How One Company is Making Blue Jeans 'Green'

Tinctorium’s new process makes indigo dye without toxic chemicals. StMax89/Getty

In celebration of the 50th anniversary of NASA astronauts landing on the moon, Newsweek is spotlighting pioneers in science and technology, highlighting their very own moonshots and how they hope to change the world.

Female led start-up Tinctorium is making denim a more sustainable business. Co-founders Michelle Zhu and Tammy Hsu have patented a biotechnology to create "green jeans." Instead of using toxic chemicals like petroleum and cyanide, Tinctorium turns sugar into indigo blue dye, creating a cleaner Earth one pair of jeans at a time.

What is your moonshot?
Michelle: Our moonshot is to change the way color is made. We want to eliminate the use of petroleum and other toxic chemicals in the production of indigo, the core ingredient for making jeans, and then expand to all the dyes that are used to color the world around us.

Co-founders Tammy Hsu (left) and Michelle Zhu. Courtesy of Tinctorium

How have your backgrounds influenced the creation of Tinctorium?
Tammy: My background is in bioengineering, so I studied how cells work and how to make them produce useful things for humans. When I was at John Dueber's Lab at UC Berkeley, we used indigo to mark interesting activity in a cell. As we were looking into biosynthesizing indigo, we realized that there were many sustainability implications for textile dyes.

Michelle: Besides my business background, my family business was in denim, so it was a full circle journey for me to dive back into the fashion industry.

What is the big problem you are trying to solve?
Michelle: In the production of indigo today, we need almost a hundred times the amount of petroleum per unit of indigo output. Toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and cyanide all go into dye production. There's also the water polluting component, which requires chemical reducing agents that are often very toxic for workers' skin and the environment. We want to change that.

How does Tinctorium work?
Tammy: Naturally growing cells like bacteria can be engineered to produce all sorts of useful chemicals for humans in a safer and cleaner way.
Michelle: Instead of relying on petroleum and cyanide, we use microbes and sugar to produce dyes. Instead of relying on corrosive chemistry, we use naturally-occurring enzymes to apply the indigo onto denim yarn, so the entire process is far less toxic.

Courtesy of Tinctorium

Has anyone tackled the denim dye industry before you? If so, what makes Tinctorium different?
Michelle: When we talk about dye production as a whole, over 99 percent of dyes used in the industry are made with a chemical process. The original source of indigo dye for jeans was plant-based, but that's less than 1 percent of the industry now because cheaper, more scalable chemical dyes have taken over despite their environmental impact.

What are the biggest lessons you have learned from others?
Tammy: We've seen a lot of synthetic biology companies work on their process for a long time before producing any commercial product, which is understandable because scientific development can take a long time to implement. We're trying to get product into consumer hands as early as we can and get feedback on what's working and what's not.

When can consumers expect Tinctorium jeans to be released?
Michelle: We have a wait-list and expect to release our first pair of jeans in the next two years.

What has been your biggest challenge along the way?
Michelle: It takes a lot of time and money to develop a new technology, and I think the tendency, especially for female co-founders and people who love science, is to wait for things to be perfect before approaching commercial partners or investors. But you don't really have that time when you build a start-up.

How do you see the world in 20 years if you succeed?
Michelle: We dream of a future where consumers make conscious decisions about the clothes they wear and think about fashion in the same way that people today think about sustainability and the food they eat. If we're successful technologically, we get to be part of enabling that conscious mindset.