Quigley, in her dye studio in Lancaster Pennsylvania, inspects a swatch of fabric after a laundering test. These tests are crucial to see how the dye will perform for a user. [Credit: Virginia Pollock]
In a small New York City apartment in 2013, Winona Quigley bent over soup pots of bubbling dye, the splats of colorful residue ensuring she wouldn’t see her security deposit again. Chunks of pomegranate skins and chopped-up madder root littered the counter space as she dunked swatch after swatch into the dye, her fingertips turning shades of red and orange in the process.
Quigley was creating dye baths with ancient methods of textile dyeing, like boiling food waste, and other naturally sourced materials like insect scales and fungi. After testing countless batches, she would dye a whole yard of fabric and incorporate it into projects for her fashion design major at Parsons School of Design in New York City. Her soft colors and unique methods didn’t thrill her professors, but she was hooked. Natural dyes became her life.
Like most people in fashion, she was originally drawn to the field by the glamour. But when she began interning at fashion houses that glamour quickly unraveled. The wasteful working conditions she observed, and the tragedy of the 2013 Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh, quickly brought her to a moral crossroads: the job she loved was creating environmental and humanitarian crises.
It was then that she told herself she had to find a way to work in fashion without making things worse for people and the planet. She recalls thinking, “if you’re going to be in fashion, not conforming to the problem means finding new solutions that don’t create more problems.”
That mission would form the basis of her company, Green Matters Dye. As one of the biggest natural dye houses in the United States, Green Matters is at the forefront of upending an industry long dominated by synthetic chemicals, according to this 2019 report from Research and Markets. In the long term, Quigley wants to make natural dyes efficient and feasible on a large scale, though right now she’s only able to meet a small demand. Green Matters has one facility, which contains five large industrial dye bins and employs six people. By contrast, one of the biggest synthetic dye companies in the U.S., The Chemours Company, has six production labs across the world and employs 6,400 people — 1,000 times more than Green Matters.
Quigley acknowledges the unique challenges that come with her job, including supply and efficiency issues, but has plans to expand the business to make it more accessible.
Right now, the natural dye industry as a whole would only be able to meet about 1% of the world’s demand, totaling an estimated 10,000 tons of dye per year. If Green Matters were to grow, Quigley believes she could have limits on her production due to a lack of dye and water supply.
Even with these caveats, the outcries for industry change have become dire. The fashion industry has come under public scrutiny for environmental abuse, producing 92 million tons of solid waste per year. That made it the second worst water use polluter in 2019, according to the Global Wellness Trends Report. On top of that, the waste is frequently burned, releasing microplastics into the environment and contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.
A large component of fashion’s environmental impact comes from textile dyeing, which has a history of especially damaging practices. Today, the industry uses some 79 trillion liters of water, which often gets dumped into the environment in developing countries while still containing toxic materials. By contrast, Green Matters uses rainwater to make their dye and creates waste that is biodegradable.
The waste can be broken down by the environment because natural dyes are created using plants, insects and minerals. Prior to 1856, all dyes came from natural sources. A wide variety of materials have been used across cultures to create a vivid spectrum of color, from the indigo plant for deep blue to madder root for fiery orange.
The shift came in the early years of the Industrial Revolution with the introduction of petroleum-based synthetic dyes that could be produced cheaper and faster than natural dyes. The growth of the synthetic dye industry quickly outpaced any bureaucratic regulation, says Renzo Shamey, a textile chemist and color scientist at North Carolina State University.
This lack of regulation meant companies could contaminate massive amounts of water and dump it back into the environment, especially in developing regions like Bangladesh and India. “Some companies have been horrendous in terms of their kind of applications and the way they control their processes,” Shamey says.
Even with that history, Shamey is not convinced that natural dyes are the way forward. He notes that regulations on synthetic dyes are stricter now, at least in developed nations, and switching back would require drastically ramping up the cultivation of dye plants like indigo and marigold. This, he thinks, could just be swapping one form of inefficient use for another.
Fortunately for Green Matters, its home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania came with a way to avoid some of those sourcing concerns. The county is one of the biggest agricultural areas in the Northeast, so Quigley is able to go to local farmers to stoke up supply.
Most recently, she’s been going to neighboring farms and asking for onion skins. “It sounds a little crazy, but we’re thinking about just showing up at the farm and being like ‘Can I please sweep your floor for skins.’” Contacting people with existing waste streams allows her business to avoid creating new waste, she says.
This tactic was rewarded on a larger scale by Green Matters’ partnership with the food giant Chipotle. The Pennsylvania stores now clean and save their avocado pits to send to Green Matters, and the pits get used in the creation of a low-waste clothing campaign that then gets sold by the food giant.
On top of sourcing raw materials, there is the issue of water use. Right now, almost all dyes use water. A common complaint from critics of natural dyes is low efficacy for staining the textiles, which means they may require more water than synthetic dyes to get a vivid yield, says Parikshit Goswami, who studies textiles at the University of Huddersfield in England.
Though there is contradicting research stating that some natural dyes could reduce water usage by up to 50 times, others use more water. Goswami says it’s wrong to believe that natural dyes are always better for the environment than synthetic dyes.
“Natural doesn’t mean good, from environmental or other perspectives,” he says. People should evaluate their dye choice based on parameters for how they’re going to use fabric. Those parameters include things like efficiency and longevity. For example, if you’re making a dye for water-resistant fabric like camping gear, you want it to have different attributes than a dye that would be used on a cotton t-shirt.
And across the board, when you make a dye, it should have minimal waste, minimal environmental impact and maximum wearability for the designed purpose, he says. So if a natural dye can hit all those categories, and perform better for the user, he says that’s the true test of its value.
Green Matters tries to maximize all of those parameters by specifically communicating with its partners to determine their needs for a fabric. They instruct each buyer on how to launder their clothes, and which dyes will perform best in each situation. For example, for the fleshy pink clothes created from avocado pits, Quigley cautions buyers that the color may evolve into a tan color with too much washing.
Green Matters has developed and tested many different natural sources for their dyes. This whittled down their catalog to 12 different categories, only offering colors that deliver whatever the client needs. For instance, if the client needs a deep black color, Quigley is quick to tell them that natural dyes don’t always deliver and that they may want to turn somewhere else.
Looking back, Quigley is surprised how much of her life has been colored by business interactions like this. She once imagined she’d be a marine biologist by day and fashion designer by the night. But now, you can find her in the factory most days, coordinating work with clients, running batches or testing new materials for dye fastness. She’s heavily dedicated to her work, no matter how different it looks from what she once imagined she’d do.
Though, she remarks, in some ways, her younger self was not that far off. She’s now combining her love of the natural world with her love of fashion. She is still keeping her promise to the little girl who loved the world and the art that adorns the creatures on it.