Australian scientists believe they have found a way to crack the molecular code of cotton, so that it grows in a range of gorgeous colors, from bright yellow to deep purple to golden orange. These plants could be a game changer for the fashion industry, which largely relies on toxic dyes to create the colors in the clothes we wear.
The genetically modified cotton was developed by a lab within Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO. The team, led by senior research scientist Dr. Colleen MacMillan, has managed to create vibrantly colored cotton plant tissue in petri dishes. Over the next few months, the scientists will work to grow this tissue into flowering cotton plants that will be able to reproduce. The ultimate hope is that these cotton plants can be spun into fibers that can be made into colorful clothes, which don’t require any dyes.
The fashion industry is built on a constantly changing color palette. Indeed, there are professional color forecasters at organizations like the Pantone Color Institute whose job is to council brands on what colors will be popular next season. Not only does this contribute to massive overconsumption in the fashion industry, but the act of creating colorful fabrics is often toxic.
The dying process typically takes place in developing countries like India and China, which don’t have stringent oversight on workers’ rights or environmental pollution. Historically, they have used natural dyes from plants like indigo, acacia, and myrobalan. But in recent decades, synthetic dyes made from harsh chemicals like formaldehyde and heavy metals like lead have become widespread because they dye fabrics quicker and more deeply. However, these have been found to be toxic to workers, causing cancer and discoloring skin, according to research from the Greenpeace Dextox Campaign and the European Chemicals Agency. And if these toxins end up in rivers and other water sources, they can pollute the drinking water and harm local communities. In China’s Xintang province, where 300 million pairs of jeans are dyed annually, the water is visibly polluted and scientists have found that residents suffer from higher than normal incidences of cancer, as well as gastric and skin conditions.
In recent years, eco-friendly brands have been working to return to natural dying methods. Clothing brand Pangaia and bedding brand Buffy color fabrics using dyes extracted from plants, fruits, and vegetables. But these approaches aren’t perfect. When I spoke to Shoaib Kabani, Buffy’s founder, he said that it is hard to find manufacturers that use natural dying methods because it is far slower and more expensive than synthetic dying methods. On top of that, natural dyes sometimes create inconsistent colors from batch to batch.
CSIRO is still in the very early stages of developing this colored cotton. The scientists inserted color genes into cotton’s DNA, so that cells begin to replicate the color, rather than naturally occurring white. So far, they have created a few different colors, including red, gold, and purple. They’ve also been able to breed black cotton, which is an important breakthrough because black dyes are considered the most polluting in the industry.
The researchers’ next step is to see whether they can get the cotton tissue to flower and create seeds, which would create entirely new plants of colored cotton. The team is hopeful; they have successfully bred tobacco plants with color genes. MacMillan and her team expect to see the results of their cotton experiment in several months.
If they are successful, they may face pushback from organizations like the Non GMO Project, which believes that altering the genetic makeup of organisms may have unintended consequences that are not immediately apparent. In the cotton industry specifically, pesticide company Monsanto has genetically modified cotton seeds to repel pests, but the company has historically charged so much for it that it has cut into the margins of poor farmers in India and Africa. If colored cotton seeds become the norm, it stands to reason that they could add costs to farmers who are already living hand to mouth.
On the other hand, the new technology would no doubt appeal to fashion brands that market themselves as eco-friendly. The new plants wouldn’t need to go through a dying process, which would eliminate the need for both dye as well as the gallons of water used in the dying process.