Here’s how you make the indigo that gives most denim its signature blue: like many things in peak-oil America, you start by drilling down. Extract petroleum from the earth and then subject it to high-heat, high-energy conditions in order to break it up up into its component molecules. One, called benzene, is isolated and then mixed with a host of other chemicals, including cyanide and formaldehyde. The process produces ammonia as an off-gas. “It takes over half a pound of cyanide to make a single pound of indigo,” Sarah Bellos, the CEO and founder of Stony Creek Colors, explains.
If you’re indifferent to the chemicals themselves, the way they’re synthesized might interest you — because the process is so volatile and toxic, most indigo production is outsourced to China, where, Bellos says, “it's pretty much coal or nuclear reactors that are providing the energy.” And so even when they’re not being distressed, or made by fast-fashion companies, jeans are contributing hugely to climate change and environmental degradation. Buying better won’t bring the Paris accord back, but it certainly can’t hurt the earth to try to find denim dyed with indigo that couldn’t, in its component pieces, easily be the death of you.
It wasn’t always this way, of course: indigo dye long predates the industrial revolution, but the traditional plant-based kind is too unpredictable from season to season for the enormous, consistent dye lots that major clothing companies require. Sarah Bellos’s mission is to change that: to create a plant-based indigo dye that works just as well — and at the same scale — as the synthetic thing.
Bellos began her life in fashion in 2005 at the other end of the supply chain, working with her sister to print designs onto T-shirts that they sold around their hometown of Nashville. That evolved into doing dye work for other small designers, at which point Bellos started working with garment dye houses “helping them run trials with natural dye extracts. That lead to saying, natural dyes really work in real equipment. Why isn't that happening at a big scale?”
In other words, the only reason that natural dyes weren’t being used on a larger scale was because of color consistency between batches — not because they were in any other way incompatible with the existing machinery.
And so Bellos founded Stony Creek Colors in 2012, with the intention of creating a natural dye that would turn out the same blue no matter the season or the year. We tend to associate natural or environmentally conscious production with intensive, hand-scale labor, but that doesn’t have to be the case; among Bellos’ innovations was the instinct to combine the efficiency of industrial production with an environmentally conscious ethos.
“Something can be plant-based and still industrial,” Bellos says. “Industrial doesn't have to be a bad thing. We've spent a lot of time figuring out: how do we reclaim our wastewater and use it again? How do we actually quantify how much nitrogen we're sequestering? All these are things that, when you can implement them across a large scale, are really exciting, instead of keeping it artisan for the sake of it.”
Bellos picked the plants she uses carefully: Stony Creek grows legumes (a type of fruit that includes everything alfalfa to lentils to peanuts), which pull nitrogen out of the air and put it into the soil, where future crops can use it to grow. (High nitrogen content is considered a sign of good soil health; many farmers grow legumes off-season from their cash crop in order to replenish it.) These legumes are also well-suited for the middle Tennessee climate where she grows them, meaning they require minimal irrigation and no synthetic pest control.
They also help keep legacy farmers on their land: Stony Creek works with locals who’ve suffered as the tobacco market has shrunk. “I don't want to convert my farmer friends that are growing organic tomatoes,” Bellos says. “They're already farming in a pretty sustainable way. I want to change where I think farming could use a change, and where those farmers agree.” Stony Creek currently contracts 16 farmers, with about 180 acres in production. These growers are eager to invest in a high-value crop — especially one that has a guaranteed buyer in Stony Creek at the end of the season.
This is the promise of truly sustainable thinking: not that it will take us back to some idealized agrarian pastoral where people died of starvation waiting for things to start growing again the late spring, but that it can reimagine our current processes in ways that benefit the land and the people living on it. Stony Creek’s reliance on combines, for instance, requires fossil fuels, but it also keeps their costs down without underpaying laborers who, in Bellos’s words, are often “people who have literally no other job options.”
Speaking of jobs: Contractions in the retail market are significantly hurting the US economy — a clear demonstration of the ways in which our changing consumption habits, especially around fashion, are more than superficial concerns. Bellos is proud that Stony Creek is creating manufacturing jobs. “As much as [people are] paying lip service to wanting to re-shore manufacturing in America, it's not really a very fundable thing,” she points out. Stony Creek has taken on equity investors to aid their fledgling business, but they’re hardly a hot VC property. “That's why there aren't that many startups that are actually doing manufacturing,” she says. “We can’t just program really hard over one weekend. Innovating in agriculture takes literally seasons.”
But they’re already seeing success: Currently, Stony Creek sells all of its indigo dye to a denim mill called Cone Denim, which passes its fabric onto textile group mills all over the world — customers include J.Crew, 3x1 Citizens, and, more recently, the cult European brand Nudie. The promise of natural dye has allowed “the chance for Cone to bring in brands that don't normally buy from them,” Bellos says. Stony Creek sold out all of the indigo they produced during their first production season last year; they’re currently working on scaling up so that more will be available for future seasons. They also have a full lineup of other colors available for retail purchase via their website. As soon as they’ve got indigo where they want it, the plan is to get the rest of the rainbow produced and sold at scale as well.
Bellos sees Stony Creek’s mission as bringing balance back to the planet as well as the economics of retail. It’s not that she wants to create expensive denim, but she knows better than most that supercheap retail comes at a different kind of cost. “If you’re paying too much for a luxury item, you’re getting screwed,” Bellos notes. “But if you’re not paying enough, you’re screwing people all along the supply chain.”