The Resurrection of Indigo, Series 2 of 3

Illustrations and story by Olivia Mamou

Illustration by Olivia Mamou
Illustration by Olivia Mamou

The more we learn about the things we buy, we can not help but be shocked at what has become common assaults against nature, from our cleaning products to the food we eat. Despite harmful conditions perpetuated by the pursuit of profits, a growing number of individuals still want to make the world into a more safe, clean and environmentally responsible place to live. Many consumers are seeking opportunities to decrease their carbon footprint, but are not aware of the extraordinary efforts some are making in our own neighborhoods. Now, there is a new way to make a difference in the most American way, with our blue jeans!

The production of synthetic indigo, used to dye our blue jeans (among other garments), is polluting the waterways of the earth. It darkens river water, starving portions of the ecosystem of precious sunlight and oxygen. Until recently, 100 percent of the dye used in our blue jeans was not made in the United States. Two countries have emerged as leaders in the market for synthetic indigo, China and Germany. One of the reasons this substance is not manufactured here is the cost of fusing coal tar with the toxic chemicals used in the process of synthetic dyes. Additionally, extreme working conditions to create the dye causes several cancers, cerebral vascular disease and lung conditions in workers. A 2007 report by CNN revealed high levels of toxic chemicals in babies and young children after wearing garments containing synthetic indigo. Interestingly, indigo dye is almost exclusively used for the manufacture of denim jeans.

Change is hard and sometimes we can feel the world’s problems are too overwhelming, because change is uncomfortable. Pollution and health hazards are everywhere, so how can we change all of this? We change by working together and taking one step at a time time. In a humble office in Goodlettsville, Tenn., wonderful things are happening. The office is buzzing with energy, and numerous white boards are crowded with ideas, formulas and projections. Change is happening! Sarah Bellos and her company, Stoney Creek Colors, have created the opportunity to have a positive affect on our environment.

While attending Cornell University Agriculture School, Sarah and her sister established a small batch textiles dye house where they produced plant based dyes for fashion designers desiring natural products. After a color mishap with a fairly large order, Sarah realized the need to make natural dyes more consistent for the consumer. In 1739, Agriculturist Eliza Lucas began experimenting with cultivating and improving strains of the indigo plant. In 1744, Eliza started a snow ball effect by exporting her indigo to London as well as sharing her seed with her fellow farmers. “Carolina Indigo,” the name of her product, had a stronger, richer blue than the widely used woad blue in Western Europe. By the following year, the Carolina colony exported 5,000 pounds of product. Within a couple of years, indigo accounted for more than one third of the total exports from the colony. Unfortunately, this momentum ended about the same time the Revolutionary War began and exports to Europe ended. In 1856, William Henry Perkin, a chemist, created the first synthetic dye that quickly engulfed the fashion industry. The benefit of his accidental discovery was a dye that was consistent, vibrant and scalable. Unknowingly, it also harmed people and the planet.

Stoney Creek Colors’ primary focus is to give the fashion industry a more viable option to make “honest, clean and healthy” clothes.

Almost over night, manufacturing of natural dyes was decimated. Now, Sarah has picked up the torch of Eliza Lucas. Stony Creek Colors found a cost-effective way to produce natural dyes using the indigo plant. “Our novel methods for producing high purity plant-derived indigo, allow it to be a direct replacement for synthetic indigo at American industrial denim mills,” said Sarah. Cooperative efforts between Stony Creek Colors and their farming partners are providing benefits to all concerned. The farmers gain cash crops that are sustainable and easy to grow. Stony Creek Colors provides the seeds and harvest’s the crops, enjoying up to three harvests a year in some situations. Stoney Creek Colors’ primary focus is to give the fashion industry a more viable option to make “honest, clean and healthy” clothes. The company projects they will produce 2.8 percent of indigo dye globally within the next four to five years. They are also working on an entire palette of colors for the future. This isn’t a cure-all solution, but it is a giant step in the right direction. The job of finding solutions for the arduous task of cleaning up our faults and preventing further harm to our planet can be daunting, but we can not give up. We must support those with visions of a healthier home and cleaner earth, because it is paramount to ending our self-inflicted dilemma. Change is coming; how will you play a part?