Everyone reading this has a couple things in common. It’s safe to assume that you hopefully eat food, are currently wearing clothes, and are also likely interested in fashion, considering that we’re sharing this experience on a fashion dedicated website. I and many others here have discussed the consequences of our clothing habits on the environment, but food, just like clothing, is a critical factor in understanding our environmental situation. And for those of us who focus our environmental efforts on clothing, let’s all take a moment to ask ourselves, am I really walking the walk? I mean, besides the orange peel I toss into the woods on occasion, am I making a bona fide effort to minimize the damage I’m inflicting upon the environment; due to the food I’m buying and its subsequent waste? Just a rhetorical question. I’m sure many do, and I know that it’s at least one factor that I could definitely be thinking about more. But, to be fair, should it be the responsibility of us, the consumers, to ensure that the very same orange I just ate isn’t going to plunge us into eternal flames?
As of now it seems like it is, since the big man is choosing to toss it in a landfill. According to a figure from 2018 from the USEPA (the United States Environmental Protection Agency), approximately 55.9% of food waste from the United States is being sent to landfills. Obviously, nobody out there is sending their food waste directly to the companies crafting landfills, so unfortunately, it’s mostly up to us to responsibly dispose of our excess food. Obviously, oranges aren’t at the forefront of the environmental costs of food waste, especially considering how easy it is to “compost” them. But between oranges and all remaining food in the US, food waste generates the equivalent of 32.6 million cars’ worth of greenhouse gases per year (WWF). Of course, even though everybody is generating food waste, the problem doesn’t end with simple solutions like smarter shopping, consumer-level composting, or even saving leftovers. Every day, major businesses, hospitals, jails, fast food restaurants, and more are generating remarkable amounts of food waste, which cannot realistically be packed away in a Tupperware container to be eaten tomorrow. But please, do not despair. Although you can’t control the food waste outside of your own home, there is much to explore, even involving clothes, which I think I’m safe to assume is more exciting to you than a compost bin.
Similar to previously mentioned practices, integrating food waste into clothing at home can only go so far, but in this case, the at-home practices are far more fun than composting and far less scary than landfills. The most notable practice that anyone with access to water, an oven, some pots, and food can integrate into their life is dying. Sure, death would probably reduce your food waste by quite a significant margin, but I am speaking of natural dyes! While I wouldn’t call the practice of natural dying a trend by any means, it has absolutely gained some traction online recently, and for good reason. Natural dying is cheap, easy, fun, and allows you to experiment and truly breathe new life into your clothing.
(For a tutorial on how to naturally dye at home, scroll to the bottom of the article! But please, not now, keep reading friend :))
I for one have had some of the most rewarding experiences of my life while using natural dyes. The physical beauty you’re capable of attaining through materials you already have in your home is really, really remarkable. Yes, the process is lengthy and will often result in duds, but with that being said, when the results are good, they’re good. Instead of taking the same orange peel mentioned previously and throwing it into the woods, trash, or compost, you can save it, wait until you have enough peels, and make a dye out of them! Once the process is completed, you are still unfortunately left with a considerable amount of waste. However, using food materials for dye is almost like the Native American spirit of using each and all parts of a Bison. Rather than throwing away waste, or uneaten food, you can seal or freeze it and eventually come away with a beautiful dye on a piece of clothing or any textile of your choosing (and yes, I have had successful experiences using frozen fruits, materials do not have to be fresh). Natural dyes are the most unique and exciting experiences that I have had with clothing, and I really implore you to give it a try.
Admittedly, I am one of the most patient people I know, not to toot my own horn, but I recognize that the process may not suit everybody. It involves being in your house for the greater part of at least six hours, and even after all that, it could lead you into nothing more than a big mess to clean up, with some half-dyed textiles. But that’s okay! Not everybody who loves clothes is a tailor, stylist, or designer; you too can ethically enjoy and consume clothing made in a similar fashion to my own by turning to professionals that employ those practices. In my opinion, the most notable choice is Story MFG. Story is a husband and wife team out of England, who rely almost exclusively on plant materials in order to manufacture their products, whether it’s the dye, fabric itself, or their packaging. This ethos rings true in their design language, which feels very authentic to UK style, hippy dippy, eastern influenced tie dyes, baggy capris, and knit hats. Over here in the states, one of my favorite representatives for sustainable clothing practices is 100% Avery Ginsberg. His company, Groundcover, has released boots, jeans, and sunglasses, which are also developed using similar sustainable practices. Most notably, the boots and other leather goods are made using PinaTex, a leather substitute that is manufactured using waste products from commercial pineapple farms. Developed by Dr. Carmen Hijosa, under her company, Ananas Anam Ltd, PinaTex fibers are developed using the leaves of pineapples, which are chopped from the top during commercial harvesting, and until now, would have been burned on site. In doing so, PinaTex provides an additional income source for farmers and creates a beautiful alternative for an otherwise horrendous waste management method.
Fortunately, Pina Tex is not an outlier in the textiles industry; slowly but surely, food and other plant-based fabrics are picking up steam. Take our orange from earlier, for instance; thanks to Orange Fiber, an Italy-based textile company, there is now a new future to be had for our discarded orange peel! According to their site, approximately 700,000 tons of citrus-byproduct are wasted in Italy every single year by the citrus juice industry. So, Orange Fiber teamed up with the Politecnico di Milano University to create a silk-like luxury fabric using nothing but citrus fruit waste products. So far, both Salvatore Ferragamo and H&M have used the material for collections of their own. While both Orange Fiber and PinaTex are quite expensive at this time, I really believe that they offer a glimpse of what could be truly democratized fashion.
If we want to take steps towards those ideals as an industry, I think there must be an equal playing field at every step of the process. Take PinaTex, for example. They are working with local farmers in a fair and meaningful relationship that is mutually beneficial for both parties, economically and environmentally. Sure, there’s an abundance of citrus fruit in Italy and many commercial pineapple farms in the Philippines, but imagine how many oranges are eaten daily, even just within five square miles of where you are right now? As shown by PinaTex and Orange Fiber, the technology to develop natural, waste-based textiles is here, and it’s functional for both utilitarian boots with Groundcover and luxury silk-like fabrics for Ferragamo. These techniques must be invested in and adopted by the industry, and hopefully, the world at large. Here in Massachusetts, we have abandoned mills almost everywhere you go. Who’s to say in ten years that we can’t have a system in which food waste is collected, then used for textiles?
While this may be wishful thinking and an overestimation of our current capabilities with this technology, I really believe that this angle is a possibility. If we’re real, big-wigs will only invest in environmentalism when they can see a profit for themselves. But screw them! In my opinion, fashion and food are timeless industries; as I said earlier, we all wear clothes, and we all eat food. So it only makes sense for us to allow these two industries, which are currently quite literally poison to our world, to join forces and save textiles, and the environment for all.
I’d like to close by referencing a discussion between chemist/filmmaker Hamilton Morris and writer Michael Pollan which I recently listened to, concerning psychedelic drugs and the possibilities they pose for mental health treatment. In this talk, Hamilton and Michael discuss one major takeaway from recent psychedelic trials: participants have reported a heightened feeling of interconnectedness between themselves and nature. In hearing this, I instantly thought of my experience with natural dyes. Natural dyeing has allowed me to see food and nature in a whole new way. Rather than buying dye from a store, I took time to create my own, and genuinely materialize the beauty and richness of nature upon a piece of clothing, which in turn, has absolutely heightened my gratitude, and feeling of connection to the world in which we live, a feeling which some definitely need more than others. I think that investing in garments from brands like Groundcover and Story MFG and seeking natural fibers like PinaTex and Orange Fiber can absolutely have similar effects. The world must be shown the beauty and functionality of sustainable methods that are already here. I hope that in doing so, some culprits of our current crisis may have a change of heart.
Before actually starting your dye, you must treat the fabric with a fixative in order to make sure the dye will hold.
- Pre-wash your fabric, followed by a tumble/air dry
- Gather your materials for the fixative: salt for fruit material, with a ratio of 1 part salt: 16 parts water. -> Vinegar for any other natural ingredient: ratio of 1 part vinegar: 4 parts water
- Gather your pots and pans, ensuring that they will be big enough to hold your fabric, as well as the water necessary to boil your fabric with the fixative.
- Place your fabric into your pots/pans, then fill with enough water to cover all of the fabric. Then, add your fixative ingredients, according to your chosen dye material, and following the set water: fixative ratios.
- Simmer the fabric along with your fixative and water, also known as a mordant, for about an hour on low heat. Then remove your fabric, wring out some of the water from the fabric, and set aside the fabric in a safe spot. You’re good to dump the fixative water whatever you see fit.
(I recommend beginning these next steps as much as possible while the fixative is doing its thing)
- Gather your dye materials
- Chop up your material as fine as possible
- Place your chopped dye material into the same pots used for the fixative. Fill these pots up with enough water to cover and boil the material, as if you were making pasta.
- Return your pots (with the material and water inside) to your stovetop, and let the water simmer on low heat (2-3)
- Allow the dye to simmer on this heat for about 1-2 hours.
- Once the 1-2 hours have passed, remove your pots from the stovetop, and strain out your dye material.
- The remaining water is your dye. At this point, you may bottle the dye for direct use on fabric, or you can dye your clothing/fabric on the stovetop in your pots
- If dyeing inside pots, once you have strained out the dye material, keep the liquid dye inside it’s respective pot. Then, place your fabric inside the pot, ensuring it is fully soaked by the dye. Let the fabric simmer on very low heat for about 1-2 hours. Do not let the fabric sit for more than 2 hours on heat, as it may shrink and become damaged.
- Remove your fabric from the dye, and thoroughly rinse.
- Dispose of the dye water
- Allow fabric to air/tumble dry with no heat.