One of the most significant incentives when buying within the fashion industry is the color of a garment. There are many driving factors behind choosing the right color, and when shopping for the perfect addition to our closets, we run through a round of contemplative internal chatter.
How does it compliment my tone? Is it the right shade? Is it too dark? Too light? Does it wash me out? Do I have anything in my wardrobe that would go with this? So many factors go into our choice of color when we shop, which is why color is one of the driving forces behind sales success in the fashion industry.
Until the invention of the first synthetic dye, “Mauveine” by William Henry Perkin in 1856, all dyes used for textile products were produced naturally using plant and animal sources such as indigo, cutch, weld, and cochineal beetles. Once the birth of synthetic dyes became common knowledge, there was no going back. They were more affordable, easier to produce and absorb, and came in a wide variety of colors.
Today, synthetic dyes are commercially available as they are industrially produced and regarded as the first choice when textile dyeing. 1.3 million tons of dyes and pigments are used and produced by the textile industry alone, and most of them are synthetically made. While this process has proved beneficial in various ways, the transition to synthetic dyes has had a horrifying effect on the environment and human health.
The production of these synthetic dyes requires enormous volumes of water and energy. It is estimated that about 220 tons of water are used per ton of fabric, and an average t-shirt could use 16-20 liters of water alone.
Factories overseeing production situate themselves next to large bodies of water, such as rivers or lakes, to maintain easy access. Because the fabrics can only absorb so much dye during the dyeing process, the dyed fabric is repeatedly treated using water and heat to ensure the color holds, producing vast amounts of wastewater.
This wastewater consists of untreated residual dye, chemicals, mordants, and micro-fibers and is poured back into nature as toxic waste. On average, 44,000 – 55,000 tons of dye are discharged into the water system by the global textile industry per year.
The areas most affected by this are China and India, where many communities near these dye factories often run out of water. Over 70% of the rivers in China are polluted, making access to uncontaminated water very difficult. Sludgy, ink-like water flows through the lakes and rivers near the garment factories.
This toxic broth pollutes the water resulting in the death of aquatic life and the poisoning of soils and drinking water. People are wary of growing food in the contaminated soil, and the fish and plants can’t survive the venom injected into their homes by these corporations.
The laws meant to regulate these issues are seldom enforced, as can be seen with the Jian river incident of 2011 when the water turned red after an illegal dye dump from a local chemical plant. Frequently pushed through pipes, the illegal wastewater dumps cannot be traced back to the source.
This allows factories to improperly dispose of the toxins anonymously, and since the chemicals do not break down quickly, they make their way through the rivers and out into the oceans.
To top off the environmental concerns, human health is also put at risk with synthetic dyes. Transparency is not maintained throughout the industry as chemical suppliers are not required to relay all ingredients used in dyes. This means that toxic substances could be used in the production of widely used products introducing health concerns.
For example, Azo dyes, which make up 60-70% of all dyes in the industry, are known carcinogens. When exposed to warm skin and open pores, allergic reactions such as contact dermatitis, skin irritation, or even respiratory diseases can develop. These reactions are most prevalent in the workers who dye the textiles as they spend so much time around these chemicals.
It is difficult for governments to regulate the chemicals and methods used during the textile development process as 80% of the textile supply chains remain outside of the United States and EU. The majority are located in China and India, where they have weak laws to protect nature. However, the blame is not entirely theirs to bear.
To attract the companies that produce the dyes, they have to ensure that the laws involving protections for workers and the environment are weak. This is because American and European companies establish their factories in these regions to avoid the expensive laws that protect their workers and environment.
In turn, they pay as little as possible for labor and production in countries that are not their own. Because it is all perpetuated over there, we can comfortably fuel dire consequences that we do not have to deal with.
Textile dyeing has a rich and long history, originating amongst cultures in the middle and far east, where sophisticated dyeing techniques were common knowledge. Local artisans and manufacturers have been digging up this traditional knowledge of using natural dyes made from organic materials like plants and fruit rather than chemical treatments.
Natural dyes offer the assurance of locality and a carbon-neutral footprint. Since they can be made from plants that grow locally, they can support smaller businesses and create jobs within the community rather than exploiting the cheap labor offered in other countries.
It also aids the environment as the shipping of resources worldwide would no longer be necessary. This would decrease the contribution of shipping to the carbon footprint.
The textile dyeing industry is a monster we can put down together through various technological advancements and alternative dyeing processes.
A win to celebrate is creating patented technology like ColorZen, which pretreats cotton, making the dyeing process faster. It reduces 90% of water usage and utilizes 75% less energy and 90% fewer chemicals than traditional methods used for years.
You can support the movement by buying clothes colored with natural dyes or utilizing sustainable dyeing practices. Natural dyes can create similar colors and shades to synthetic dyes without harming our health and environment, so you can still add that pop of color to your wardrobe!
Hopefully, with time, more people will get on board, and natural dyes may just overrun the synthetic dye processes that have been allowed to poison us for too many years.