The textiles industry is the third-largest polluting industry after construction and food, and a lot of its waste is in the form of microscopic microplastics and toxic chemicals that wash from clothes into our oceans; but what is even less discussed is the daily impact these rather unregulated toxins have on our own bodies, not only from the residuals rippling through our drinking water, but from the very clothes we are currently wearing. For decades, we have known that many commonly used synthetic chemicals in textile dyes are harmful to our health; from carcinogens to neurotoxins to endocrine disruptors, our fashion statements are certainly making a scene – internally – absorbed by our skin, into our organs, and excreted into our common wastewater to recirculate in our water supplies.
"The textile industry gets away with a lot of things because it is often insanely opaque," says Prof. Richard Blackburn from the University of Leeds, School of Design, an expert in sustainability and textile chemistry. "It tells you a lot when people who really know what is in our textiles (like a COO of a global textile brand that I don't want to name) tell me they would never wear anything from their brand unless they had washed it twice."
The industry has no economic incentive to change. But consumers are kept woefully in the dark, especially when it comes to the toxicity of their clothes and home textiles. We aren’t encouraged to wonder about the harmful chemicals rubbing into our freshly cleaned and open pores as we dry ourselves after a shower, or the impact our bed sheets may have on our quality of sleep and long-term health. Yet according to a recent study, among cases of non-occupational contact dermatitis caused by fabrics, nearly 79% were a reaction to the dyes in the fabrics rather than the fabric itself.Lax regulation is enabling the industry to continue to resist to take bigger strides towards sustainability. Have you ever considered how strange it is that governments require detailed food labels, yet a garment that interacts directly with our largest organ (our skin) only need share the fiber type and country of origin (which is itself only a half-truth, as only the location of the final stage of production is required)? There is no mention of the known chemicals that are used in dyes: formaldehyde, PFAS, azo dyes and so on. Worse than that, it is estimated that 41% of tags are either missing information or are just plain wrong.
"Much better chemistry and plant-derived dyes are blocked by some of the large dominant players in the textile industry who don't want or need the system to change. The pretext is that consumers are not willing to pay the minimal higher cost." says Blackburn.
But a few companies are pushing back, sharing empowering education with the public while proving the efficacy of profoundly better alternatives. One such company is the Japan-German startup AIZOME Textiles. Its founders, Misa Muto and Michel May, set out to create the first textile brand making textiles 100% from plants, replacing the synthetic dyes and finishing agents that dominate the textile industry with plant dyes.
"No ‘low-tox’, no ‘low impact’, no promising to be ‘better.’ We are creating fabrics that are not only free from harm, they are beneficial to your health," says Michel May, the 39-year-old CEO. "Instead of synthetic colors, we use 100% plant-derived colors, which is made possible due to a patent-pending process that utilizes ultrasound technology to infuse our certified organic cotton fibers with not only the plant hues, but with some of the bioactive, medicinally beneficial ingredients of the plants as well. Many of these plants have been used in traditional medicine for centuries, as they are known to bring tangible benefits such as high-level antimicrobial or antibacterial properties.”
But pushing back against a goliath industry and offering education to consumers that can feel overwhelming (and compels them to forgo more wallet-friendly alternatives) is not the easiest road to follow. So AIZOME decided to do something shocking, to fan the flames of possibility and inspiration, convinced that if consumers were fully empowered to understand both the problem and a solution, they would demand change. They have recently made news from Tokyo to New York for selling the wastewater from their dye factory as a skincare serum that, according to users, actually works.
Textile wastewater is among the biggest water polluters in the world. The exact amount is disputed, but estimates show between 10-20% of global freshwater pollution stems from the highly toxic and carcinogenic wastewater from dye houses.
"This is what we want to point out – it does not have to be this way," says May.
AIZOME’s ultrasound technology, which they fittingly call AIZOME ULTRA, has enabled them to achieve high dye fastness and durability while creating luxuriously soft, naturally antibacterial and hypoallergenic textiles that have proven particularly beneficial for people with eczema or extremely sensitive skin.
But as May freely admits, plant dyes are an open field: “If the industry was really serious about it, they could start researching to make colors from waste like wine grapes, orange peels, and so on. It has been done, and the only missing part has been demand from consumers, who have been kept in the dark about what is inside their textiles and about feasible alternatives that do exist.”
Christopher Marquis: Let's start at the beginning. What inspired you to start AIZOME Textiles, and how have you grown the company since then?
Michel May: After growing up in Germany, China, the UK, and Australia, I finished my university in Japan and started working for a software company in cancer treatments. We built amazing tools that could extend the lifespans of people in the end stage of cancer by months or sometimes years. However, I started to feel conflicted. To me, it seemed that treatment, while helpful and impactful, was also financially more lucrative than prevention. It started to really bother me that we humans do little about prevention of diseases. And one very important aspect is detoxing - and by this I don't mean some hipster detox trend - I mean REALLY eliminating known toxic substances from our environment.
As my mother was in the last stage of terminal cancer, she developed painful dark sores across her body. The oncologist recommended swapping her sheets, as he identified the dark coloring of her bedsheets – and the aggressive synthetic chemicals within them – as the likely culprit stressing an immune system that was already on its knees. Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined that our skin would be so impacted by dyes. But then I learned it isn’t just our skin but our entire body that is forced to process these chemicals we are unknowingly in contact with, almost constantly. I was frustrated to learn that this information had been available since the 70s, when a study was done testing children who’d worn pjs overnight that contained flame retardant chemicals. After only 8 hours, they observed a 50x increase in the metabolite 2, 3-dibromopropanal (a suspected carcinogen and reproductive disruptor) in the children’s urine. Immediately they changed the pjs to ones free from flame retardants, but even after five days, the chemical persisted at 20x the rate it was before the children slept in the pjs.
Ten years ago, there was already organic cotton. But it still seemed counterintuitive to me to dye organic cotton with petroleum and heavy metal-based colorants - the very substances that seemed to be among the most problematic inside of textiles.
My then girlfriend and now wife Misa and I were living in Japan and became obsessed with traditional plant dyeing called aizome. We organized weekly meetups in Tokyo where we invited a real traditional aizome dye-master to teach people about dyeing. The dye-master, a somewhat famous man called Cozo Cazama, had once organized an event he called the Eczema Challenge. He invited young mothers whose kids had eczema and swapped all their baby clothes for natural indigo-dyed cotton clothes. He said if the eczema does not noticeably heal, they would get their money back. Medicinal plant dyes have been used with healing intent for centuries in textiles in Japan, China, India, and really many traditions around the world.
The idea that textile cannot only be less harmful, but even healing was so apparent to me. I clearly remember looking at my wife and saying, "I like my job, but we don't have any other choice than creating our own company." And that's what we did.
Marquis: What has been the biggest problem using plant dyes from a technical side in terms of improving the quality of plant dyes?
May: Many plant dyes are already great and benefit from thousands of years of perfected drying processes. It took us about a year and significant investment to find a technical solution to increase the color fastness to be able to fully compete with synthetic colors, but now our sheets can be machine washed and customers need not fear coloring rubbing off. While it has been a challenge for us as a small team to do, if I think about the resources textile brands have at their disposal – some of the richest organizations that have ever existed – I feel proud of our efforts and how far we’ve come.
The biggest problem is the deliberate state of unknowingness that consumers are kept in. Imagine, people who refuse to use plastic bags, but who, unknowingly are wrapped in polyester and synthetic clothing themselves. Strict vegans use clothes finished with animal enzymes, without knowing it. And people with sensitive skin and issues like eczema are advised to wear textiles that are full of irritants and allergens. We need to know what is in our clothes.
Marquis: Currently, your products focus a lot on the health aspect, especially for people with sensitive skin and eczema. Why is this the angle you chose rather than sustainability?
May: Going back to unknowingness, among people who have sensitive skin, the prevalence of having some form of contact dermatitis, which means the things that are touching your skin are making it worse, is high. The global textile market's globalization has led to an increase in the frequency of cutaneous diseases caused by textiles, particularly due to the growing market of products from countries with less regulation and control. Studies indicate that dyes, especially disperse dyes, are the most common cause of contact dermatitis. An epidemiological study in Italy found that fabrics were the main cause of contact dermatitis, with dyes being the most common cause.
But when you ask people if their dermatologist has mentioned switching to better clothing, most people appear quizzical. Even self-proclaimed wellness warriors and biohackers have shared with me this is the first time they have even thought about the dye in their clothes and home textiles. They are, however, willing and often eager to learn. And one of the things that makes it worth it for my team and me is when people with sensitive skin and even extreme forms of eczema notice the difference right away. I often tell them, your skin is a canary in the coalmine, reacting to toxic substances that really we all should be concerned about.
And then there is the aspect of the proven medicinal properties that plants such as indigo can bring - - real plant indigo that is, not the one made in a lab. We have commissioned a study with researchers from the University of Cambridge using our indigo dye to determine its efficacy in comparison to conventional medical treatments for wound healing. The results surprised us all. The healing properties of applied indigo were on par with those of Betadine, the brownish liquid that is commonly used in clinical settings.
The world is full of plants that bring medicinal benefits. There is endless knowledge in traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurvedic traditions - we don't fully understand all of them yet, and some will turn out to work less effectively than others. But the fact is clear that many plants bring tangible health benefits into textiles.
Marquis: Your company AIZOME has recently been making the news because of WASTECARE - which I understand was you selling the effluent of the dyeing mill as a skincare product. This seems pretty controversial. How did you come up with this? What has the reception been?
May: I think waste is sexy. As consumer sophistication changes, this is an era in which a lot of economic potential and new ideas will arise. The age where we thought we could just dump toxic waste is, thankfully, coming to a close. But we have the means and the motivation now that no previous generation has had. And the urgency. We decided to embrace the model of a circular economy and the ethos of omoiyari, and turn our waste into something good.
Synthetic colors in textiles, which are used in 99.9% of textiles made, are dyed with petrochemicals and coal, readily available byproducts of the oil industry. This will come to an end faster than we expect. Now the global players still externalize the environmental and health costs. But soon this will be accounted for, and waste will be seen as part of the process.
With WASTECARE, we want to shock people. Yes, this is possible. And, by the way, we have been approached by several makeup companies that would like to continue the line because it actually works.
Marquis: Let me challenge your approach a bit. An argument against cotton and plant dyes is that it takes land and resources, and that alternatives such as linen or even recycled plastic or pulp such as from eucalyptus or bamboo are more sustainable. What’s your position on this?
May: Yes, that is what is commonly said. The most sustainable thing humans can do is to stop overconsumption. Textiles are worn on average only 8 times, and mind-boggling 40% of produced garments are sold at mark-down or will never be worn at all. In this reality, yes, cotton and plant dyes are too resource-intensive.
If we want to survive, we have to consume more consciously. The oldest surviving textiles were dyed with indigo, and my Bavarian countryman Levi Strauss chose the indigo plant to dye the first jeans because it makes them long-lasting. Jeans are unfortunately no longer dyed with indigo but with a synthetic and toxic counterpart made in laboratories.
As long as we see clothes as cheap, disposable items, it makes sense to also use cheap materials. AIZOME offers a lifetime warranty on some of our products because we want to hold ourselves accountable when it comes to quality.
Upscaling plastics sounds great and makes for great marketing, but I worry we are just fishing plastic nets out of the ocean to return them later in the form of microplastics. And wood pulp such as eucalyptus or bamboo can be good, but to break something as hard as wood down to soft fibers is typically very chemically intensive, and only a minority of respectable companies do this in a fully controlled environment that recaptures the chemicals instead of releasing them into the environment. But then one wonders how many of those residual chemicals remain embedded in the threads of our bamboo or eucalyptus clothing.
Frankly, when it comes to quality for textiles, especially the skin-touching textiles, I agree with pretty much all dermatologists that organic cotton is the best and most precious fiber we have.
Marquis: Where do you see AIZOME Textiles going? You currently focus only on home textiles. Will you work with industry partners or expand?
May: Our dream is to make all types of 100% plant-made textiles something everybody can enjoy. We want everyone to be able to experience how amazing it feels to wrap yourself and those you love in fabrics that are not only safe for you, the workers, and the environment, but that benefit your health. Especially those who suffer from allergies, skin issues, or eczema.
I once asked a Japanese master if plastics were bad. The master answered: “The materials are never bad. They just exist. It is the craftsman’s lack of respect that is dangerous. When a master craftsman uses wood, he is aware it took the earth many decades to grow... A true craftsman would use plastics with respect to how long it took the earth to make them, the finite characters and quality.” Synthetic fabrics are great, and there is amazing engineering. But when it’s the option promoted just to make profit with disrespect for health and the planet, I have a problem with this.
I’ve thought about this conversation for years. Plastic, PFAS, petroleum, these are tools of harm because of our human disregard for the power of our choices. But at this point, we have created far too much harm with these substances, with our overconsumption, with our disregard or unknowing. And so now, we need to come together to find healthy, comprehensive shifts that allow for repair, and shifting back toward balance.
Everything we do changes the world, intended or not. Together, embracing the spirit of omoiyari, which is, in Japanese, the concept of honoring one’s relationship to all things, we are working to create change that is both intentional and beneficial. We are starting by helping people to reclaim their beds as their sanctuaries.
Next? We unite with other like-minded companies to help transform the way the industry dyes textiles, because together we are proving, one customer, one purchase, one article at a time, that this is not only possible, it is essential.