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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Startup Using Biomimicry to Break Textile Dyeing Down to Its DNA

Colorifix's technology uses DNA sequencing to replicate nature's hues into sustainable pigments, curbing the industry's overreliance on water- and chemical-intensive dyeing processes.

In the world of textile manufacturing, the vibrant colors that enrich our fabrics often conceal a less appealing truth: the environmental toll of traditional dyeing processes. Conventional textile dyeing methods, characterized by their excessive water consumption and reliance on toxic chemicals, present a formidable challenge to sustainability — a single kilogram of fabric dyed using conventional methods can require up to 150 liters of water, contributing to water-scarcity issues and environmental degradation. This not only poses a threat to aquatic ecosystems; it also amplifies the industry's carbon footprint, given the energy required to heat large volumes of water.

The impact of such practices extends beyond the environmental concerns to human health and community wellbeing. Workers in conventional dyeing facilities often face exposure to hazardous chemicals, risking their well-being and safety. Moreover, the runoff from dyeing facilities can contaminate local water sources — affecting communities that rely on these resources for their health and livelihoods.

A biomimetic approach

Recognizing the urgent need for change, the textile industry is innovating to create more sustainable solutions — especially those derived from natural sources. Enterprising startups are upcycling plant waste and even textile waste into dyes; while some are utilizing algae as a carbon-negative, fast-to-produce alternative to the carcinogenic, petroleum-based inks, dyes and textiles that proliferate the industry. Another, UK-based Colorifix, is using DNA sequencing to replicate colors from natural organisms — a beautiful example of the innumerable solutions to be found through biomimicry.

The startup – founded in 2016 by two synthetic biologists, Jim Ajioka and Orr Yarkoni, who were developing biological sensors at the University of Cambridge to monitor heavy metal contamination in drinking water in rural Nepal — says it’s the first company to use solely biological processes to produce, deposit and fix pigments into textiles. Colorifix’s biomimetic approach to textile dyeing employs microbes to fix color onto fabrics, eliminating the need for vast amounts of water and toxic chemicals.

“In simple terms, Colorifix takes all of the harsh chemistry required in conventional dyeing and replaces it with biology. The process entirely cuts out the use of harsh chemicals and leads to a significant reduction in water and energy consumption,” Chris Hunter, Chief Operating Officer at Colorifix, tells Sustainable Brands®. “In the dyeing industry, many harsh and toxic auxiliary chemicals are introduced at the fixing stage. Our process, however, is inspired by the way in which mold or mildew can stain things. We use our microorganisms to produce, deposit and fix pigments on fabric without adding any petrochemicals.”

Colorifix's process begins with identifying a naturally occurring color in organisms such as plants, insects or microbes. Utilizing online DNA sequencing, Colorifix extracts the genetic code responsible for pigment production. This genetic information is then translated into an engineered microorganism capable of replicating the pigment's natural production.

After developing this color-producing microbe, Colorifix sends a small vial to textile mills or dye houses; and supports them in cultivating the color through on-site fermentation. This process mimics the growth of microorganisms on renewable feedstocks such as sugar, yeast and plant byproducts — producing a vibrant dye liquor within days. Unlike conventional dyeing methods that involve harsh chemicals and heavy metals, Colorifix's engineered microorganisms concentrate nutrient salts and metals already present in water — facilitating the dye-fabric interaction without the need for additional substances.

Changing an industry

Colorifix's process produced the colors in Vollebak's recent DNA collection | Image credit: Vollebak

One of the primary hurdles facing Colorifix lies in reshaping the practices of an industry deeply entrenched in century-old methods. Despite offering a plug-in solution with mills and dye houses as our primary customers, partnerships with major fashion brands will be indispensable in driving this transformative shift.

“Our goal is for Colorifix’s dyeing solution to become the standard in the industry, which is not a small task,” Hunter admits. “But we’ve designed our process and business model to make sure it can be a true alternative; so, scalability is key.”

Colorifix’s technology is cost-effective and compatible with current industrial infrastructure to minimize barriers to adoption and reduce social disruption and job loss, while its semi-distributed business model cuts down on carbon emissions and encourages circular economies in textile-manufacturing regions.

The company has strategically engaged with three distinct customer sites across Europe, effectively showcasing the efficacy of its technology across various dyeing stages — including yarn, fabric, garment and printing across a diverse spectrum of natural and synthetic fibers. Through these collaborative ventures, Colorifix is not only proving the feasibility of disrupting established processes — it’s also laying the groundwork for a paradigm shift in the textile industry.

In April 2021, H&M became the first brand to introduce Colorifix-dyed products in its Colour Story collection. A subsequent collaboration with Pangaia followed later that year; and in fall 2023, it collaborated with Vollebak on its DNA T-shirt.

“These collaborations show that our dyeing technology provides high-quality products to market while significantly lowering the impact of producing them,” says Marketing Manager Nora Eslander​. “As we continue to scale, we will work closely with more world-leading brands and together change the industry to create a better future for our planet.”

While Colorifix’s technology eliminates the use of harmful substances throughout the dyeing process, the company actively assesses its overall environmental impact — employing measures to monitor and enhance sustainability at each stage. A recent Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) comparing the conventional dyeing process to Colorifix's approach, focusing on dyeing and final washes of 1 kg of knit jersey (52 percent recycled cotton, 48 percent recycled polyester), showed a reduction of at least 53 percent in electricity consumption, a 31 percent decrease in CO2 emissions, and 77 percent less water utilization.

In fall 2023, Colorifix was named a finalist for the prestigious Earthshot Prize and earned the OEKO-TEX Eco Passport accreditation — which affirms that its dyes are free from hazardous chemicals, cytotoxins, skin allergens and skin irritants.

“Given the scalability of our technology and the increasing regulatory tailwinds, our objective is to ultimately set the overall industry standard in the long run. In a vast market such as textiles, even a modest penetration can yield substantial profits; but this is not our primary focus. Our motivation stems from driving systemic change and making a significant mainstream impact,” Hunter asserts. “We know that this transformation will take time, and even achieving a market penetration in the low single digits within the next 5 years would be a noteworthy accomplishment.”