In 2013, a team of Cambridge University scientists were in Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley, developing a device to measure pollution in the region’s waters.
The scientists spoke to local people, who relied on the filthy streams and rivers for their water supply, and learned that waste from textile factories was contaminating the waterways.
“We were shocked” says Orr Yarkoni, one of the researchers on the expedition.
The scientists analyzed the water and their findings aligned with what the locals said — most of the hazardous chemicals came from the textile industry.
Garbage floats on the Bisnumati River in Kathmandu, Nepal, alongside a flood of less visible pollutants, many from the valley’s textile factories. Credit: Jonas Gratzer/LightRocket/Getty Images
“That feeling of ‘I have no safe water to drink’ is something that no human should have to feel in this day and age”, says Yarkoni.
“When we realized that so much of the pollution comes from something as simple as putting color into our clothes, we thought ‘there has to be a better way,'” he says.
Our taste for colorful clothes comes at a cost to the environment. Textile production pollutes water and generates more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined, according to a 2017 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Credit: janzgrossetkino/Moment RF/Getty Images
The color purple
For millennia, people used natural dyes to color fabrics.
Perkin was trying to produce quinine, a substance used to treat malaria, when he inadvertently created the first synthetic dye — a vivid purple substance which easily transferred onto cloth.
The purple dye opened a floodgate of synthetic color possibilities that revolutionized the world of fashion. But with it came a torrent of environmental problems.
Perkin called his invention mauvenine. It heralded a new era for the fashion industry. Credit: Science & Society Picture Librar/SSPL/SSPL via Getty Images