To Dye For: Textile Processing's Global Impact

  Photo: Business Insider / Stringer / Reuters

Photo: Business Insider / Stringer / Reuters

Spring is officially here and with it comes a pretty typical affinity for florals, prints and color. Every year, as soon as the March chill fades into April’s lukewarm temperatures, we swap our minimal muted knitwear for a handful of bright blouses, patterned pants, and pastel anything. The change happens like clockwork, and suddenly high street windows aren’t galleries of neutrals, but veritable color wheels with copies of the latest fashions in every shade, from millennial pink to perriwinkle. And while pastels, and florals, may not be groundbreaking, they and the dyes used to make them are leading a different charge - pollution in the textile industry.

The Data

But the problem isn’t just seasonal.  Each year, the textile industry produces about 80 billion garments, leaving a rather large water footprint behind. Mills can use up to 200 tons of water per ton of dyed fabric, which in turn only produces about 1400 pieces of clothing. Add everything together and roughly 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution is owed to fabric dyes and treatments.

  Photo: Daily Mail / AFP / Getty

Photo: Daily Mail / AFP / Getty


The Danger

Unlike with water’s pretty poor relationship with cotton and jeans, no one piece of fabric or clothing is to blame for dye pollution. Rather, it’s the estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals used to bleach, treat, and brighten our clothes that pose the problem.  According to Greenpeace, the most frequently used additives in the dyeing and finishing process are dangerous to human health, marine life, and the environment.

Azo dyes, which account for 60 to 70 percent of all dyes in the industry, are responsible for setting high intensity hues, poppy reds in particular. But when broken down and metabolized, they are a known carcinogenic. And even if it seems like the color of our clothes and cancer couldn’t be less related, azo and other chemicals don’t dissipate, but evaporate into the air we breathe or are absorbed through the skin. At best, contact with dyed synthetics triggers allergic reactions, skin irritation, and rashes. At worst, it increases the risk of cancer.  

  Photo: kidsorganic.wordpress.com

Photo: kidsorganic.wordpress.com


The Big Picture

So while cost effective for the industry, these dyes are costly to the health of consumers, as well as the health and wellbeing of local communities. Like an artist rinses his brush in a water cup, rendering water the color of the canvas and ultimately undrinkable, textile mills dump dyes and chemicals into nearby freshwater sources. Whole rivers turn unnatural shades of red and blue that, when ingested, make local populations sick. In China, estimates say 90 percent of the local groundwater is polluted and, according to the World Bank, 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply are from textile dyeing.  Roger Williams, executive producer of RiverBlue, a documentary exposing the fashion industry’s effect on freshwater, told CTV of the pollution witnessed during production. "We came across a satellite photo from China, and it was just this big stain of blue coming down into the ocean,” he said. "They're just letting the dyes run right into the rivers.”

Indonesia’s landscape looks similar – hundreds of textile factories line the Citarum River, dumping waste and chemicals into the once freshwater source daily. For every pound of textiles produced, a pound of chemicals is broken-down and later illegally bled into the river. According to the Daily Mail, 35 million people still use the river for drinking water. But, thanks to the high concentration of dye, it’s a multicolor mess linked to increased cancer rates, skin diseases, and slow mental development in children.

The Alternatives

Textile dyeing thus has effects on a local and global scale. And though much like florals, conventional fabric dying is considered by many in the industry a necessary evil, it’s harrowing effects are increasingly avoidable.

Companies like ColorZen and AirDye are introducing new ways to dye fabric and alleviate some of the accompanying water waste. While AirDye was developed for synthetic fabrics in particular and uses air to transfer dye to the fabric, ColorZen modifies cotton’s molecular structure, allowing dye to settle in the fabric without the need for toxic fixing agents and massive water discharge.  Both processes embed dye within the fibres instead of merely coating them, resulting in brighter, crisper colors ideal for spring cleaning and the color coding that comes with it.

Seasonal trend aside, dye pollution is a year-round epidemic that is far bigger than spring collections, but like water waste it can be helped with simple steps from the consumer. Buying second hand clothing, seeking out sustainable brands, and even just building awareness goes a long way. There will always be a new ‘it’ shade that puts natural colors to shame, but if we continue to ignore the havoc dyes wreak on the water supply, the outcome for our health and planet won’t be so bright.

Key Takeaways

  • Mills can use up to 200 tons of water per ton of dyed fabric, which in turn only produces about 1400 pieces of clothing.
  • Roughly 17 to 20% of industrial water pollution is owed to fabric dyes and treatments.
  • An estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to bleach, treat, and brighten our clothes. 
  • At best, contact with dyed synthetics triggers allergic reactions, skin irritation, and rashes. At worst, it increases the risk of cancer.  
  • In China, estimates say 90 percent of the local groundwater is polluted and, according to the World Bank, 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply are from textile dyeing. 
  • For every pound of textiles produced in Indonesia, a pound of chemicals is broken-down and later illegally bled into the Citarum River.
  • New processes embed dye within the fibres instead of merely coating them, alleviating some of the accompanying water waste.
  • Consumers can play their part by buying second hand clothing, seeking out sustainable brands, and even just building awareness.