To follow on from my last blog, I had a good friend ask me about the dyes that are used to colour clothes. This is a great question because I feel that the subject of dyes is faintly discussed when considering the sustainability and ecological footprint of a garment. When on the topic of textiles, often we are more likely to consider whether the garment uses organic fibres or we question the conditions of the workers making the clothing. As such, companies often will not disclose the details of the dyes used in their clothing, and for the most part there is no legal requirement for them to do so, as it is the case for fibre composition and country of manufacture.
But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask questions, nor should we become ignorant as it is more important that you might think. The dying of clothes can be just as much as a pollutant to the environment, as the polyester fibres in the garment itself. Not only when the garment is dyed at the factory, but again when it is washed in our washing machines and as it passes through the filtration system at the treatment plants. Moreover, the manufacture of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil and water.
Not only does this pose a threat to the environment, but when such clothing comes into prolonged contact with one’s skin, the toxic chemicals are often absorbed into the skin, especially when one’s body is warm and skin pores have opened to allow perspiration. Meaning fast fashion affects those in warmer climates more, and such areas are typically the ones already suffering from the result of globalisation. This absorption has been shown to cause significant health effects because of the chemicals used in the dying process. Textile dyes can cause allergies such as contact dermatitis and respiratory diseases, allergic reaction in eyes and skin irritation. These symptoms are most prevalent in the workers who are dyeing the clothes as they are around the chemicals all day. As such, these workers are literally dying for fashion.
In most instances, textile dye is a synthetic element derived from petroleum products. And although it is not ideal to use or wear products that come from the petrochemical industry, this does not seem to be the biggest problem related to dyes. During the dyeing process, mordant or wetting agents are also used which can be highly toxic.
So, why do we use this method to colour our clothing? Like many aspects of the textile industry, synthetic dyes are a relatively new phenomenon. They were invented by accident in the middle of the 19th century when a chemist created a purple dye from coal. Synthetic dyes took over the market almost instantaneously near after. They were cheaper and more efficient than the alternative dyes made from plants or natural products.
But it’s not all doom and gloom!
Manufactures are investigating ways to treat their clothes with dyes made from organic materials and bacteria, rather than chemical treatments. And small artisans are already using such methods. These treatments are both safer for the environment and for the workers as they are made from plant and animal sources.
The natural dyes can create similar colours to those made synthetically, but the benefits to health and the environment allow them to be a far better choice as they have a carbon neutral footprint. Natural dyes are currently being developed and the variety available is greatly increasing. By buying clothes dyed with natural fabrics you will be supporting the natural dying processes and hopefully natural dyes will become the norm for the textile industry.