Worth Dyeing For: Real Battle is Fighting for True Transparency Across Denim Supply Chain

The idea of Stony Creek Colors (SCC) took roots when Founder and CEO Sarah Bellos understood the difficulties that brands face when trying to integrate plant-based dyes into their designs. Today, SCC produces the world's only 100% certified plant-based indigo. An in-depth interview with Bellos about dyes, transparency and climate change.

Long Story, Cut Short
  • For a decade now, SCC has invested in R&D that has brought clean, 100% plant-based colours to thousands of garments with some of the world’s leading fashion brands.
  • In its vertically integrated model, US-grown indigo is managed in partnership with family farms as a regenerative rotational crop.
  • SCC is in the middle of a geographic expansion that will transition its business operations to a year-round indigo production model.
The Stony Creek Colors model is founded on working with farmers to improve soil health. This allows for full traceability that all its stakeholders demand and trust. By focusing on advancing indigo plant development, it enables environmental improvements for the farms growing the crop and by extension, the denim market customers that use its natural dyes at scale.
The Right Model The Stony Creek Colors model is founded on working with farmers to improve soil health. This allows for full traceability that all its stakeholders demand and trust. By focusing on advancing indigo plant development, it enables environmental improvements for the farms growing the crop and by extension, the denim market customers that use its natural dyes at scale. Stony Creek Colors

It's been ten years since Stony Creek Colors was launched. Your website says, "She quickly realised the difficulty brands face when attempting to integrate plant-based dyes into their designs." So, how many have things changed in these ten years? Looking back, what were your expectations at that time? Do you stand vindicated?
Unfortunately, it is still difficult for brands to verify if their dyes are natural or not. Today, Stony Creek Colors remains the only source of 100% biobased indigo as certified by the USDA BioPreferred Program.

Yet in the past decade, since Stony Creek’s founding, we have made strides in R&D that have led us to the launch of new product innovations, mechanised production systems, and significant gains in yield per indigo plant through our in-house plant breeding programme. We have completed successful capital raises that have allowed us to build out our indigo extraction facility. We are also in the middle of a geographic expansion that will transition our business operations to a year-round indigo production model. Lastly, we have developed a trusted network of global industrial customers that bring our plant-based indigo to pioneering denim brands and the list of interested partners continues to grow.

Stony Creek Colors collaborates with farmers, chemists, mills, and brands. What has been your learning on this count? How easy/difficult is it to get something that's right for all stakeholders.... and also for the planet? What would be your advice to others who want to take your route?
Creating any vertically-integrated business model is not ever easy. Fortunately, our model is founded on working with farmers to improve soil health. This allows for full traceability that all of our stakeholders' demand and trust. By focusing on advancing indigo plant development, we enable environmental improvements for the farms growing the crop and by extension, the denim market customers that use our natural dyes at scale. My advice to others would be to maintain the same level of intentionality around improving true sustainability innovations as you do improving profits.

From the beginning in designing the business and operational model, I knew we would have to invest in technology to truly deliver on a win-win solution across so many stakeholders. It has undoubtedly been a challenge to keep our production growing while developing and validating the next-generation solutions at scale with resource constraints. We knew we would need external equity financing in addition to grant support for our research. We were fortunate to connect with funders who shared our vision for developing a profitable operating model without compromising sustainability, for example, The Nature Conservancy as an investment through their soil health initiative.

Water extraction process at the Stony Creek Colors facility. When synthetic indigo was first introduced almost 150 years ago, investment and advancements in natural indigo largely ceased. For years afterward, plant-based dyes lacked the qualities needed to shift reliance away from hazardous synthetics on an industrial level. The Stony Creek Colors renewable process is able to tackle those challenges and meet customers’ demands for consistency, vibrancy, and scalability from a natural resource.
Synthetic Blues Water extraction process at the Stony Creek Colors facility. When synthetic indigo was first introduced almost 150 years ago, investment and advancements in natural indigo largely ceased. For years afterward, plant-based dyes lacked the qualities needed to shift reliance away from hazardous synthetics on an industrial level. The Stony Creek Colors renewable process is able to tackle those challenges and meet customers’ demands for consistency, vibrancy, and scalability from a natural resource. Stony Creek Colors

Natural dyes vs synthetic dyes. How would you describe this battle? Is it a battle really? Is it true that the synthetic dyes sector is ruthless/aggressive in its marketing?
The art and commercial practice of using natural dyes has been around for centuries. Unfortunately, when synthetic indigo was first introduced almost 150 years ago, investment and advancements in natural indigo largely ceased. For years afterward, plant-based dyes lacked the qualities needed to shift reliance away from hazardous synthetics on an industrial level. With the Stony Creek Colors renewable process, we’re now able to tackle those challenges and meet customers’ demands for consistency, vibrancy, and scalability from a natural resource.

Conversely, we can count the number of global synthetic indigo manufacturers on one hand, and yet their production practices are completely obscured from their end users. Additionally, some of what continues to be sold as "GOTS certified", "certified organic" or "natural" has proven to be adulterated with synthetic, petroleum-based indigo. Most of the synthetic indigo in commerce still contains aniline; so, for customers trying to reduce skin exposure to carcinogens or skin-irritating agents this can present a real challenge. I would say the real battle is fighting for true transparency and accountability across the supply chain in the denim industry. Without that solid foundation, there is no way to compare our plant-based alternative to that of synthetic indigo.

At the end of the day, it's about the end-consumers wanting their clothes to have been dyed with natural colours. How much do you think people are changing? Is the demand for naturally-dyed garments more from a very niche audience? What do the numbers say?
We receive consistent inbound requests for natural indigo from denim mills and dyehouses whose brand customers are demanding natural alternatives for their collections. From this growth, we can clearly see that end consumers are paying more attention to the ingredients in their products and they care about the ethos of the companies they choose to support. Shoppers don’t want to compromise on quality or personal values. But, interestingly, the demand is not only from those seeking a “natural” or plant-based lifestyle; our customers care about a broad spectrum of issues that our product fills a void in.

Stony Creek Colors dyes match synthetic dyes on consistency, vibrancy, and scalability. But, what about prices? And also, the number of dyes used per garment unit?
Production of natural indigo will always be more expensive than fossil fuel-derived synthetic when the externalities of production are not considered. However recent funding has allowed us to double down on investments in plant-breeding and process improvement implementations that will ultimately decrease the costs of our production and increase yields per acre.

The amount of dye used per garment varies from mill to mill. Because of this, indigo pricing for mills, and ultimately brands, is highly dependent on the dye usage efficiency at the mill level, depth of shade. Synthetic indigo is so low cost today and this has led to an environment in which much of the dye used ends up washed off in the mill or laundry. Stony Creek places a major focus on education and data-driven decision-making when helping brands select mill partners who will meet their commercial goals.

The Start

Stony Creek Colors (SCC) was started in 2012 to build a new future for natural colour, harnessing advancements in sustainable agriculture, crop development, and chemical and process engineering.  For a decade now, SCC has invested in R&D that has brought clean, 100% plant-based colours to thousands of garments with some of the world’s leading fashion brands.

Industry Problem

About 100 years ago, unsafe synthetic dyes began replacing the natural dyes that had been in use for centuries. For years afterward plant-based dyes lacked the qualities needed to shift reliance away from these hazardous synthetics. SCC is working to change that.

Production of natural indigo will always be more expensive than fossil fuel-derived synthetic when the externalities of production are not considered. However recent funding has allowed us to double down on investments in plant-breeding and process improvement implementations that will ultimately decrease the costs of our production and increase yields per acre.

Sarah Bellos
Sarah Bellos / Founder & CEO / Stony Creek Colors
Raw indigo cake at a Stony Creek Colors facility. SCC's collaboration with the global specialty chemicals company, Archroma, began with extensive pilot-scale manufacturing trials and engagement with their network of denim machinery manufacturers to test the first samples in industrial conditions. The trials showed excellent coloration and the typical indigo wash down, as with synthetic indigo.
Arching it Right Raw indigo cake at a Stony Creek Colors facility. SCC's collaboration with the global specialty chemicals company, Archroma, began with extensive pilot-scale manufacturing trials and engagement with their network of denim machinery manufacturers to test the first samples in industrial conditions. The trials showed excellent coloration and the typical indigo wash down, as with synthetic indigo. Stony Creek Colors

One of the biggest drawbacks that natural dyes have faced is the amount of land that is needed. Please comment.
Stony Creek’s indigo process creates a climate-positive chemical that stores more carbon than it uses. We are also working to improve yield per plant/acre through our in-house agronomy programme and proprietary seed genetics. Farmers who are looking to grow regeneratively or break up pest cycles regularly use “cover crops” in their rotations. Our grower partners choose to rotate with Stony Creek’s tropical indigo in their existing crop cycles because our plants provide them with a viable profit per acre while meeting important soil health goals. One of our long-standing partners and investors, The Nature Conservancy, had this to say on the topic:

“Agriculture production is dependent on healthy, fertile soils and will need to transition dramatically by 2050 if we’re to continue to feed, fuel, and clothe the world’s population. Large-scale adoption of proven conservation practices can rebuild our agricultural soils, improve water quality, enhance biodiversity, and reduce carbon emissions. By developing sustainable, plant-based dyes such as indigo for the textile, cosmetics, and food markets, Stony Creek Colors is working directly with growers to bring greater profitability and improve soil health with an alternative row crop to improve the market-driven options for farmers to diversify crop rotations.”

Using land is not inherently a bad thing. In fact, as the quote above shows it can be a good thing. With our production system in prime production regions, we estimate we could grow all the indigo required globally on about 1% of the land used for cotton production globally. When you think about the importance of rotating crops into these typical monoculture environments, that can be a good thing for the soil health and therefore the yields of the next crop in the rotation, for carbon sequestration, and for replacing our dependence on synthetic products.

I read this somewhere: "Stony Creek Colors extracts its dye from proprietary Indigofera plant varieties grown in partnership with family farms as a regenerative rotational crop." But how/why is it "proprietary"? Could you elaborate?
As I mentioned, we have an in-house plant breeding programme as the basis for our agriculture operations. Our seed genetics focuses on improvements in dye yield per plant/acre as well as looking at the soil health benefits our plant varieties can offer to farms. As a leguminous crop, our indigo has the capability to provide its own nitrogen source for growth, and simultaneously suppress nematodes in the soil, be naturally pest-resistant, and capture carbon. These plant developments are proprietary to Stony Creek R&D in the same way our industrial dye extraction process is.

Effort Awarded

Stony Creek Colors was awarded The Groundbreaker Award by the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (The National Chamber of Italian Fashion) at the 2022 Sustainable Fashion Awards alongside supply chain partner, the Albini Group, for innovation projects: Grounded Indigo and Biofusion.

Grounded Indigo

The natural dye used in the project has the same performance capabilities of synthetic indigo but is derived from Indigofera suffruticosa plants, grown in partnership with farmers in Tennessee and Florida and cultivated through SCC’s in-house seed genetics and agronomy programme and proprietary extraction processes.

Testing indigo tanks at the Stony Creek Colors facility. The amount of dye used per garment varies from mill to mill. Because of this, indigo pricing for mills, and ultimately brands, is highly dependent on the dye usage efficiency at the mill level, depth of shade. Synthetic indigo is so low cost today and this has led to an environment in which much of the dye used ends up washed off in the mill or laundry.
Indigo Pricing Testing indigo tanks at the Stony Creek Colors facility. The amount of dye used per garment varies from mill to mill. Because of this, indigo pricing for mills, and ultimately brands, is highly dependent on the dye usage efficiency at the mill level, depth of shade. Synthetic indigo is so low cost today and this has led to an environment in which much of the dye used ends up washed off in the mill or laundry. Stony Creek Colors

Please tell us about the partnership with Archroma. How did it happen? When does the collaboration get under way?
We are well under way in our partnership with Archroma, after completing over 18 months of research & development that began in 2020. As a global leader in specialty chemicals centred on sustainable solutions, Archroma emerged as the ideal partner to work with on the launch of our newest product innovation, IndiGold. Their expertise in indigo manufacturing and application, as well as their commitment to transforming the denim industry towards creating better blue jeans, parallels Stony Creek Colors’ mission.

Initially, the proof of concept was on validating Stony Creek’s high purity plant based indigo powder could successfully be “reduced” into the leuco-indigo form with the process used for synthetic indigo. Then, we began with extensive pilot-scale manufacturing trials and engaged with their network of denim machinery manufacturers to test the first samples in industrial conditions. The trials showed excellent coloration and the typical indigo wash down, as with synthetic indigo. We are moving through sampling with select mills and dye houses globally and will begin offering IndiGold® pre-reduced natural indigo to partners commercially in bulk in 2023.

Last, how are the plants standing up to climate change? How does the genus Indigofera fare in terms of uncertain/unpredictable weather? As also extreme weather conditions? Overall, what does the climate crisis look like?
In the past year, we have expanded geographically from the middle Tennessee region to the warmer, tropical climate of South Florida which offers highly suitable growing conditions for our Indigofera plant varieties. We are able to grow indigo perennially in this area. Expansion to multiple regions helps us to mitigate risk.

Indigofera plants are known to be very resilient. They are naturally pest-resistant, help to suppress nematodes, and do not require irrigation. We chose this variety for its soil-enriching properties and overall hardiness, which ultimately helps to combat climate change and reverse the effects of soil degradation that a farmer may face in their fields.

Pre-Reduced Indigo

Stony Creek Colors is providing pre-reduced IndiGold indigo dye to select denim mills for Levis Straus & Co to run performance trials with different denim dyeing systems. The project aims to have garments dyed with SCC’s IndiGold dye on the market by late 2022 and early 2023, and is supported by Fashion for Good.

The Family Way

Family farms and soil health are at the heart of what SCC does. In its vertically integrated model, US-grown indigo is managed in partnership with family farms as a regenerative rotational crop. Through those ongoing relationships the organisation helps growers make a seamless transition from tobacco to indigo.

Most of the synthetic indigo in commerce still contains aniline; so, for customers trying to reduce skin exposure to carcinogens or skin-irritating agents this can present a real challenge. I would say the real battle is fighting for true transparency and accountability across the supply chain in the denim industry. Without that solid foundation, there is no way to compare our plant-based alternative to that of synthetic indigo.

Subir Ghosh

SUBIR GHOSH is a Kolkata-based independent journalist-writer-researcher who writes about environment, corruption, crony capitalism, conflict, wildlife, and cinema. He is the author of one book, and has co-authored three with others. He writes, edits, reports and designs. He is also a professionally trained and qualified photographer.

 
 
 
  • Dated posted: 17 November 2022
  • Last modified: 17 November 2022