 6 trillion litres of water used per year for dyeing and to eliminate the 700k tonnes of petrochemicals used in dyeing each year, in addition to preventing 200k of those 700k tonnes ending up in our drinking water.”

What is your definition of the Circular Economy? 

“Circular economy for our concept is one where the only losses to the product come from the heat in the processing steps and carbon emissions in transport. In a circular economy, you must be able to utilise waste and you utilise sustainable materials that are renewable in origin (non-petrochemicals or other irreplaceable materials). The product life cycle must allow for it to be entirely reused, recycled, or upcycled in order to classify as circular. “

Looping the lifecycle

“Circular economy for our concept is one where the only losses to the product come from the heat in the processing steps and carbon emissions in transport. In a circular economy, you must be able to utilise waste and you utilise sustainable materials that are renewable in origin (non-petrochemicals or other irreplaceable materials). The product life cycle must allow for it to be entirely reused, recycled, or upcycled in order to classify as circular. “

Organic Cotton

“A rumor goes around that organic cotton is somehow better for the environment. There are many other alternatives that are far more sustainable and organic cotton is not in my view something that can become circular.  “

Purpose, not profit on a day to day, month to month level.

“Purpose not profit. We designed our business model with purpose in mind and adjusted it so as to remain profitable. Our view on sustainability is that the technology must be environmentally, socially and financially sustainable in order to generate long term impact. How that reflects is being responsive and adaptive to customer and market needs, with regards to sustainability and practices, and actively engaging in relevant communities and networks.”

According to Georgina Gilmore, Commercial Manager at Colorifix: “Orr creates an openness to explore new ideas from the whole team, no idea is unheard. This ability is matched with a true interest in others and their ideas. Purpose not profit is proven by the Colorifix culture on a day to day, month to month level. Every decision and conversation revolves around bettering the planet and sustainability rather than chasing profit margin and lining pockets. It is his ability to link an academic level of research with a passion for improvement in the industry is infectious throughout the whole team. “

Circular Quote
of the day:

We are trying to significantly improve how we put colour into things. 

Orr Yarkoni
Founder and CEO Colorifix

COMPETITIVENESS AROUND THE WORLD

“Our whole business is built around sustainable and circular feedstocks where we capture as much carbon as possible from the original agricultural material beyond its primary purpose (sugar, biodiesel).  The competitive advantage is using these feedstocks where they can be produced in most places around the globe, means you have a decentralised production as opposed to today’s pigment production, which is centered around 5 countries in the world.  The reality for us is that this is what everyone wants and cares about right now; this is what the customer is looking for so it’s easy for us to engage.”

But there is still a long way to go

“R&D and innovation in synthetic biology has a relatively large plastic footprint (test tubes, pipet tips, etc).  It would be great if that can be shifted without a compromise on development time and quality, but there are no available alternatives at this time.  

Also, we still need to travel a lot, and ship kit around.  There are some areas in our business model, i.e. fermentation kit, that we are still sourcing from only one place – ideally we would get the kit built more locally and thereby stimulate the local economy, further cut shipping costs and carbon emission, and further approach an efficient circular model.”

“The last time mankind was sustainable was pre-agriculture. It’s therefore hard for us to imagine. In order to have a consumer society where we have more than we can carry or need, we must have clean energy, perfect environmental remediation in place, clean transport, more circular food stocks, nitrogen and phosphorus recovery mechanisms or technologies. In essence we need lots of innovation to take place before we can even consider a model that is remotely sustainable in a consumer culture.”

What can you do?

I’ve started using less detergent for washing my clothes and dishes etc, due to water pollution – the biggest source of pollution beyond the products we buy is what we put into our water before we drain it. 

If you could have a gigantic billboard with anything on it what would it say and why?

Work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger. Because our work is never over.

Colorifix Billboard Quote

Circular stories:

Circular Quote of the Day

Do something that makes your kids proud.

Dr. Sebastian Porkert, Founder ECOFARIO

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