Textile Dye Part 1 - The Impact on our Waterways - Abbie James

Textile Dye Part 1 - The Impact on our Waterways

Textile Dye Part 1 - The Impact on our Waterways

We talk a lot about colour in the fashion industry. As a designer, it's one of the first things I focus on when designing for a collection. But this kaleidoscope of colour we see on display on the racks carry an unseen story of toxicity and pollution through textile dyes, resulting in human and environmental destruction. 

Textile dyes fall into two main categories; synthetic and natural. These two groups of dyes, the mordants (fixers) and the water usage is what you need to consider when looking at the environmental impact of garments. This article will focus on synthetic textile dyes and there will follow up with a part 2 which will focus on natural textile dyes.

People are dying fabric in India in large concrete containers.

Synthetic Dies

Synthetically derived textile dyes are the most common textile dye because they are cheaper, convenient, predictable, colourfast and bright. In 1856 the first synthetic textile dye, mauvine, was accidentally created by a chemistry student,  William Henry Perkin. It wasn't long before this superior performing chemical concoction had taken over from natural textile dyes. Now with 90% of textiles being synthetically dyed, natural dying seems to be a novelty and unique practice reserved for boutique, small production brands. 

Three men are standing and dying fabric outside.

Azoic Dyes

All synthetic textile dyes are harmful to the planet. But before I lose you with technical jargon and chemistry compounds, I'm going to focus on one type of dye, Azoic textile dyes or as most people refer to them, Azo dyes. 

The industry loves azo dyes and they take the cake by monopolizing the market with 90% of all synthetic dyes being azo textile dyes. As mentioned earlier, these dyes are easy to use, they offer the predictability that a factory wants, and they give us the vibrancy that we love. Where would mardi gras be without azo textile dyes! They work at a low temperature, are incredibly colourfast and a mordent (fixer) is not needed. And the pièce de résistance, they are cheap, cheap, cheap. 

Sounds like a no-brainer for the fashion industry to indulge in this easy, cheap, high-performing textile dye to give the consumer what they want. But it comes at a price. 

Azo dyes are restricted in many countries due to their high toxicity and heavy metals. With their base ingredient being crude oil, their manufacture is a pollutant in itself but it's their end product that is causing outrage. 

A person in a hazmat suit with a mask on is standing in the Citarum River with a pollution sign.

Water Pollution

A few of the variations of synthetic dyes are water in-soluble while most are water-soluble. This means they do not break down in water which leads to easy contamination of waterways.

The fashion industry produces 20% of the worlds wastewater with the textile industry being the second biggest water pollutant. Wherever there is runoff from fabric dye, there is pollution, major pollution. There is a saying, "To find out what the "in" colour is for the season, look at the colour of the river." I'm sure you get my drift.

The Citarum River in Indonesia has been declared the most polluted river in the world, being 1000 times worse than the U.S. standards for drinking water. It's Indonesia’s most strategic river, it is the source of water for the Jatiluhur Reservoir, which is Indonesia’s largest reservoir at 3 billion cubic meters of storage capacity. The reservoir not only supplies clean water for Bandung but also provides 80 percent of the water supply for the capital. It also irrigates 400,000 hectares of rice fields and is a source of energy for three hydroelectric power stations serving three cities. People bathe, cook with and drink directly from it's banks, children play in it. 

The Citarum River is one of many rivers that are affected by fashion's wastewater. Countries such as Bangladesh, China and India are all seeing similar affects. Rivers that have lost their oxygen, are devoid of life and highly toxic. Rivers that are flamable and constantly bubble at the surface with toxic gases. 

A River that is turning purple from toxic textile dye.

The Effects of this polution

The carginagenic amines in Azo dyes is a cause for many health issues. People who simply wash their hands and faces in contaminated rivers are known to get sores on their bodies, skin irritations and fevers. Consuming the water or eating crops irrigated with the water cause gastrointestinal diseases including tumours. 

 In 1992, in one German dye plant where workers were distilling Azo dyes, 100% of workers developed bladder cancer. Certain azo dyes are now banned in Germany and many other European countries. In countries where people need jobs the most and where safety issues are lax, workers are dying fabric without any protection, at times standing with bare skin in the vat of dye as they dye the fabric. 

A small child is drinking polluted water from a clear plastic bottle.

What Can You Do

Navigating around synthetic dyes is a difficult task and is near on impossible if you are purchasing new clothing. With synthetic dyes being the norm, it is unusual to find a brand using natural dyes due to the cost and limited availability of these fabrics. 

Of course, the most sustainable item of clothing is what you already have in your closet. Always shop your closet first. Vintage and second-hand also are incredibly sustainable options. My teenager daughter is getting interested in fashion so we have been looking at Depop together which has never really been on my radar before. I love Vestaire Collective, you will find so many other reseller platforms to choose from these days.

Legs standing wearing hand dyed socks by the brand TOR

Do your research and find brands that are using natural dyes like my friends at TOR. It's also a good idea to keep a look out for brands using authentic deadstock or remnant fabric or upcycled materials. This means they have not had virgin fabric manufactured for their collection.  For more on deadstock fabric, read this entry

When purchasing new items, it is important to consider the environmental impacts that the garment has on our planet. Knowing that pollution plays a part in every garment's production (even sustainable) will help you make a conscious decision as to the importance of the purchase of the item. Do you actually need it? Will you wear it for years to come? Will it last for years and years? These are all important questions to help your closet become more sustainable.

I suggest watching the documentary Riverblue if you want to learn more.