From the green used to color the Egyptian tombs, to the pink in MAC’s Viva Glam Lipstick, pigments color the world around us. The compounds that pigment consists of not only makes up the color in paints, plastics, cosmetics, and clothes, but are also in the food and drinks that we consume. It’s no wonder then that pigment–a group of intensely colored compounds that are used to color other materials–is highly valuable. The $30 billion a year market is constantly looking for ways to expand, but in truth good pigment is no easy feat. In fact, it was only a mere 10 years ago that the chemist Mas Subramanian accidentally discovered the first blue pigment in two centuries, known as YInMn blue. The largest breakthrough prior to Subramanian's development was Yves Klein's contribution in the 1960s, when the artist sought purity of pigment and created Klein International Blue, using a synthetic binding to alter the depth of color rather than a new pigment. In order to be viable, pigment must be stable across temperatures, nontoxic, and, most importantly, sustainable, which, in turn, dramatically affects the sustainability of the product pigment is used to color. For example, the pigment dyes that many fashion textiles use is often not an environmentally friendly option due to its dyeing process and cheap, easily mass produced nature.
The first recorded use of pigment dates back to prehistoric times, when cavemen used natural sediments derived from the Earth’s minerals for paintings on cave walls. Scientists have since found prehistoric trails to hematite deposits, suggesting that somewhere along the line, man discovered color from iron oxide deposits did not fade as the environment changed unlike natural pigments. These early humans found that they could mine ochre pigment from the iron oxide and create a paste with it by mixing the dry substance with liquid. This concept is similar to the current method for synthesizing pigment–where, very simply put, pigment powder is mixed with a binder liquid. Such early applications of pigment show humans’ historical interest in aesthetics, and are a precursor to later usage of dye in art and fashion.
Flash forward to the industrialization boom of the 18th century, when technological advances accompanied by an increased demand for dyes in order to produce textiles led to the discovery of many new pigments. The textile industry saw the addition of cobalt blue (1807), viridian (1838), cadmium yellow (1820), and more. While these pigments made the world a bit more colorful, they also presented a new problem: toxicity. Emerald green pigment, created by two German men named Russ and Sattler in 1814 using arsenic and verdigris, turned out to be toxic. After being widely used from everything from children’s toys to lampshades, the color–also dubbed Paris green and later Poison green–was abandoned after numerous fatalities were linked to the pigment used for its specific formula. The importance of creating a safe and sustainable pigment quickly became apparent.
It was not until 1856, when chemist William Henry Perkin created aniline dye, that fashion history was truly made. This advance marked the first commercial synthetic dye, named mauveine or Perkin’s purple. Though initially a very expensive product, many other aniline dyes followed in the late 19th and early 20th century. These included cheap synthetic pigments such as French ultramarine, zinc white, and cobalt violet. While the formula for these synthetics were safe, the question of their sustainability remained.
With the growing market for colorants came a need for the standardization of pigment chemistry and the production of specific colors. Manufacturers across various industries such as paint, plastics, and textiles, accepted the Color Index International–first published in 1925–as an authority on identifying pigments used for producing particular colors. The creation of the database was a pivotal moment for pigment as it allows manufacturers to properly match colors across various products and also to identify specific colors that have previously been used under generic names. Regulations regarding the pigment chemistry also arose in the 20th century, when, in the mid-1900s, the International Organization for Standardization was founded to establish technical standards for the manufacturing of pigments and dyes. This also ensured more stability across the application of pigments. The fashion industry benefited from these standardizations as they helped textile manufacturers in color-matching and color consistency.
Even today, with the many instrumental advancements that have been made in the fashion manufacturing space, the sustainability of pigments used on textiles is not widely addressed. For a pigment to be sustainable, it must be stable across temperature, nontoxic, and environmentally mindful. As a dyeing technique, pigment ink is the most commonly used. Pigment ink uses a process where the color sits on top of the fabric and is usually held in place by a chemical resin or binding agent. There are many benefits to using pigment to make clothes–it is cheap, easy to color match (because it just sits on top of the fiber and can be colored over), and uses less water than alternative processes, as pigments are water insoluble. However, pigment ink doesn’t last as long as other methods, and therefore is often used for fast fashion–cheap, trendy, mass produced clothing–which are made to be disposable as popular styles constantly change.
Many fashion designers and environmental advocates have rallied against fast fashion, which contributes to pollution and poor working conditions with its high production rate and minimal cost. Among the many designers who have made strides to champion sustainability in fashion, Stella McCartney has been extremely outspoken. All of the designer’s products are proudly cruelty-free, ethically sourced, and use organic and recycled materials. McCartney has also turned to science for solutions about creating sustainable fashion. She has spoken about trying new dyeing techniques to minimize waste and reduce greenhouse gas emissions that come from textile production.
Other contemporary brands such as Rag & Bone, Mara Hoffman, and Eileen Fisher have also made strides to offer sustainable fashion. The latter is the first fashion label to create a sustainable certification regarding silk dyeing processes that uses less water and energy, and avoids harmful chemicals.
The importance of pigment, from its contribution to prehistoric art to its current use in fashion, is obvious. Since cavemen left behind trails trails to a viable dye sources some 40,000 years ago, the quest for pigment has persisted across time. Today, the search for a new red, one of the hardest pigments to sustainably produce and one of fashion’s favorite colors, is in motion. Chemists are actively developing new pigments every day, striving to make them as sustainable as possible, and designers are waiting for their answers.