Vollebak has always been a brand on a mission. In fact, since its founding by twin brothers Steve and Nick Tidball back in 2008, it has always been a brand on more-or-less the same mission. That long-running vocation? To make good clothes, and to make them better.
What “better” means has shifted over time and remains in constant flux: variously, it has meant designing more efficiently for Earth’s extremes, producing clothes with a life expectancy well beyond the norm, and – with tongue firmly in cheek – even designing for the apocalypse. It has always, however, through all of these variations on a theme, meant designing and manufacturing clothes in a way that’s better for the planet.
Again, in typical Vollebak style, there’s no one way in which the London-based brand is doing this. There are, when it comes to the complex world of sustainability, always multiple puzzles to be solved. Right now, though, Vollebak has a particular mission in mind: to re-think pigment and bring attention to the ways in which dye is doing harm to our planet.
It’s an important cause, but it’s not the easiest one to communicate. Where you can show images of landfill mountain ranges or plastic islands floating in the ocean, there’s no such equivalent for dye. All of which means that part of the job for Vollebak is starting that conversation.
“Yes, there’ll be some rivers in China, where the water is the different colours of the dye houses,” begins Steve Tidball when we speak over video, “But there hasn’t been a turning point. Dye hasn’t had what I’d call its Netflix moment yet. That moment where you say, ‘Oh, no way,’ or ‘Oh, wow,’ and suddenly you might buy stuff a little differently. That way of thinking, of making change, I think that’s the kind of Zeitgeist for us at the moment, isn’t it?”
But, how did Vollebak get here in the first place – in search of a Netflix moment for pigment?
When we ask Tidball how much of a part color plays in the brand’s overall approach to Earth-friendlier clothing, it’s clear from the way he responds – telling us, off the bat, that despite “having no idea how colors were made” when they first started brand, it now “figures very heavily” – that, as well as a commercial one, this is something of a passion project. “One of the things we’re trying to do, despite not being an enormous company with, you know, billions of dollars in the bank, is to approach every challenge fresh,” he begins, clearly used to managing expectations but also clearly not so bound by them himself, clarifying, “So how do we make material? How do we make colour? How do we put those materials together?”
We’re talking, for the most part, about the brand’s recent collaboration with the U.K.-based materials science outfit Colorifix – a next-generation dye production company, using bacteria to generate a color palette based in nature.
“Of all the things we’re working with, I probably find Colorifix one of the most – if not the most – exciting, because I think it has the widest possible breadth,” Tidball explains, “If, ultimately you’re going to use nature as your colour bank – well – nature, as we know has fairly infinite colours. I think that there’s just so much possibility.”
Unsurprisingly, the people at Colorifix agree when it comes to what they do: “Microorganisms have been our partners for millennia, helping us do everything from make bread to digest our food,” explains Colorifix CEO Orr Yarkoni, “We have unlocked a way to use them to help us solve major environmental problems. By instructing them to produce naturally-occurring pigments and growing them via fermentation, we’re able to scale natural pigments without any of the specialist intensive agricultural and environmental impact of scaling and extracting traditional natural dyes.”
“Yes, there’ll be some rivers in China, where the water is the different colours of the dye houses, but there hasn’t been a turning point. Dye hasn’t had what I’d call its Netflix moment yet.” – Steve Tidball, CEO and Co-Founder at Vollebak
As far as partnerships go, it’s a match made in pigment heaven: both Colorifix and Vollebak share a common goal – both working toward a more progressive fashion industry with a lower impact on the planet – and, in this collaboration, they’ve found a way to pool their resources to produce something genuinely interesting. Where previous collaborations have had similar Earth-friendly goals – Vollebak has worked with Living Ink and Nature Coatings Inc., who derive their colors from algae and wood waste respectively – the end product has never quite been representative of the process.
“What’s incredibly fascinating with this process is that nature makes the same pigment in many different places, and a single pigment can result in a wide range of colours. For example, in this collection, one of the pigments was copied from the DNA of geysers which are hot springs found in the Earth’s surface,” says Yarkoni, backed up by Tidall who tells us that, “You kind of have to go into these things knowing that some wrinkles are going to have to be ironed out. You know, for example, we can’t actually make anything black yet from black algae. It’s kind of grey. But it’s interesting when you see how customers respond to it, and people do understand that that journey needs to be started.”
Ultimately, it’s a case of trial and error. Or, at least, a continued trial: Vollebak is playing the long game and playing it on multiple fronts, understanding that – if the needle is ever going to move on any front – collaboration is key to pushing that.
“When we started making clothing about six years ago, the weren’t any radical pigment alternatives,” Tidball tells us, asked about the possibilities opened up by finding the right partners to work with. “Colorifix was still in inception, Living Ink in was still making birthday cards. That was just the reality – there wasn’t like this whole it wasn’t like a choice a suite of choices.”
“Microorganisms have been our partners for millennia, helping us do everything from make bread to digest our food. We have unlocked a way to use them to help us solve major environmental problems.” – Orr Yarkoni, Colorifix CEO
But that initial lack of choice soon gave way to a wide range of potential collaborations – a new generation of materials science companies entirely dedicated to problems that a pretty large portion of the population aren’t really even aware need solving. Now, for Tidball, there’s almost too much choice – but that only increases the chances of creating something genuinely impactful.
“The reason we’re sort of roving across it and trying lots of different things is that it stimulates more conversations,” Tidball says, “And, of course, the reality is that ultimately consumers have to want it. And so, if you keep doing a few things, you might strike one where things come together in a way that really resonates much more than others. One company’s philosophy might be wildly more successful than the other, but it’s very difficult to know yet. The thing is that, unless there are companies like ours willing to work with them, they don’t stand a chance because they’re relying on clothing manufacturers. And that’s a completely different ballgame to creating colour.”
And Tidball isn’t being hubristic or self-important here in the slightest. In fact, he’s right on the money: when you’re looking to change an industry, of course there’s going to be resistance. “One of our biggest challenges at Colorifix, is changing the behaviour of an industry that has done things in the same way for a very long time,” Yarkoni adds. “Even if we have a plug-in solution and our direct customers are the mills and dye houses – our partnerships with fashion brands plays a vital role in pushing this change.”
And, in terms of creating that change, Tidball is still on the look-out for that Netflix moment. The only difference is that, now, he knows he may well have to be the one to create it: “I think it’s going to require something like that to create change, and I can’t see any of the big fashion houses really running with that. We obviously don’t have the firepower – the clout, the following – to actually effect giant change at the moment,” he says, without the hint of resignation you might expect to come with a statement like this. “But we do have a lot of thought leaders who watch us and our customers, and other brands who look to us. So my hope is that we can point the way and that other people will follow.”
Now, at least, Vollebak knows there’s no need to go it alone. Change will come. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like – as Yarkoni notes, “Industrial textile dyeing consumes massive amounts of water and energy and has an enormous carbon footprint… it is one of the most chemically intensive industries on earth and one of the largest polluters of increasingly scarce freshwater… it is estimated that 20% of industrial water pollution comes from textile dyeing and treatment.” But, when it does, sooner rather than later, it will come through collaborations like this one. Forward-thinking people working, sharing what they know, working toward a common goal.