Natural Dye Garden Promotes a Greener Fashion Supply Chain

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Denise Green, assistant professor of Fiber Science & Apparel Design, in front of the newly relocated natural dye garden in the courtyard between Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and the Human Ecology Building.

College of Human Ecology faculty and student efforts to advance sustainable approaches to textile and fashion design has led to the development of the Cornell Natural Dye Garden after a successful crowdfunding campaign that ended in fall 2016.

The project raised $10,365 for the development and cultivation of a dye garden, which will produce a variety of colors that come from the natural world and have a lower environmental impact.

“We know that synthetic dyes cause incredible environmental harm and pollute waterways. Human health is also impacted, particularly for laborers in the textile dyeing industries,” said Denise Green, assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design.

According to organizers, up to 200,000 tons of synthetic dyes are discharged into waterways around the globe every year, making textile dye plants the second-largest polluter of water after agriculture.

In many developing nations where textiles are produced, workers may not be properly protected from the toxic chemicals used to dye fibers and fabrics, making synthetic dyes hazardous to environmental and human health, Green said.

In contrast, natural dyes, some of which come from weeds, are nontoxic. Some of these dye plants have the ability to grow aggressively without herbicides or fungicides.

“We believe natural dyes are an opportunity to make a sustainable intervention in the apparel supply chain,” Green said.

In May 2015, Green, in collaboration with fellow fiber science and apparel design faculty and students, as well as Human Ecology Facilities Services and Cornell Botanic Gardens staff, planted a test garden of natural dye plants at the northeast corner of the Human Ecology Building overlooking Beebe Lake.

“That success led us to the idea to put the garden in a place that’s more accessible for students and more visible in terms of our college life,” Green said.

In spring 2016, Green and her students moved the garden to a plot located in the courtyard between Martha Van Rensselaer Hall and the Human Ecology Building. The relocation of the garden, according to Green, allows students and faculty to grow a wider array of dye plants to be used in teaching and research.

“The new location is highly visible,” Green said, adding that plans are in place to add educational signage for the 2017 growing season.

“Signage means that the garden won’t just be beautiful to look at, and valuable as a natural dye resource, but it will also be an opportunity to educate students, staff and the public about the plants we are growing and the range of colors they yield,” she said.

Beyond working on projects, Green hopes the garden will have deep and long-lasting impacts on fiber science and apparel design students who begin careers in the manufacturing and fashion industries.

“Our hope is they become conscientious citizens of the world who think about the impact that their design will have on the environment, on human health and on many people, which we don’t often think about when we consume fashion,” Green said.

*This story first appeared on Cornell News

Meet Mo and Wesley, Levi Strauss & Co Collaboratory

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Tell us about your business and the work you do.

We are an “experience inspired” outdoor apparel brand based in the Ozark Mountains. We promote a lifestyle of relaxing into the outdoors, not tackling it. I started the company while at the University of Arkansas when I noticed there wasn’t a regional representation of the outdoor culture here.

We produce USA-made, organic, and recycled products that ground the company in sustainability. We are currently growing the brand with outdoor specialty retailers across the U.S. and focusing on lifestyle and some technical products. We are committed to taking strides to make our products more sustainable.

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

I’m building Fayettechill to stand the test of time. We have strong ideals and make decisions based on them, not on trends or short-term financial goals. We focus on quality, sustainability, “Made in USA” manufacturing, and building a brand that is different.

I also feel it’s our responsibility, as a company that represents people who love the outdoors, to do our part to set an example in the apparel industry.

How important is water to what you do?

It’s one of many important contributors to a sustainable path. Currently, we use Blue Sign Certified Dye Houses, work to understand alternative materials based on the need and style of the product, and seeking opportunities to up-cycle traditional textiles.
It’s crucial for our designers to know the production processes at every level and work closely with our factories to collaborate on our brand ideals and how to improve processes and find ways to cut down waste.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

I look forward to networking with leaders that have the same mindset around improving how we work and what we create. I am also interested in seeing how anorganization like Levi Strauss & Co.works to solve sustainability challenges. Lastly, I look forward to applying the concepts I learn from the Collaboratory and my mentorship into my organization.

What’s your Levi’s® story?
It’s the only brand of pants in my closet. I’m currently traveling the U.S.A. for a year — working – and I have blue, black and white Levi’s® for all occasions and outdoor activities.

Wesley Owiti: CEO and co-founder of Cherehani Africa, a social enterprise focused on women’s empowerment and financial inclusion through sustainable fashion.


Tell us about your organization and the work you do.

‘Cherehani’ is the Swahili name for ‘sewing machine.’ Cherehani Africa is a social enterprise that offers training on fashion and design to less fortunate women in emerging and underserved markets in Africa. Upon their completion of our training, we provide asset financing for tools to help them begin their independent apparel enterprises. After a one-month grace period they then start making affordable monthly repayments for the tools.

At an event on African fashion, my co-founders and I heard a speaker say that the brands that last are the brands that touch lives. We wanted to touch lives through apparel. Africa is blessed with unique designs and way of life and we thought we would tap into the business of tailoring and fashion to create jobs to help fight poverty, unemployment and gender inequality. Today we have helped more than 600 women start their own independent apparel businesses. We are now working on introducing new products and avenues that will help our beneficiaries to expand, diversify and engage in a sustainable approach to business.

What does it mean to you to create a more socially and environmentally responsible apparel industry?

The apparel industry has great influence to drive global conversations. But, great influence calls for great responsibility. It is therefore imperative that players in the industry invest in important steps toward making the world a better place to live in. We need a safe and healthy world for apparel businesses to keep flourishing, and we can choose to be part of the problem or part of the solution. As an industry we have a chance to write our own positive narrative.

How important is water to what you do?

Our design classes include lessons on safety and the dye process. In the villages where we work, this process is not possible without water. How are they conducting this process? How are they disposing the grey water? These are the questions that make water very important to our entire organization. We are committed to ensuring that our beneficiaries and indeed, other players in the apparel industry, do not pollute our environment by releasing unsafe water into local rivers and streams.

What do you hope to get out of participating in the LS&Co. Collaboratory?

The fresh water that is available for human use is less than 1 percent of the water on earth; this is the reason we need to use water in a sustainable way. This year’s LS&Co. Collaboratory topic is close to my heart as I see it as a fantastic opportunity for me to continue my research and learn from experts and other fellows about innovative and best approaches to recycling grey water. I also look forward to tailoring a blueprint on ways to reduce an organization’s water footprint, not only for Cherehani Africa but for the other players in the apparel industry in Africa.

What’s your Levi’s® story?

I grew up mostly in the rural parts of Kenya and so I never knew much about apparel brands. We wore what was available. When it was too hot we barely wore anything!

The first time I did learn about an apparel brand was in a marketing class when I was pursuing my first degree at the University of Nairobi. The professor used Levi’s® as an example of a brand that had placed ‘innovation’ and ‘user experience’ at the center of their growth, something that has allowed the company to keep re-inventing itself over the years and maintain its position as a leading global brand. To me, the name has become synonymous with ‘innovation’.

*This story first appeared on Levi-Strauss