Researchers from Australia have developed a way to grow cotton in a range of colors, marking a major scientific breakthrough that has the potential to reshape the textile industry forever and reduce the fashion sector’s overwhelming environmental footprint.
Outside of the food we consume, cotton is the biggest cash crop in the world. The farming of cotton provides a source of income for a quarter billion people and makes up half of all textiles produced globally. But it’s also one of the most costly in terms of its drain on our natural resources.
It takes roughly 20,000 liters of water to grow enough cotton to make a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, and that’s before we even get to the wildly unsustainable dyeing stage.
It’s estimated that the dyeing phase of cotton production represents about 20 percent of the world’s wastewater flow, also accounting for about 20 percent of our planet’s water pollution.
The runoff from the cotton dyeing process contains a host of harmful chemicals used to color, treat, and wash the fabric to the desired effect. These chemicals and detergents end up getting dumped into rivers and other natural resources, affecting the drinking water and soil of millions of people.
Of the roughly 72 different chemicals used in the dyeing, treatment, and washing of cotton textiles, 30 cannot be removed or filtered from the water. As the demand for clothing continues to grow, a more sustainable cotton dyeing process is essential in combating the fashion industry’s destructive tendencies.
Thankfully, scientists from the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) have found a way to alter the catastrophic path we were on by removing the dyeing process from cotton manufacturing altogether.
By isolating the gene within cotton that makes it white, and then splicing in genes with different color characteristics, the CSIRO team has found a way to create cotton plant fibers in a wide range of colors.
Now, cotton historians will be quick to point out the CSIRO team isn’t the first to invent naturally colored cotton, as textile pioneer Sally Fox claimed that title in 1989 when she discovered a process for growing cotton in different hues within a Texas Tech laboratory. Fox would eventually patent her creation as FoxFibre and turn it into a multimillion-dollar business called Natural Cotton Colors that supplied giants like L.L. Bean and Land’s End.
But Sally Fox’s FoxFibre was limited to naturally occurring earth tones, mostly shades of brown and green, whereas researchers now know we can produce cotton in a far wider range of hues more attractive to all clothing manufacturers worldwide.
The Australian team’s ability to grow black cotton, in particular, is groundbreaking, as the black dye is considered the most harmful to our water, and people across the globe continue to fill out their wardrobe with mostly black garments.
[Puts hand up] Guilty.
It still remains to be seen how this process can be scaled and implemented across a far-reaching textile industry that isn’t easy to affect change within, but it’s still an incredibly encouraging advancement that will hopefully go a long way in fashion’s sustainability efforts.