We really are spoiled today with the endless range of colors to pick from when shopping for our clothes. But our rainbow wardrobes come at a cost! From water consumption to harmful chemicals and pollution, to increasing greenhouse gas emissions.
The fabric dyes used in today’s garment industry are riddled with problems. This got us wondering, are sustainable dyes the alternative we’ve all been waiting for?
Before we can answer this question we have to talk about the problem with dyes and why we need a more sustainable and ethical fashion industry. We’ll also cover some examples of sustainable dye alternatives and what certifications we should be looking for!
Are you dye-ing to know more? Keep reading!
What’s the problem with dyes?
Chances are the clothes you’re wearing right now were made using synthetic dyes. In fact, about 90% of our clothes and textiles are dyed using synthetic pigments! But you can also find synthetic dyes in furniture and home decor! Pillows, sheets, blankets, bath mats, couches, rugs… synthetic dyes are everywhere (FYI non toxic rugs are where it’s at).
Although dyes have been around since ancient times it wasn’t until the late 19th century that synthetic versions came onto the market. Synthetic dyes were cheaper, offered a wider range of colors, and were easier for manufacturers to scale since they were better suited to coloring synthetic materials which were also taking over at the time.
Anyone who reads this blog knows the link between fashion and climate change is one of our favorite topics. So let's dive into the problem with synthetic dyes!
1. Overuse of water
Textile mills and processing facilities need crazy amounts of freshwater! During the dying stage (known as tier 2), fabric will be pre-treated, dyed, printed, and then finished. These steps are sometimes called the wet processing stage by industry professionals. When thinking about just water usage, studies suggest that the tier 2 stage can use anywhere from 5 to 5000 liters per kilo of fabric!
We have all seen pictures of the toxic soup of chemicals running through the waterways that surround garment factories… and a huge portion of this is from dyes! Up to 200,000 tonnes of dye are lost to effluents every year during the tier 2 stage.
This is partially because the dying process itself is quite inefficient and creates a lot of waste that is discharged into nearby waterways.
Synthetic fabric dyes are extremely soluble in water making them very difficult to remove (synthetic dyes are NOT biodegradable!). Once in a water body like a river or lake, they can prevent light from penetrating through the water's surface.
This is a big deal because plants need light to produce oxygen through photosynthesis, this process is vital to the health of the surrounding ecosystem.
3. Exposure to toxins for people and the planet
The chemicals used to fix synthetic dyes to fibers can also cause a huge problem. These fixative chemicals are called mordants and help to bond the dye to the fabric so the color won’t fade in between wash cycles.
Mordants and other chemicals common in synthetic dyes will bioaccumulate up food chains and are linked to a plethora of human health problems including bladder cancer, dermatitis, and disorders of the central nervous system.
For example, Azo dyes, a known carcinogen, make up about 70% of all industrial dyes and contain chemicals like bleach and nitrogen. As a result, AZO dyes have been banned in several countries such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan.
The main red flags to look for in synthetic dyes include:
- Allergenic disperse dyes
- Carcinogenic dyes
- Heavy metals
- Flame retardants
And that is just a start!
3. Petrochemicals and emissions
According to the World Resources Institute and the Apparel Impact Institute, the tier 2 process makes up 50% of all greenhouse gas emissions in the fashion supply chain (not including footwear).
That equals 536 million tons of CO2e per year! While a terrifying number, this makes sense when you think about the energy needed to heat the water baths, clean the tanks, and run the machinery needed to dye and print clothing.
4. Lack of regulation
Unfortunately, most garment factories are placed in locations where waste/water disposal regulations and labor laws are VERY relaxed (or non-existent) so the big brands and factory owners are never held accountable.
Even with all the known health risks that exposure to synthetic dyes poses to humans, many western brands are still outsourcing the majority of their manufacturing to countries like China, India, and Bangladesh for this very reason.
It really is modern-day slavery and a violation of human rights. And don’t even get us started on the carbon footprint from transporting all of these garments to Canada and the US!
So what are sustainable dyes?
In the simplest definition, sustainable dyes are made from natural sources like tree resin, chestnuts, rhubarb, indigofera leaves, or madder roots. But to get a better sense of what sustainable dyes truly are, it helps to look at the pros and cons.
Which types of dyes are eco-friendly?
To summarize what we have talked about so far, eco-friendly dyes tick one (or preferably more) of the following boxes:
- Is produced from natural and/or renewable sources?
- Is vegan and non-toxic?
- Is produced locally?
- Is free from greenwashing?
- Is produced using fair and safe labor practices?
- Is not made using any chemical bonders?
If you are looking for brands that check these boxes we have tons of suggestions to help get you started!
Another term you might’ve come across in the sustainable fabric world is low-impact dyes. While still produced from petrochemicals, low-impact dyes contain no harmful chemicals and are certified by the OEKO-TEX Certification.
Bonus, they use less water! OEKO-TEX Certification also certifies low-impact fiber reactive dies. Fibre reactive dyes can molecularly bond to fabric meeting there is no chemical mordant required!
What Is OEKO-TEX Certification? OEKO TEX certification is a globally recognized, independent certification for textile quality and environmental responsibility!
Examples of sustainable dye alternatives
There are so many amazing eco-friendly dye innovations being explored right now! Here are a few of our favorites companies producing the most sustainable dyes:
Colorifix is the first company to use a biological process to produce, deposit, and fix pigments onto textiles! They pinpoint the genes that lead to the production of the pigment in nature and then apply that DNA code to microorganisms in a lab.
The resulting engineered microorganism can then produce the pigment just as it is produced in nature. Crazy stuff!
2. Living Ink
Living ink is creating carbon-negative sustainable fabric dyes from algae! Their process is pretty neat. First, algae are grown at large-scale using sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide.
The crude pigment is then purified and transformed into a finished ink. Their black algae-based pigment has a negative carbon footprint, is bio-based, resistant to UV-light exposure, and is safe for humans and the environment!
3. Gravity Lab
Air-ink by Gravity Lab sequesters air pollution waste (PM 2.5 and PM 10 emissions) to create pigments and ink. Their mantra is to “take something as pervasive as air pollution and turn it into something as common as ink”. How cool.
PILI is developing bio-based pigments for the ink, paint, and plastic industries. They do this using microbial enzymes, re-engineered to produce dyes from renewable resources. Using these enzymes, they can produce a wide range of different colors!
Stony Creek Colors produces the world's only 100% certified plant-based indigo. This is done by using a process called electrocatalytic hydrogenation to create indigo, rather than chemical reducing agents.
Stony Creek Colors also partners with local farms to grow indigo as a regenerative rotational crop that improves profitability and ecosystem health for farmers. I love this!
Moonlight Technologies plant-based natural non toxic dyes are carbon negative during the manufacturing process, can be used in masterbatch for injection molding hard products, and can be applied to any fabric type (natural or synthetic)! Their colors also pass ZDHC standards!
EarthColors® by Archroma is using technology to create bio-synthetic dyes derived from natural waste products of the agriculture and herbal industries (such as leaves or nutshells), leaving the edible part still available for food consumption.
While this is a promising list, one of the biggest obstacles right now is promoting a water adoption of these innovations and embedding change within existing machinery and dye factories.
Certifications to be on the lookout for when looking for sustainable dyes:
- OEKO-TEX Standard 100
- ZDHC standards
- PETA approved vegan
- The Global Organic Textile Standard
A final word sustainable dyes
The fashion industry is one of the worst polluting industries on the planet. While sustainable dyes definitely have their benefits, it really depends on how the fabric has been manufactured in the process and what kind of sustainable fabric dye is being used.
We are excited to see where some of these sustainable dying innovations go, and if they can be scaled up to supply such a large industry.
Until this happens there are so many other things you can do as a consumer to shop more sustainably! Try thrift shopping online, host a clothing swap party, and help educate others about sustainable dyes!
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