Do consumers really want their clothes to be made in natural, organic ways? Can commercial brands successfully replace chemical color with plant-based natural dyes?

We brought together two fashion color experts from opposite ends of the spectrum – a Bangladeshi natural dye practitioner and a London-based trend forecaster – to ask how the commercial apparel industry can use more natural dyes for textiles.

Ruby Ghuznavi is the founder of Aranya Crafts. For over 30 years, she has worked to revive natural dyes in Bangladesh and to promote the ecological, social, and economic benefits of its craft tradition. She recently handed over Aranya to the Bengal Foundation and continues to work with the organization, and others, as a rights activist and an advocate for craft and natural dyes.

Fiona Coleman has spent 25 years in the fashion industry as a trend and color specialist. She was WGSN‘s Global Head of Color and worked for brands like Paul Smith, Marks & Spencer, Benetton, Naturino, and Uniqlo. Fiona now works directly with brands as a consultant and is a frequent university lecturer.

Contributor Justin Lancy sat down with Ruby in Dhaka, Bangladesh – with Fiona joining by Skype from London – for this edition of our In Conversation series.


The Natural Dyes Of Bangladesh

The Kindcraft

I want to thank you both for making time to talk today.

Ruby – I want to start with you. Can you start by explaining a bit about your Encyclopedia of Natural Dyes in Bangladesh?

Ruby Ghuznavi

I started the project in 1982 with six colors learned from Indian experts. We now have 35 colors. There are very few countries with 35 fast colors.

The Kindcraft

And in that time, you’ve documented it in a book ‘Rangeen: Natural Dyes Of Bangladesh’.

Ruby Ghuznavi

It’s got everything in it – including the recipes of how to do what.

The Kindcraft

Why did you pick the name Aranya for your organization?

color-conversation-8Ruby Ghuznavi

‘Aranya’ means ‘forest’: A friend suggested it and I thought it was brilliant because all our material sourcing is from natural sources and it’s all dye plants. We don’t use minerals or anything like that. We use some mordants which make things colorfast. Of them, only two are chemical.

I’ve spent a lot of time in developing techniques to cut down labor and fuel costs because, otherwise, it would become uneconomic. We’ve managed to do that quite well so, when you compare our end products with what’s in the market with synthetic dyes, we’re pretty even on costs. Maybe one of ours is more expensive and the next one of theirs is more expensive, but it balances out well overall.

The Kindcraft

You’re talking about creating a parity in price – making natural dye products which are competitive with their synthetic counterparts. But what about the quantity side of the equation? Are you able to make enough to compete with chemical dyes?

Ruby Ghuznavi

This is the only limitation. A lot of people have misconceptions that natural dyes are dull colors, not bright enough, or not colorfast – and all of that is not right. You can get pretty deep blues, greens, reds – everything. But there is a limit to the capacity you can produce. If you increase the capacity, there’s a danger you’ll lose the quality. And because we’re starting to make our color solution from scratch every morning, there are a lot of points at which the process can go wrong. The minute you start making 1,000 pieces instead of 100, maybe one or two will not be colorfast. So I’ve stuck to a sort of small number of units and my idea is to have many small units rather than a few mega ones. So that’s the limitation…

Fiona Coleman

So basically what you’re saying, Ruby, is that you get consistency with smaller batches but, as soon as you get above that level, it’s a challenge to get that consistency of color within a shade…

Ruby Ghuznavi

Absolutely. You know, when I was doing export in these wonderous trade fairs, people would ask “What’s your minimum?” – and I would always say “I have a maximum. I can make you hundreds, not thousands.”

Somebody wanted 50,000 sarongs and I said: “If I do that, I’ll have to stop everything else. So will you take 25,000 next year? Or 5,000?” They said “No” and so I said “Forget it”.

The Kindcraft

Would the answer to that limitation be what you’re suggesting? By creating more units…

Ruby Ghuznavi

Yes, but you know, subcontracting doesn’t work. The garment industry subcontracts but, in order to ensure the quality, I can’t go for that. I have to make sure the color doesn’t run. The buyers are usually quite understanding and they’re willing to take a fraction of a difference in the color shades. But it has to be of good quality, it has to be almost perfect. And you know with handmade things, it is difficult to guarantee large production to perfection.

Consumer Attitudes towards Natural Products

Ruby Ghuznavi

Having said that, I did a lot of workshops with customers – Liberty, Selfridges, The Conran Shop – and the customers would look for two red cushion covers and they didn’t care if the seventh or eighth one was marginally different. So the point is that I think we underestimate the customer; They know they want handmade things and they’re willing to compromise – not on quality, but on slight variations in color.

Don’t you think so, Fiona?

Fiona Coleman

In everything natural –  like food and clothing – the customer is more willing to compromise than the retailer. The retailer is too scared that the customer won’t compromise, so their standard tends to be to want that consistency. Whereas I think education has changed the customers – everybody is more exposed to natural and organic products, and everybody is more concerned about the environment.

I think the consumer is a lot more clever than the retailer gives them credit for and the fact that, if it’s marketed as a natural product or a natural dye, I think the consumer is actually quite happy to have that inconsistency.

The Kindcraft

Based on that, what advice would you offer manufacturers and retailers who are interested in bringing more natural dyes into the production process? What would be a smart way for brands that want to take that leap?

Ruby Ghuznavi

You know – I’m thinking more about designers who actually do the ordering. They are more conservative and they think that the customer will not compromise. But how can you expect machine-made perfection from handmade things?

I think they underestimate the customer, as Fiona said, because they’re buying something that they know is handmade and they want it to look handmade, you know? I don’t mean ‘defective’. I don’t mean ‘substandard’. I mean something which is marginally different.

The Kindcraft

Doesn’t that attitude give a brand room to offer something unique?

Ruby Ghuznavi

That is the thing. Most people don’t care if one pair of jeans are marginally different from the other one. So I think you have to educate the designers and the retailers and encourage them to take the risk and try it. I’ve told a number of hesitant people “Give me a small order and, if you don’t sell it, I won’t come back” – but of course they sell it. [SMILES]

The Kindcraft

What you’re talking about is challenging “mainstream design culture” as it exists now – and challenging designers to reach out for different colors and different techniques.

Fiona – In your career, you’ve had many of these types of conversations with really big brands. Is it possible to reach into that design culture and try to make a place for natural dyes and handmade products?

Fiona Coleman

I think you’ve ultimately got two different types of retailers: You’ve got huge volume retailers that have a lot of product on the shop floor at one time – you’re talking the Marks & Spencer or the Primarks of the world. They have a lot of one product and, for them, consistency is key and I don’t think you’re ever going to break that down.

These retailers always toy with the idea – I remember when I used to work for an M&S supplier in the early 1990s that ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ was just becoming a popular trend and everybody wanted to be on that bandwagon. Like Ruby said, back then, the only choice for natural & organic product at the time was ecru or very pale shades, there wasn’t much colour being offered..

So back then, even large-scale retailers were toying with this because of consumer demand — and it’s been on a bit of a rollercoaster ever since. If there’s enough public demand, large-scale retailers will toy with the idea of doing a little taster to satisfy the consumer. But I really don’t think that large-scale retailers will ever do it wholeheartedly. You have cost implications. Just from the fact that it’s natural and handmade, it’s a higher price product – and so it should be.

The opportunity, I think, is with the smaller brands. With small quantities, you can control things a lot better and the consumer is going to those brands for higher-priced product anyway — there’s a lot more flexibility there and now there’s a lot more very small designers coming through whose ethos is handmade – this whole “slow movement” – and actually exploring and celebrating handmade products that take time to develop.

And again, I’ve worked with natural dyes and I’ve been really excited by the depth of color that you can get. You can get some absolutely amazing colors. I love that whole sort of exploration of the color of everything, but I think that’s going to take some time to get that over. From a commercial point of view, the big buzz is around “low impact dyes” – still synthetic, but using waterless technology.

A lot of the companies who have the money are the sportswear companies — and they’re the ones who aren’t necessarily doing natural textiles. So this is sort of where you get the “Push Me / Pull Me”: A lot of the fashion companies don’t have the money to invest that the sportswear companies do and, because of that, they’re looking more to technology rather than natural dying.

Big Brands and Indie Designers

The Kindcraft

How can you get knowledge of natural dyes into the hands of designers who can use it? If smaller brands, as you say, don’t have money to invest in the natural dye research, it seems as if groups who translate and transmit what is a “commercially viable” palette into a designer’s workflow – like Pantone or WGSN – might need to play a role in doing that. Is that correct?

Fiona Coleman

When I say that smaller companies don’t have the money to invest… I think smaller companies are more likely to explore the natural dyes than the large companies. It’s the brands like Nike and Adidas who have the money to invest in synthetic dye technology because that’s in their interest. It’s not really in their interest to explore the natural dye world.

And as small, up-and-coming brands who explore the story of how their products are made start to gain momentum, there will be a particular sort of younger consumer that will want that sort of product. I do think it’s an educational sort of thing.

From my point of view – and talking purely about color – I do color lectures at universities and Pantone also does a lot of work with universities and they talk about their systems. Students at the university level just want to learn and so what they’re exposed to – whatever is put in front of them – is what they’re going to learn. They’ll gain a bit of interest and maybe research it a bit more, but they have to have it put in front of them in the first place.

The lectures I’ve done so far are really just on color within fashion – like color systems – but I’ve never really done any on natural dying. But that’s an opportunity: To get into universities and speak to students before they start in the industry. They’re the going to be the future of fashion, the future designers, the future buyers…

Ruby Ghuznavi

Absolutely. They’re more open to ideas. More receptive.

 

Give Designers More Choices

Fiona Coleman

Ruby – I’ve done a very basic natural dying course, but I found it fascinating. I spent four or five days in Sussex, intensively doing it, and got all the basics – the indigos and everything. But then we went into the garden and found different plants and so that side was very local to the environment. And that’s goes to one of my questions for you – about Bangladesh and what sort of colors you can get from your local area. Obviously, around the world there are different indigenous plants that you can experiment with.

But just to go back to the way a designer starts their process in terms of working with color: When I work with the British Textile Colour Group, we all find color from different sources. Some just directly go to Pantone. Other times I experiment with color: I dye things up sometimes and I have a huge archive of fabrics, yarns, and leathers that I use to get interesting colors. What happens to all that in the end, when we go through the whole process of different color people bringing their ideas together, we always Pantone-match it back at the end.

That’s very restrictive because Pantone has its library of colors – and that’s it. So a lot of people still go back to Pantone. It’s a universal, worldwide system and it’s easy to give to factories. In a way, we’re almost constraining ourselves as designers by going with a system. For years and years, Pantone has been the system that everyone relies upon and, in that respect, reduces the experimentation with other color systems  – including natural dying.

The Kindcraft

Is the answer then to get the natural dyes into the existing system – or is the answer to change the system?

Fiona Coleman

I think it’s to widen the options of the systems and to not just have one system. There’s not just Pantone: There are other color systems around as well and I work with a few of them. I think it’s just giving designers more tools to play with. Larger companies have the constraint of having factories all around the world and so that have to have a process and a system that works smoothly and efficiently. I think the way in is through the smaller companies that don’t have a system.

A lot of smaller and medium companies don’t work with Pantone: They will get a swatch of fabric, cut it up, and send it off to the different factories for color-matching. So from that perspective, you have a little more to play with in terms of flexibility. And I truly believe there is room for more than one way of doing something.

As an aside, I’ve recently been to one of the children’s fairs in London. There was a very high proportion of small childrenswear brands who used organic fabrics and low-impact dyes because, obviously, everybody’s worried about their children and what they’re exposed to. It’s a natural extension from what you put in their mouths to what you clothe them in. I was chatting to a couple of people there and asking what dyes their factories used, and if they used natural dyes. And they said: “Oh no, I think they’re low-impact dyes”.

So this all goes back to the education of the brands because, sometimes, they just rely on their factories offers. Again, it’s about getting a bit more ownership back to the brands and them pushing and finding places that they can get more options for their environmental dyes.

Ruby Ghuznavi

I agree completely that it has to be the smaller and medium companies — I don’t even touch the medium, frankly. At the stage that natural dying is in, large commercial production isn’t viable. We have to aim for the lowest demand level so we can establish ourselves and so we can educate and inform the buyer and user.

So it’s going to take time – but I’d really like to approach a company. At the moment, we’re not into exports at all. I was doing it before and maybe it can be developed again. But I hope it will be the smaller retailers who are upmarket and who are cutting out the middlemen.

Changing Design Culture

The Kindcraft

If the answer is, in some measure, to stay small – small enough to have higher quality and small enough to maintain the ability to educate and grow consumers – does that give enough financial support and a big enough market to promote natural dyes?

Ruby Ghuznavi

Absolutely. Absolutely. Fiona – I think your idea of talking to university design students… I mean, even if only one in a hundred take it up later in life, I think that could be enough.

The Kindcraft

What would allow natural dying culture to flourish? Is it money? A better path to market? More upscale positioning?

Ruby Ghuznavi

I think it’s a combination: It’s access to the market. It’s my own capacity to respond with sufficient stock so that it keeps their interest going – because they can’t have it one day and not have it the following week or month. It has to be a sustained supply system. There are many groups like us who are working on a small scale and sometimes we talk at conferences about working together to supply jointly – but it doesn’t work.

The Kindcraft

Why?

Ruby Ghuznavi

I’m not sure. Some of the countries have such restrictive policies and that is always a deterrent. How much time do you spend on paperwork and how much do you get on with your work?

The Kindcraft

So you think there could be opportunities through smart policy initiatives to create networks of people working…

Ruby Ghuznavi

To allow cooperation between people. For example, I’m sure the EU has a framework. ASEAN has it. But South Asia doesn’t have a system and I think, if we could make that work, we could take a step forward.

What Makers Can Learn

The Kindcraft

Is there anything in the natural dye world that you think would benefit or could be learned from the commercial, systemized approach?

Ruby Ghuznavi

There is a company in Seattle called Earthues. They do pigments out of natural sources and I think in Bangladesh, our next step is to do something like that. Instead of making a whole lot of colors in the morning – every morning – to work out ways to cut down the tedium and the time needed. So definitely, we need to move into that. In order to make it commercially successful, it’s getting to the next stage of cutting out the “boiling the concoction” every morning.

Fiona Coleman

One of the questions I had for you, Ruby: There’s a commercial market and a home craft market. When I used do a lot of dying at home, it used to be DYLON dye. Do you remember that?

Ruby Ghuznavi

Yes.

Fiona Coleman

So you’ve obviously got these synthetic dyes for the home craft market…. I’ve been on these dying courses and you need lots of things, you have to heat things up, you have to mix, you need mordants, and as you’ve said, you have to do it every morning. Is there a way of actually producing a natural dye equivalent to those home craft dye packs that is easy to use?

Ruby Ghuznavi

Yes, I think that’s what Earthues is doing. They are selling these packets and sets where, you know, you can work out of the house. And I think this is where we need to invest more. They are the only ones in the world that I know who are doing it, so it’s a bit of a desperate situation. [LAUGHS]

Fiona Coleman

And it’s becoming a lot more popular. As I was saying, you’ve got a market of people who are wanting to dye at home… who want to experiment with different things…

Ruby Ghuznavi

And actually, you don’t need a big set-up if you’re doing it on a small scale. I’ve been advising young people who learn from us to not focus on retailing. Do some exhibitions every six months. Make a collection and sell it there, that way you won’t have overhead. But what you’re saying is something I’d love to do – to make the Do-it-Yourself, the D.I.Y. units like DYLON, and get people interested in it. Because it is very easy.

The question is that it’s something very different than what you’re used to, and therefore you just get intimidated. When I have people visiting my setup, I always let them do the colors, and then I let do some indigo dying and see the magical changes. And they love it!

And so I think that targeting the younger groups – the university students – would be marvelous. We need to get the information out there and dispel the misinformation: That colors are not right, that they don’t last, blah blah. That we have to fight.

Fiona Coleman

And I think even synthetic dyes have moved on over the years, so I think it a case of these perceptions which were founded years ago, but since then they have experimented and moved on more…

Competing with Corporate Color

Ruby Ghuznavi

Yes – There’s been great improvement in the colors and the stabilization of colors. But they’ve been having a lot of grief from the multinationals: Ciba-Geigy, in one of these international events, presented a paper that said they weren’t colorfast, they were too expensive, et cetera. Of course there was a lot of protest, but they have the paper and wealth and resources and so they can sort of disseminate it to the world and you and I aren’t around to protest…

Fiona Coleman

[LAUGHS]

Ruby Ghuznavi

At one point we were going to take them on, but then I said “No. They’re too big and I’m not going to waste my energy on that. I’m going to do my work and bring over a few at a time to my way of thinking.” I don’t mean that you should give up chemical dyes; It’s a question of adding to your choices.

The Kindcraft

How do you envision an environment where these different processes can exist, side-by-side?

Ruby Ghuznavi

I think one of things is to make both kinds of products available to the customer and let them decide. We need a chance to be able to do that. I’m sure we could compete. You know, I was told we should reproduce this year’s summer colors… of course we will not get Pantone colors because our burgundy is a summer color, but we will get something close enough to make us feel good.

Global and Local Trends

The Kindcraft

Talking with some designers here in Bangladesh, they’ve been saying that a lot of the work being done in South Asia right now isn’t really as concerned with global trends.

Ruby Ghuznavi

Absolutely right.

The Kindcraft

And at the same time, there’s also a conversation happening here that traditional South Asian designs and color palettes are being pressured by external influences. So to what extent do you think designers here are interested in the color trends of places like London?

Ruby Ghuznavi

We’re interested – but we know we can’t reproduce it exactly. Nor do we go by seasonal colors. I remember being in London once when they said the color for the next autumn season was going to be grey. I said “Oh my God – you guys are grey already!”

Fiona Coleman

[LAUGHS]

Ruby Ghuznavi

But sure enough, come autumn, every window was filled with beautiful clothes all in grey. So if you wanted a jacket, one of those dresses – all the best ones were only in grey. So I think that is one of the things that all of you do – and maybe you, too, Fiona – is to con people into thinking that’s what they want to buy.

Fiona Coleman

I think this is a very interesting topic and I could talk all day, just on trends and colors and how, sometimes, we don’t do ourselves any favors…. [LAUGHS]

Ruby Ghuznavi

[LAUGHS]

Fiona Coleman

Because at the end of the day, it’s very interesting that there are trends and colors. Because everybody wants a story, everybody wants something new, the consumer gets bored – but most consumers know what colors look best on them and it doesn’t matter who is going to tell them any different. They are always going to gravitate towards certain colors and I think there are certain colors that will always sell, no matter whether they’re on trend.

So I do believe that although you have to have the top-line trends for the story, the commercial colors underneath are the ones that always sell. I think there’s a lot more diversity in color now; I don’t think that all retailers are following blindly.

 

I remember a few years ago when coral was the color that was “in” and, I won’t name names, but one of the big retailers actually took that onboard and blindly just did that color and they had a whole shop floor of just that color.

Ruby Ghuznavi

Oh, God.

Fiona Coleman

And that’s never the way that color should be interpreted and, again, I think it all comes back to education: Education of consumers. Education of buyers to actually have the nuanced view that there should be a blend a mix of choice for consumers.

The sportswear industry does lead a lot, and they do influence a lot of people. Quite a few years ago, when neons and fluorescents were in fashion, there was huge impact in the environment and huge problem in getting those colors matched. But since then, I think they’ve gone a lot more natural in their color choices. You look at a lot of active companies who now have more natural colors – a lot more reds, more ochres, a lot of rich – almost natural dyed colors. And I think that’s important because they are an industry that a lot of people look to and follow in terms of the fashion.

Natural dyes will never replicate all synthetic dyes but, in a way, one should almost educate the other and actually offer more variety in color. And to be quite honest, natural dyes at the moment and indigenous fabrics from around the world are the ones that are influencing fashion – it’s almost flipped. And it’s the indigos, it’s the ochres, the beautiful sort of reds and oranges, which are the ones that everyone’s gravitating towards – and it’s not the synthetic-looking brights.

Investment Dressing

The Kindcraft

Is this just another trend – or do you think it’s a real paradigm shift?

Fiona Coleman

I think it’s not just this season, it’s been ongoing and so I think it’s more of a shift. It’s definitely a shift.

There’s also a shift where some companies are saying “Let’s get rid of seasons. Let’s get rid of trends”. It’s more about outfits and layering – and actually having clothes you love…

Ruby Ghuznavi

Yes. Exactly.

Fiona Coleman

…rather than it being a fad.

For older people, it was always about “investment dressing”. When you had a bit more money, you’d buy a cashmere sweater or you’d spend more money on your clothes. You’d live with for longer. You wouldn’t change them all the time. But now I think that change is coming young. It’s sort like the young and old have actually joined forces and are interested in clothes that have a meaning, a purpose, a story.

Not all young people, obviously, because there’s still a fast fashion mentality that will never completely disappear. I don’t think, because there’s a cost element and also because once something is a part of society, it’s very difficult to shift it. But I do think that people are moving towards wanting seasonless and layering… it’s that wanting to have a story behind something, being attached to something, living with something. It’s always been that way with denim, but I do think in now applies itself to all different types of clothes.

It’s having something that you love wearing.

Ruby Ghuznavi

Something like Primark is creating this need for young people to wear and throw away. They just don’t care if it’s there next year; they don’t even want it next month.

But I’m encouraged, Fiona, by your comment that there’s now a tendency to not just go for the colors of the moment or the season – but to have a broader wardrobe and use your own taste a little more.

 

Portions of this interview have been edited for clarity.