Red, Orange, Yellow, Blue, and… Not So Green
Many designers know of the environmental impact of the type of fabrics they use: Natural versus synthetic materials, for example. However, most have yet to consider the toxicity of textile dyes and colour pollution. While colours draw in the eye, add style, and splash to garments, textile dyeing is, unfortunately, one of the most polluting parts of clothing production.
Let’s look at a brief history of fabric dyes then dive into the impact of textile dyes on the environment and human health before asking the question: is there a sustainable solution?
Fabric Dyes Through the Years
Over the centuries, humans have dyed fabric, tapping the colours of insects and plants. Red dyes can be obtained from insects like the kermes or cochineal. The magnetic blue comes from indigo, one of the oldest known dyes. In the 7th century BCE, a neo-Babylonian cuneiform tablet was found near modern-day Iraq that provides a recipe for dyeing wool. Going back 4000 years ago, dyed cloth has been found in Egyptian tombs, and hieroglyphs even show the process of using natural dyes.
The commercial synthetic dye industry began in 1856, when William Henry Perkin accidentally created Mauve, the first synthetic dye. The first synethic colour was mauve. Perkin’s mauve was extracted from petrochemicals (coal tar) while trying to produce quinine. The chemical dye industry took off from there. Aniline dyes like Perkin’s became more popular over the years, particularly as factory fabric-production became mainstream. Aniline dyes, which were widely available by 1860, provided long-lasting intense color options
Negative Impact of Textile Dyeing
Today, over 90% of our clothes use toxic chemical dyes. It’s estimated that every year over 10,000 different dyes are used industrially and over 700,000 tons of synthetic dyes are produced. The way in which these dyes are used causes great harm to the environment and to the health of wildlife and humans.
Water Use And Water Pollution
Toxic fashion water waste is awful. Textile dyeing is not only an extremely water-intensive process, but it also releases large amounts of toxic chemicals into water systems and adjacent ecosystems.
20% of the world’s industrial water pollution is due to clothing manufacturing, and 5 trillion litres of water are used each year for dyeing textiles alone.
Every year, the dyeing and finishing processes of the textile industry release nearly 200,000 tons of dye into effluent. Most of this industrial runoff does not go through a wastewater treatment plant, and is instead released into waterways and groundwater. The chemicals released from industrial textile dyeing are very slow to break down in the environment, as their stability when it comes to light and temperature makes it difficult for them to biodegrade.
Much of this industrial dumping of wastewater is unregulated or goes unnoticed as waste is often released through pipes and hard to trace back to the original source. While some countries do have legislation that governs industrial runoff, (see, for example, the U.S. E.P.A.’s Textile Mills Effluent Guidelines), many regulations around the world are either not strong enough to effectively reduce the amount of textile dye in effluent, or are not strictly enforced. Even in countries that have textile effluent regulations in place, studies have still found trace levels of carcinogenic toxins like amines in some garments and runoff.
Impact of the Textile Industry’s Water Pollution
The dyes used to colour textiles often contain chemicals that are extremely harmful both to wildlife and human health. For example, azo dyes are a group of synthetic dyes that, in 2011, accounted for over 50% of annually produced dyes globally. Azo dyes contain amines, which have been shown to cause cancer (and have since been banned in several areas, including the European Union). While azo dyes have gradually lost popularity due to concerns about their toxicity, they are still used in some areas. Additionally, other chemicals used to dye clothing are similarly toxic, and may cause respiratory problems, skin irritation, and cancer.
When toxic dyes are released into rivers or other bodies of water, severe harm to the health of humans and wildlife can occur. For example, communities living near factories that dye textiles face disproportionate impacts of textile dyeing, as they depend on the rivers for clean drinking water, for safe food, and often for their livelihoods.
As water runs from factories to the ocean, textile dye chemicals may also contribute to ocean acidification, which can cause damage at every level of the marine food chain.
Finally, the chemicals used to dye fabrics can cause harm to worker health.
Natural Dyes: A False Hope or Possible Solution?
One of the natural assumptions is that the immediate solution to the problem of toxic fabric dyeing is to simply switch to natural dyes. However, even natural dyes must be looked at with a critical eye.
Simply because a factory uses natural dyes (a fairly rare occurrence) does not necessarily mean its environmental impact is lower. This is because many natural dyes must be bound to the fabric using chemicals called “mordants,” which are used to fix the natural, non-toxic dye to the fabric fibers. These mordants can be toxic and cause similar issues to conventional dyes when they runoff into water. While some innovators like DyeCoo are looking to use carbon dioxide, rather than water, to bind dyes to fabric (thus eliminating the use of water and water pollution in the first place), these technologies are fairly new and their environmental impacts must be analyzed on a longer time scale.
Another issue with large-scale, industrial use of natural dyes is that large amounts of agricultural land would need to be used to grow the sources of these natural dyes in addition to the fibers required for natural dyes, as most natural dyes only bond with natural fibers like cotton or silk, which have ethical and environmental issues on their own.
However, for smaller designers or at-home use, less harmful mordants can be used. For example, table salt and diluted vinegar act to bind natural dyes onto fabrics, helping the color last longer and become more vivid. Other natural dyes called “substantive dyes” don’t require the use of mordants to bind to fabric and are a good, non-toxic option for safer clothing coloring. Additionally, many people are experimenting with other sustainable textile dyeing methods, including a traditional Thai method of fabric dyeing from buffalo manure.
What are the current Solutions to fashion pollution?
- Designers, please, design without toxic dyes.
Ideally, we would move away from dyed fabrics or embrace the fading process. Some large companies like Mountain Hardwear are already producing purposefully undyed products (like Marmot’s “Eco AF” line of white sleeping bags), although of course their production includes other unsustainable processes.
- Inventors can improve colour recycling and toxic dyes collection
Since many of us can’t live without colourful clothing, it is perhaps more realistic to find ways to work from the current system towards a less harmful future. Interim solutions could help in the transition away from toxic activities.. For example, the company Intech work with digital printing, a process that, while not perfect, uses little water and produces less waste. While new technologies may help reduce the toxic impacts of textile dyeing in the future, for now we must do what we can with where we’re at.
- What can consumers do about toxic colours?
So, assuming that fabric dyes are here to stay, what can consumers do? Demand proper labels with pollution indicators. Demand transparency. Demand for sustainable materials and textile dyes. Ask questions. Practice slow fashion. Shop secondhand until the fashion crisis is over. The most effective strategy is purchasing less and remaining aware of where our clothes and fabrics come from.
- What about makers?
Makers, small brands and designers have direct contact with consumers. Makers are visible in communities. They can inform and teach consumers in boutiques and in marketing. They must take the environmental impact of dyes as well as fabric, notions, and haberdashery they use into account.
- What about brands?
On a large scale, brands are accountable for the toxic water waste they create. This may include pressure to build wastewater treatment facilities that remove toxins from wastewater before it enters waterways or increased demand for transparency and voluntary adherence to known environmental standards for the textile industry.
- What about activists? Draw attention to textile pollution and to Greenwashing
To avoid “greenwashing,” it’s crucial to critically evaluate a brand, rather than taking their statements of sustainability at their word. Greenpeace’s Detox My Fashion campaign and Fashion Revolution, Clean Clothes Campaign and other climate organizations have brought us a long way in increasing transparency in the world of fashion, as they not only raise awareness on environmental issues to the public, but offer real solutions to counter the breadth of fashion pollution.
- What about policymakers? New Laws to prevent pollution crime.
Increased regulation of textile chemicals and wastewater treatment will be crucial to reducing the impact of industrial fashion production on the environment and human health. The sad truth is that it is unlikely that large brands will move toward truly sustainable production without outside pressure from either the consumer or government regulation. The good news is that there are some new laws in place that increase responsibilities for the textile industry and create penalties for noncompliance. For example, the EU Strategy for Sustainable Textiles aims to push the EU fashion industry to a circular economy. Some argue that it doesn’t push far enough to truly change the textile industry, such as not requiring transparency from producers and not setting clear targets for re-use of materials. However, the EU’s new strategy certainly represents a step in the right direction, and more countries must follow suit with ambitious regulations for the textile industry.
Communities can work together to combat textile pollution city by city. Each of us can spread the word about the toxicity of colour. As we wait for innovation to come with smart solutions to combat the mess, trendsetters should promote sustainable colours.
Currently colour is a design flaw. Can we correct this fashion flaw? Extending beyond the dye, what about fluorescents and metallics? Is it possible to find a replacement for toxic shine? The design brief should include safe colours and safe metallics. Let’s develop metallic colours without toxins? Can we make ‘shiny, shiny boots of leather’ sustainably? Can we invent non-toxic colours? Of course, we can.
Science History Institute, “William Henry Perkin,” https://www.sciencehistory.org/historical-profile/william-henry-perkin
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