Vijayakumar Varathan has been working at Colours of Nature dye house in Auroville for the past 15 years Image Credit: Esha Chhabra/Washington Post

In the Colours of Nature dye house, Vijayakumar Varathan is busy prepping a vat of indigo. At 51 he looks frail, with a tanned body made mostly of bones, but he runs to and fro, setting up an open fire where he’ll brew cauldrons of natural colourants made from plants.

He’s worked here for 15 years. But until his early 30s, Varathan mixed chemicals in a conventional clothing factory in the same region of southern India. There he developed a disease that caused layers of his skin to peel off. Even today, it is discoloured. “It was pretty bad,” he says, in his fragmented English. “But I didn’t have a choice.”

Conventional textile manufacturing is tough on both the people who work in it and their land. Issues arise at almost every stage of the process — the ubiquitous genetically modified seeds that strain farmers’ budgets, the pesticides used in cotton fields, the harsh chemicals used in dyes, the toxic waste that pollutes rivers and the chemically treated clothing that ends up in landfills. The problems are exacerbated in the low-price, quick-turnaround segment of the market known as “fast fashion”, which encourages cheap production and a throwaway mindset.

A new crop of small businesses is investing in organic farming, natural dyes and a transparent supply chain that encourages shoppers to think about the effect of their purchases — and they’re selling their products online and in a small but growing number of US stores, from small trendy boutiques to Target.

These include Colorado-based PACT, which makes underwear and loungewear from all-organic cotton; New Jersey-based Boll and Branch, which sells organic-cotton bedsheets, blankets and towels, and two companies based in Los Angeles — Jungmaven, a hemp and organic-cotton T-shirt company, and Industry of All Nations, whose clothes are made with natural dyes and fibres from around the world.

The geographical heartland for most of these sustainable start-ups is India, the second-largest manufacturer of textiles in the world, behind China. Textile manufacturing is a $108 billion [Dh397 billion]-a-year business here, employing more than 35 million people — including Varathan and his fellow workers at Colours of Nature.

The air inside the dye house smells of fermented indigo, oddly similar to the scent of cow dung. Pungent, to say the least. Men squat over indigo vats, dipping in T-shirt after T-shirt — some of them multiple times, to produce a darker, more intense shade. They hand the coloured garments to sari-clad women, who throw them on to a clothesline. The T-shirts transform from green to blue as the indigo encounters oxygen. Dozens in varying shades of blue are drying in rows stretched across a sunny field.

“Just think if this is the way all our clothes were made — dip and dry,” says Juan Gerscovich, as he watches. “There is no need for chemicals. We just need to look to the Earth for answers.”

Gerscovich and his brother Fernando, co-founders of Industry of All Nations, spend several months every year visiting the communities in India, Latin America and sometimes Africa where they source their products, always including a stop here at Colours of Nature in Auroville. The dyeing shop is a key contributor to what the company calls its “Clean Clothes Project” in south India — clothes produced in a way that promotes clean rivers, oceans, soil and air.

Juan, dressed in his company’s wares — indigo-dyed chinos and a breezy white organic-cotton shirt — stands over a 250-gallon vat of indigo, set in a hole dug in the ground. There are about two dozen of these big holes; each can dye about 23 kilograms of cotton.

He acknowledges that the clothes produced this way aren’t cheap — T-shirts from Industry of All Nations, sold online or at their retail store in the Venice neighbourhood of Los Angeles, start at $40. But like other organic manufacturers, he says the high cost of this clothing ideally will translate into consumers giving serious consideration to the impact of their purchases. “Shopping is thought of as fickle, something mindless, but in fact it is one of the most important activities an individual can do,” he says. “Shopping is the equivalent of voting.” The Gerscoviches, who created their company in 2010, found common ground and a business partner in Jesus Ciriza Larraona, who founded Colours of Nature in 1993. Larraona, a Spaniard, lives right next door to his business, and has become a passionate student of the art of natural dyeing.

“This is a practice that has been going on since the Egyptians,” he says. “But why had it disappeared?”

The answer isn’t hard to understand: synthetic dyes are quicker and easier to use and they produce more colours. Natural dyes — notably indigo, but also plants such as madder (which produces a red hue), acacia (brown) and myrobalan (yellow), plus resins such as shellac (purple) and minerals including iron (black or grey) — take more time and are labour-intensive.

But chemical dyes take a toll. They can include compounds dangerous to the health of workers, ranging from chlorine bleach to known carcinogens such as arylamines. And if they aren’t treated properly, they can pollute the water supply.

That’s what propelled Mohan Sundaram Eswaran to change his business model. He ran a company in Tirupur, India’s textile manufacturing hub, for 12 years, making clothes for US and European brands; the fabrics were dyed with conventional dyes, and the fabrics were not generally organic. Business was good, he says: “I was selling more than 6,000 pieces a month, and had more than 150 employees working for me.”

But he was dismayed by what the industry was doing to the Noyyal River, which runs through Tirupur — a green and foamy waterway whose water can no longer be used even for livestock or irrigation. “That river used to be clean, I could play on the banks of it. Now, I cannot even look at it — all for a few dollars we earned,” he says. “We cannot do that to a river that’s been running for a thousand years.”

So six years ago he founded a new company, Knitwin Fashion, which stitches and assembles clothing for Industry of All Nations from organic cotton that is dyed in cooperation with Colours of Nature.

Though doubtful at first about the change, Eswaran says he has found that the smaller quantities with higher profit margins characteristic of the organic industry can be profitable. “Before it was about large quantities, and small margins. Now it’s the opposite,” he says.

Another businessman making changes is Anbalagan Manikam, chief executive of KMA Exports. Each year his company sells 500 tonnes of indigo, sourced from more than 100 farms in Tamil Nadu state. Some of them have begun transitioning to organic farming practices. Manikam says he could produce more natural indigo if enough textile and clothing manufacturers sought it out: “We need more demand for indigo. With more demand, we can build more units to process the plant into powder and cakes for dyeing, and move away from chemical dyes.”

But dyeing is only one part of the manufacturing process. The clothing material itself, namely cotton, poses a separate threat to farmers. Only a decade ago, Indian farmers planted 80 per cent of their crop using seeds saved from cotton grown the year before. But the advent of genetically modified (GMO) seeds drove that tradition out of the market. Farmers were originally attracted to the GMO varieties because they produced bigger yields than natural seeds, and were supposed to be weed-resistant.

But once they stopped replanting natural cotton seeds, those varieties disappeared from the local agriculture. Today, more than 90 per cent of Indian cotton comes from GMO seeds, which has forced farmers into a cycle of debt, according to Vandana Shiva, an agricultural activist. GMO seeds are expensive, and because GMO plants don’t produce fertile seeds of their own, new seeds have to be bought each season. Furthermore, pesticides are used on the GMO cotton fields.

Since 2004, however, a cooperative that now numbers more than 35,000 organic-cotton and fair-trade Indian farmers is forgoing chemicals, and building a new seed bank of non-GMO cotton seeds. The Chetna Co-op connects these farmers to buyers, trains them with better farming practices and educates them on how to manage their finances. Today it sells its textiles to 16 small to mid-size brands, mostly in the United States and in Europe. Denver-based PACT apparel, for instance, makes its T-shirts, underwear and loungewear entirely of the co-op’s organic cotton. In May last year, the label landed in 460 Target stores across the US.

“We want to challenge ... Hanes, Fruit of the Loom and Jockey,” chief executive Brendan Synnott said in a telephone interview from Colorado. “Because the first thing you do in the morning is put on underwear and it sits on your skin all day long.”

Other US and European brands such as Nudie Jeans, houseware start-up Boll and Branch and apparel company Loomstate buy from Chetna, too. Payments are sent to the farmers through a cooperative bank account, says Vipul Kulkarni, marketing head for Chetna. A crucial element is that these brands commit to buying a certain amount of organic cotton from the farmers at the beginning of the season.

“For farmers, their finances are already stretched to the limit by the time they harvest the crop,” Kulkarni said, “and they will be ready to sell their organic cotton even at lower conventional rates, as they are desperate for cash by then.”

Synnott predicts that movement towards natural, sustainable practices will spread faster in the fashion world than the parallel movement that has made organic produce a staple of Western groceries.

“The organic-food movement started around 1980,” he says. “It’s taken more than 30 years. But now we have technology, which means we can get the stories out quicker, and we can sell directly to customers. Fashion is next.”

And it doesn’t have to be a boutique industry, he says: big-box retailers are ready.

“I put in one phone call to Target and we were in,” he said. “When we make such mass-market moves, that’s when we’re going to make change happen in fashion.”

–Washington Post