Steal this hot new summer look (it’s bacteria)

Bacterial secretions might dye your future wardrobe, and that’d be an improvement.

That’s because textiles usually get their hues from toxic chemicals, and the resulting wastewater—laden with dyes, acids and formaldehyde—destroys rivers, such as those surrounding Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh. Wastewater treatment, when it happens, is just one of the energy-intensive (read: carbon-spewing) processes that make fast fashion possible.

The environmental crises linked to textiles have given rise to several firms that aim to reimagine dyeing altogether. One such company, Colorifix, just got a boost via a $22.6 million (£18 million) series B round, led by Swedish fashion giant H&M.

Colorifix stands out for its progress in using microbes (such as E. coli) to naturally deposit dyes directly onto fabrics. Its microorganisms are engineered to produce specific colors and then brewed in vats like beer.

A third-party life cycle analysis (paid for by Colorifix) found its dyes use at least 49% less water and 35% less electricity than conventional cotton dyeing processes, apparently slashing carbon emissions by 31%. That’s for natural fibers, but the upsides are greater for materials like polyester or nylon, which are generally made from petroleum and trickier to dye. “If you go to synthetics, we’re going to save way more than this,” cofounder and chief scientific officer Jim Ajioka added in a call with TechCrunch. 

So, uh, how does one persuade microbes to make dyes? I asked Ajioka, and he told me to check my shower for something red.

“In a place like England, you’re gonna get mold, mildew and stuff growing on the tiles. And you’ll see red bacteria [known as Serratia marcescens]. They secrete that color onto your tiles or your grout” he explained. “That’s what we do.”

But to produce specific colors, Colorifix says it starts by identifying a specific color in nature, like a green hue found on a parrot’s feather. The company then taps online DNA databases to “pinpoint the exact genes that lead to the production of that pigment.” From there, Colorifix builds the DNA and inserts it into a small group of bacteria or yeast cells. Within a day they replicate millions of times over on a petri dish. “The resulting engineered microbe then acts as a tiny biological factory,” the startup said in a statement, ultimately producing dyes that stick to natural and synthetic materials.

Diagram shows colorifix's bacteria-based dye process

How Colorifix dyes textiles with bacteria.

Zooming out, the fashion industry consumes an enormous, basically unimaginable amount of water. A 2014 World Bank report found the industry goes through about 9 billion cubic meters of water per year—roughly five and a half times more than what New York City consumes in the same period. Next to the images of Dhaka’s mutilated rivers, it’s possible the concept of dunking t-shirts into a bacterial soup suddenly seems more palatable. But if you still find the idea of microbes swimming with your clothes a little off-putting, you’re not alone. I did at first, and when I said as much to Ajioka, he gave me a mouthful.

Following the dyeing process, Ajioka explained, “yeah, you have to put it through the wash. But, you know, you wash your clothes all the time. Think about the number of bacteria that are on your t-shirt right now. It’s disgusting,” he said, directing his comments at my shirt specifically. Then came the questions. “Think about it. How do you wash your clothes? What does laundry detergent do? It gets rid of proteins, carbohydrates, and, fats and oils and stuff, right? That’s what it’s made to do, and what do you think microorganisms are made of? That’s why your clothes don’t stink after you wash them,” he added.

Cleanliness aside, Colorifix is not the only firm aiming to develop cost-effective, bacteria-produced dyes to curb pollution. It’s joined by Paris-based Pili and Vienna Textile Lab. So far, none of these companies have brought the idea into mass production, making bacteria-dyed clothes hard—but not impossible—to come by.

In December 2021, Colorifix dyes were used to produce a limited run of Pangaia tracksuits in two soft hues, dubbed blue cocoon and midway geyser pink. Just the former color was still available when this story was published, as either a $170 hoodie or $140 pants. Earlier, Colorifix dyes were used to make a Stella McCartney dress, which was exhibited at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum in 2018.

In other words, eco hypebeasts: good luck.

A light blue, Colorifix-dyed hoodie designed by Pangaia

Colorifix-dyed hoodie designed by Pangaia

Beyond microbes, other businesses aiming to crack sustainable dyes include Alchemie, a Cambridge, U.K.-based company that claims to have developed a waterless dyeing process; DyeCoo, a Dutch firm that dyes fabrics via pressurized CO2; and New York-based ColorZen, which makes a cotton pre-dyeing treatment that apparently slashes water use and eliminates the need for salts.

Along with H&M, investors such as Sagana, Cambridge Enterprise and Regeneration.VC also chipped in on Colorifix’s series B round. With the new cash, the startup said it will triple the size of its team to about 120 staffers as it prepares to move its tech “into the supply chains of several leading players in the global fashion industry.” The company declined to share more when asked how long I’ll have to wait to buy a microbially dyed tee of my very own.

Diesel is a horrible thing for an economy to depend on

Want to bring inflation to heel? There’s no single, simple fix, of course, or we would have done it already. But a good place to start would be weaning the economy off gasoline and diesel.

Prices for fossil fuels are through the roof. Gas prices are up over 75% since last year, and diesel is up 55%, according to AAA. There are myriad reasons why — Putin’s war in Ukraine, an unexpected surge in demand following early pandemic shutdowns, an East Coast refinery that literally exploded a few years ago and so on.

The recent surge shows the folly of tying the transportation sector — which accounts for 6% to 12% of GDP in developed countries — to highly volatile consumables that are broadly bought on a spot-price basis.

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Diesel prices alone are driving about 17% of the inflation we’re seeing today, according to Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics. Inflation in the overall energy sector was nearly 30% in April, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than triple anything else. Dropping the fossil fuel would bring inflation down nearly a percentage point.

But how do you replace diesel, which is coursing through so much of our economy, from trucking to trains, ocean freight to agriculture? It won’t be easy, but it is pretty straightforward: electrification.

An electrified economy powered by renewables is less likely to be subject to sudden price shocks of the sort that oil and gas can inflict. Here’s why.

Planet FWD secures $10M so consumer products industry can track carbon emissions

Planet FWD, a carbon-assessment startup founded by Zume Pizza co-founder Julia Collins, grabbed another cash infusion in the way of 10 million Series A dollars to continue developing technology so that the $1.5 trillion consumer products industry can more accurately measure and reduce their carbon footprint.

We profiled Collins’ journey from pizza to climate-friendly food beginning in March 2020 when she announced a $2.7 million seed round, led by BBG Ventures, for Planet FWD to look at regenerative agriculture. The company went on to launch its Moonshot Snacks brand later in that year.

It was while Planet FWD was creating its cracker product that Collins says she learned just how difficult it was to develop a product that is carbon neutral.

“We want to expand our carbon footprint at the product level for a box of crackers, and that was really hard,” she added. “We wanted to understand our corporate level footprint as a company and that was really hard. We wanted to understand how to reduce our emissions, and that was really hard. We wanted to understand how to purchase very high-quality, carbon offsets, to get to carbon neutral, and again, it’s really hard.”

What emerged from those learnings was a carbon-management technology platform for consumer brands to create a climate-friendly company and products more easily by being able to measure, reduce and neutralize emissions and report its carbon footprint.

For example, if your company wanted to launch a line of granola bars that is as low in emissions as possible, you can use Planet FWD’s emissions-reduction engine during the product-development phase to understand how to change your supplier or your packaging supplier to a more efficient method.

“Imagine the next generation of products that can be produced with low emissions because we’ve made it really easy for customers to understand not just details on how to calculate calories, fat and protein, but actually how to calculate carbon and carbon equivalent during product development,” Collins added.

The company’s technology provides GHG Protocol Scope 3 emissions modeling capabilities to help brands address the emissions along their supply chain. Scope 3 emissions account for up to 89% of emissions for consumer products on average, Collins added.

Time is of the essence in reducing emissions, with Collin noting that there are less than 100 months left to reach the 2030 global goal of cutting at least 40% of greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels. Household consumption of things like food, which impacts land, energy and water, account for 60% of global emissions, she added.

Planet FWD JustSalad carbon label

JustSalad’s carbon label create from Planet FWD. Image Credits: Planet FWD

“The emerging regulatory landscape is causing an acceleration of companies really needing better solutions for carbon management and that regulatory framework or those regulatory frameworks are being bolstered by the emerging consumer appetite, sustainable and climate friendly products,” she said. “Retailers paying more attention are prioritizing brands that are motivated, sustainable and willing to stand behind it. And then of course, new ESG is becoming an important part of the way that companies are able to access financial instruments.”

As a result, the past year has been one of growth. Though Collins declined to go into detail about growth metrics, she did say the company is now working with 25 customers, including Kashi, Pangaia, Just Salad, Numi Organic Tea, Healthy Hippo, Toodaloo and Sweet Loren’s.

Planet FWD, aided by an acquisition of climate tech startup CleanMetrics in 2021, also amassed what Collins touts as the “largest Life Cycle Analysis database for agricultural production systems in North America.” It also hired a climate science team to continue to expand that data.

Meanwhile, the Series A is co-led by Acre Venture Partners and Congruent Ventures and includes participation from existing investors BBG Ventures, Precursor, Concrete Rose, January Ventures, Elemental Excelerator, Cleo Capital and Rethink Food. To date, Planet FWD has raised $16.8 million.

The new funding will be deployed into the company’s ongoing development of its data, including building out its climate science team. It will also go into product development, like more predictive emissions reduction, and supporting existing and new customers.

“Supply chains are so complex, and frankly very difficult to manage, and that is why Planet FWD is very much a vertically-oriented solution,” Collin said. “We are obsessed with helping to decarbonize the consumer landscape and focused on continuing to heat up and fine tune our emissions reductions engine.”