(Washington, DC) - VilCap Investments portfolio company Stony Creek Colors was featured in a video by outdoor clothing designer Patagonia, as a supplier that provides sustainable and natural indigo as an alternative to synthetic dyes for jeans.
The female-founded, Tennessee-based company grows sustainable dyes in a part of the country that has been devastated by the decline of tobacco farming. Bellos participated in Village Capital’s 2015 food and agriculture program; Stony Creek Colors was selected by the cohort of startup company leaders as one of two ventures to receive an offer of investment from VilCap Investments. As the company has continued to grow and raise capital, VilCap Investments has deployed additional capital in subsequent investment rounds.
“Synthetic indigo dyeing today is a really dirty business,” Bellos says in the video. “[The dye] is made nearly entirely from non-renewable petrol chemicals like benzene, formaldehyde, cyanide. It is totally unsustainable.” Referencing the fact that over 90% of synthetic indigo globally is produced in China using dangerous chemical reactions, Bellos outlines a key difference of natural indigo and her chemical manufacturing program, “We believe in a future where you can have chemical manufacturing that's safe enough to exist within your community.”
Stony Creek Colors collects raw plant material from Tennessee farms, process it into a blue powder, and sends it to denim mills for use by customers, including Patagonia, to serve as a drop-in replacement for synthetic indigo.
Regarding the company’s decision to partner with denim mills directly, “We're not reinventing that part of the wheel,” Bellos says. “We're just bringing back a more regenerative chemical input to their processing."
The company’s dyes are used in Patagonia’s Steel Forge Denim collection, a new ultra strong denim for workwear. In addition to supplying sustainable dye inputs through US denim mills, the company has it’s dyes used by brands such as Lucky Brand, Levi Strauss & Co, J.Crew,, and Tellason.
Stony Creek Colors has been investing significantly in R&D to modernize the production of indigo dye from plant while scaling up production of the crop among former tobacco farmers. In addition to significant chemical advancements that allow the company to produce high purity natural indigo at scale, the company has focused on agronomic improvements and mechanization of crop production and processing so natural indigo can replace more synthetic dye globally while offering a viable alternative crop to the company's contract farmers. Sarah Hayes, Director of Material Development at Patagonia, stated "Agricultural improvements will help natural indigo dye to compete more directly with synthetic indigo currently used around the world and displace harmful and toxic chemicals from the supply chain."
Patagonia is noted for being not only the first major clothing company to call attention to problems in the denim supply chain from indigo dyeing, but to act by removing synthetic indigo dyed jeans from their collections in 2014. According to Hayes, "At Patagonia we recognize that denim dyeing is a dirty business. The textile industry is in need of new and improved methods that reduce the environmental impact of the industry."
Recently, synthetic indigo has again come under increased scrutiny by the industry, this time by an even wider coalition of fashion brands. As recently reported in Chemical and Engineering News, aniline, a toxic chemical used in modern indigo synthesis, has been found in garments dyed with synthetic indigo. Aniline can be absorbed through the skin, is classified by the EPA to be to be a carcinogen and studies have proven it to be a serious hazard to human health. The chemical industry has long claimed aniline wasn’t detectable in the final indigo products; this new research is causing denim lovers and brands to reassess how much of the restricted chemical may be making it into their closets and supply chains.
The natural indigo manufactured by Stony Creek Colors is aniline free because it is extracted from plants not synthesized from petrochemicals.
As Communications Director at Village Capital, Ben works on sharing what we’ve learned from our work in order to amplify our impact and help catalyze the fields of impact investing and entrepreneur support.