Dying for Colour: Toxic Dyes in the Textile Industry

Dying for Colour: Toxic Dyes in the Textile Industry

Girl holding green dyed cloth

From dresses stained with ruby red to rainbow sweaters featuring every vibrant hue of the rainbow, it seems we can find fashion in any colour we desire. However, our love of rich tones and rainbow shades is turning deadly, as toxic dyes in the textile industry run rampant.

With a myriad of devastating environmental and health impacts, chemical dyes in the textile industry are one of the dark sides of fashion production. But why do we use these dyes, what impact do they have and is there a way that we can enjoy colourful clothing without the toxic side effects?

A History of Colour

Our love of brightly coloured clothing is nothing new. The first records of textile dyeing date all the way back to 2600BC.

Of course in these early beginnings, textiles were coloured with natural pigments from plants and animals. The range of coloured clothing would also have been more limited by area, as groups could only dye clothes with what was available geographically or through limited trade.

In many areas throughout history, coloured clothing was expensive and seen as a status symbol or a way to distinguish rank or class. In Ancient Rome, for example, Tyrian purple, a colour created with dye made from shellfish in a difficult process, was only worn by the very wealthy and elite.

The Rise of Synthetic Dyes

In the mid-1800s, everything changed as the first synthetic dye was created. In 1856 a “coal tar” or aniline dye was created from petrochemicals which gave a strong, vivid and lasting colour.

As these synthetic creations gave manufacturers a way to colour fabrics without the limitations of natural colourants, such as unreliable colour replication, they altered the fashion dyeing process permanently. Unfortunately, aniline dyes were later found to be highly toxic but they set the scene for synthetic dyes to dominate from then on.

In today’s sector, the natural dyes that reigned throughout much of history make up just 10% of dyed textiles.

synthetic & Toxic Dyes in the Textile Industry

While there is a wide variety of chemical and synthetic fabric dyes used in the textile sector today, including acid, disperse and reactive dyes, azo dyes are easily the most dominant commanding 60-70% of all dyes used.

Azo dyes

Azo dyes are a class of synthetic dyes in which two nitrogen atoms are sat next to each other, between two carbon atoms. As the French word for nitrogen is azote, this is where they get their name. One of the base products of many azo dyes is crude oil. 

Azo dyes are one of the larger classes of synthetic dyes and are commonly used because they:

  • Can create bright, vibrant and consistent colours
  • Are colourfast
  • Can be used at low temperatures
  • Are easily available and at low prices

However, these dyes don’t biodegrade and can also cleave or split producing dangerous substances called aromatic amines. These can pollute water systems and have been linked to several health conditions including bladder and liver cancer.

While the European Union have restricted the use of azo dyes that can break down through the REACH legislation, traces of these amines have still been found in clothing.

Changing Trends

Girls in brightly dyed textiles
Synthetic dyes rule the textile dyeing industry. Photo by Clarke Sanders on Unsplash

Fashion trends change rapidly, particularly in the age of social media influence. Big brands must keep up with these rapidly changing trends. That often means releasing new colour combinations and varied shades of colour at lightning speed.

Synthetic dyes make it easy to chemically create new colours for each season, and unsustainable colouring practices allow companies to be agile and to shift between changing tastes.

Environmental impact made worse by base product

Differing from their natural counterparts, many synthetic dyes, including azo dyes, are made from coal or petroleum. As these are unsustainable and non-renewable sources, this only makes the environmental footprint of synthetic dyes even worse.

A Dye for This and a Dye for That

It’s also worth mentioning that not all dyes can be used on all products. The difference in material properties of leather compared to cotton, for example, means that different dyes must be used on different products. These dyes may be from the same dyeing class (for example, azo dyes), or differing ones.

This can lead to dyeing plants using a variety of different toxic dyes and chemicals to colour different products. The knock on effect is a bigger mix of environmental and health risks.

It is estimated that in today’s market, 735 tonnes of synthetic dyes are produced around the world every year and 10,000 different dyes and pigments are used.

Natural dyes

Although only 10% of textiles are dyed today with natural dyes, sustainable fashion brands are favouring them more and more.

Natural dyes can come from plants, for example, indigo leaf, madder root, turmeric, vegetable juice, avocado pits, beetroot or even onion skins; minerals such as clay or pigment from rocks; or animals such as crushed insects.

If you don’t like the idea of crushed insects, or any animal products for that matter, being used to colour your favourite t-shirt (who would), it’s worth looking out for vegan, PeTA approved or plant-based products or companies.

And, as pointed out in our interview with plant-based brand Plant Faced Clothing, even animal by-products can be used to clean printing screens so it really is worth checking.

Naturally dyed fabric with samples of natural dyes
Natural dyes leave minimal trace on the environment. Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

Synthetic vs Natural

Both synthetic and natural dyes come with distinct advantages and disadvantages.

Advantages of synthetic dyes:

1.  Brighter, more varied and more reliable colours

Natural dyes don’t reliably create the same bright hues that synthetic dyes are capable of creating. Synthetic dyes also have the advantage of creating a more reliable, uniform, lasting and replicable colour.

In a global fashion sector that often produces multiple copies of one design, producing products without colour variation between pieces is advantageous. 

We all love vibrantly coloured fashion and synthetic dyes provide this.

2.  More Cost-Effective

The unfortunate truth is, like with many sustainable/unsustainable products, the more harmful synthetic dyes are cheaper than their natural counterparts. For companies looking to improve profit margins, choosing cheaper dyes makes good business sense. This is particularly true in the fast fashion model, where finished products are sold for rock bottom prices.

The greater colour variation, increased vibrancy of colour, cheaper production costs and reproducibility are all key factors in synthetic dyes’ domination of the textile dyeing sector.

Disadvantages of synthetic dyes

1.  Bad for the Environment

It’s no secret that synthetic dyes are bad for the environment. While we go into the details later in the article, synthetic dyes can cause drastic environmental harm. This is especially true when textile factories release the toxic waste created into nearby rivers without any wastewater treatment.

2.  Bad for people

Synthetic dyes are also factors in a multitude of health impacts suffered by those employed in the garment dyeing industry. Health impacts can even be felt by those wearing synthetically dyed clothing.

Fabric being dyed
Health impacts are felt by the people dyeing our clothes, and even by those of us wearing them. Photo by Teona Swift from Pexels

Advantages of Natural Dyes:

1.  Fewer Health Risks 

Created from natural products, natural dyes don’t contain the same dangerous compounds that synthetically created toxic dyes in the textile industry do. This means they are less likely to cause severe health complications to workers. They are also less likely to cause allergic reactions or skin conditions such as dermatitis in wearers.

These properties make naturally dyed products particularly good for children’s clothing or for people with sensitive skin.

2.  Better for the Planet

Natural dyes aren’t made from petrochemicals so are biodegradable. They don’t create chemical waste (if used without synthetic mordants which help bind the dye to the fabric) and they are from natural, renewable sources. When it comes to the health of the planet, non-toxic, non-synthetic natural dyes have a clear advantage.

Disadvantages of natural dyes

1.  Limited Use and Fading

Natural dyes are made from natural products, often sourced from plants. This can mean that unless well-stocked, certain colours may only be available at certain times of the year.

Making this situation even trickier, naturally dyed products are often more prone to fading, so, that trendy, naturally dyed t-shirt may lose its colour over time. Natural dyes also bond best to natural fabrics so this can limit the materials they can effectively be used to dye.

2.  Can still be toxic if chemical mordants used

Natural colours and dyes may need a mordant to bind to the fabric. Mordants are substances used to set dyes to the fabric. If natural mordants, such as vinegar, are used, water from naturally dyed products is safer to release back into the environment.

However, depending on the textile manufacturing method used, harmful chemicals could still be employed at this stage, such as dissolved metal oxides which can be toxic.

The Dyeing Process 

Depending on the material, the desired pattern or effect and the cost, there are multiple different ways that products can be dyed.

The variation can also come down to the stage of production that which fibres are dyed at. In some cases, yarn is dyed, in others, a woven fabric is dyed, or production may include garment dyeing where the whole finished garment is coloured.

To dye a fibre, it is placed in or exposed to a dye bath. This is a solution containing the dye and often water and mordants to bond the colour to the fibre. Dye molecules bond to the fabric fibres. This means that both the chemical structure of the textile fibres and dyes is important to ensure effective dyeing. 

For a product to be classed as dyed rather than simply stained, the colour must not be able to be easily removed through processes such as rinsing or normal washing.  

More complex fibres may need more chemicals added to the bath to ensure that the dyes bond effectively and heat is normally added to dye baths to improve bonding and colour retention.

Dye baths containing toxic chemicals in the textile industry
Dye baths in the textile industry. Photo by elCarito on Unsplash

The process for both synthetic and naturally dyed fabrics is similar, it is the chemicals and compounds that the fabric is exposed to that differ. For naturally dyed products these are derived from nature while for synthetically dyed products, these are synthetically created compounds. 

A Water Intensive Practice

The conventional synthetic dyeing process is also water-intensive, with dye baths requiring large amounts of water.

Unless effectively treated after use, this water will contain residual dyes. It will also be left with the dangerous chemicals and compounds that are added to facilitate better dye bondage and a more efficient process.

While naturally dyeing fabrics is also a water-intensive process and often involves dye baths, these generally aren’t left containing the same toxic chemicals and compounds left by synthetic dyes, unless chemical mordants are used.

What’s the Problem?

So synthetic and chemical dyes may be reigning supreme, but what actually is the problem and what impact do toxic dyes in the textile industry have on the environments and communities that they are used in?

The Heavy Impact of Heavy Metals 

Some of the common heavy metals used to create colour pigments include lead, nickel, chromium, cadmium and copper. While these compounds may help to give our favourite outfits a unique colour, their impact on the environment and the people that make these clothes is disastrous.

When transferred to the environment, such as through wastewater dumping, these compounds can become trapped in soil and enter waterways and water supplies. Once there, these substances contaminate soil and kill plant and animal life.

On a human note, these toxic substances are known causes of cancer and toxicity that particularly impact the brain and the kidneys. Even small doses of exposure can be incredibly harmful. 

Inky Rivers, Starving Plants and Dying Fish

The most obvious environmental impacts of chemical dyes used in the textile industry are the dramatic effects these dyes have when released into waterways.

Pollution of Water Sources

The fashion industry produces 20% of the world’s wastewater and textile dyeing is the second largest source of water pollution worldwide. While we browse the shelves for colourful outfit inspirations, rivers in Bangladesh are turning black and rivers in China are turning red from water pollution.

A lot of the water pollution associated with the textile sector comes from wastewater dumping. This is when contaminated water used in production and dyeing processes is dumped back into waterways without having been properly cleaned by water treatment plants.

The act of dumping wastewater in the textile sector is rampant, and often very difficult to trace.

One report found 700 washing, dyeing and finishing factories just in Dhaka, were dumping wastewater back into rivers in the Bangladeshi capital. Dhaka factories are not alone in the practice and wastewater dumping has led to pollution in rivers from China to India to Bangladesh.

As many dyes are water-soluble, once they are in waterways, they are incredibly difficult to remove.

For more information on water pollution in the fashion industry, see our article Water pollution in the fashion industry: The shocking truth & what you can do.

Denim being dyed by toxic textile dyes
The dyeing process is incredibly water intensive. Photo by Teona Swift from Pexels

Water Usage

Not only does textile dyeing pollute waterways, it is also a thirsty process. For every tonne of fabric dyed, 200 tonnes of water is used.  On a smaller scale, for every two pounds of fabric that are coloured, 25-40 gallons of water is used.

To put this number into perspective, dyeing just two pounds (slightly under one kg) of clothing uses the same amount of water as fifty to eighty days of drinking water for one person. In a world that is already feeling the impacts of drought and water scarcity, our love of coloured clothing is demanding a steep price.

Starving Plants

As seen in the inky rivers in Bangladesh that are choking on waste from the dyeing sector, particles in polluted rivers change the colour of the water and the way that light can penetrate it. This creates a knock-on effect where plants can’t photosynthesize effectively. This can lead to plant death and impact the entire ecosystem.

Impact on Aquatic Life

It would be bad enough if the only impact that this toxic swill of wastewater had on marine life was the reduction in photosynthesis levels. However, as plants perish due to polluted water, the organisms that rely on these plants for shelter, food and water oxidisation are also in danger.

The devastating impacts of this deadly soup of chemicals don’t stop there. Toxic dyes in the textile industry are dangerous to aquatic animals. Cell damage to kidney damage has been recorded in fish and other aquatic life from exposure to textile dyes. Chemicals used in textile dyeing have been found to have carcinogenic, cytotoxic, genotoxic, and neurotoxic effects, with even small amounts of these compounds capable of inflicting severe damage.

Dying for Dye

The environment is not the only thing paying for our vibrant clothing choices. Textile workers and communities are also suffering for the world’s colourful clothing.

Cancer and Contamination

More than an inconvenient health hazard, textile dyeing is costing textile workers their lives. Exposure to the toxic dyes in the textile industry, is becoming well documented.

Synthetic dyes, such as azo dyes can cause cancer, while prolonged exposure to heavy metals such as lead can contribute to anaemia, weakness, birth defects and kidney and brain damage. On a slightly less severe level, skin and eye irritation can be caused by exposure to chemicals used in the dyeing process.

The human impacts of the textile sector are felt most keenly in Asia, one of the largest regions for textile and garment production. In many of the textile producing factories in this region, unsafe conditions are rife and workers have reported a lack of basic safety equipment such as gloves, shoes and masks.

People are quite literally dying to dye our clothes.

Dirty Water for surrounding communities

The health hazards of the textile dyeing industry aren’t restricted to those that work in the industry. Even living near a textile dyeing plant can be a potential danger to human health. As wastewater and pollution enters waterways, entire communities that rely on these waterways for irrigation, drinking, cooking and washing can be impacted.

Fevers and skin irritations are two issues that locals have reported suffering in areas where wastewater dumping occurs. Many locals have linked these issues back to dye pollution in the water that they have no choice but to use for cooking, drinking and washing.

Hazardous chemicals can also potentially enter groundwater sources, meaning even well water can become unsafe for use.

People relying on waterways and the environment for their livelihood have also been impacted. Fishermen have reported reduced catches due to the environmental impacts of textile pollution and agricultural land has been contaminated by toxic substances.

When it comes to commonly used azo dyes, 15-50% of the dye used doesn’t effectively bind to the fabric. As such, residual dyes are released back into the environment with the wastewater. This impacts soil microbial ecosystems and can inhibit plant germination and growth. Dye compounds have even been found in fruit and vegetables grown in Bangladesh where polluted water has been used to irrigate croplands.

Brightly coloured fabrics will always be popular. Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Can clothes wearers be affected too?

Not even the wearers of clothing coloured with the toxic dyes from the textile industry are safe from their harmful impacts. As chemical residue can remain in finished products, garments can be a cause of skin irritation and can aggravate allergies.

Textile dye allergies can contribute to severe eczema and dermatitis when the skin comes into contact with the chemical residue on clothing. These impacts can be even more keenly felt with clothing that is worn for prolonged periods close to the skin, or in hot conditions.

What can be done? Turning Colourful Clothing Green

For lovers of colourful clothing, this may all seem very gloomy. However, a cleaner future for a vibrant textile industry is possible. While the solutions will require cooperation at all levels, there can be a green future for fashion that includes every colour on the spectrum.

These levels include: 

Governments

On a governmental level, there need to be robust and enforced policies and environmental laws on what dyes can be used and how they should be disposed of. Some governments have already made steps to try to improve the textile sector with many azo dyes banned in the EU.

While most countries have some level of restriction or regulation in place to ban wastewater dumping and improve conditions in textile dyeing plants, these need to be better enforced to create a true impact.

Certifications

Organisations such as Bluesign and Oeko-Tex also represent part of the solution.

These organisations are forging a way forward and promoting a cleaner future for textile dyeing. They provide a framework that companies and regulators can use to create a cleaner and safer system. They certify for the end-user that clothes are safe to wear and free from toxic chemicals.

Naturally dyed colour swatches that don't contain toxic dyes
Action is starting to be taken. Photo by DESIGNECOLOGIST on Unsplash

Fashion Brands and Textile Plants 

A large part of the responsibility for creating a less toxic way of dyeing clothing also rests with fashion brands and factory owners.

Textile dyeing plants must implement technology that effectively treats wastewater and lowers the impacts of the textile dyeing process. Fashion brands must support textile manufacturers that use these processes. Textile organisations must change policies to stop dumping and polluting activities, and use non-toxic dyes.

While this may incur an initial cost, the technology does exist and many textile dyeing plants and sustainable fashion brands already use low impact, natural and well-managed dyeing processes.

Innovation in the Dyeing Process

Innovations for a greener dyeing process are emerging in the market. Good examples include:

  • DyeCoo: a technology that uses CO2 instead of water for the dyeing process, eliminating the wastewater problem,
  • ColorZen: a patented system of pre-treating cotton so that it can be dyed with reduced water, chemicals and energy.

These technologies represent the future of a cleaner sector and provide a simple solution for fashion and textile companies. Both fashion brands and textile manufacturers simply need to implement such technologies to create a more sustainable system.

Although they may not be common, there are also companies using natural dyes for products instead of the synthetic, toxic dyes common in textile manufacturing. As long as synthetic mordants are not used, natural dyes represent a much more eco-friendly option.  

Consumers 

As always, in the fashion sector, money talks. The fashion brands that we, as consumers, choose to buy from communicates to the industry what practices we are willing to stand for.

The more we support brands that are supporting sustainable dyeing plants, using eco-friendly dyes and that are creating and implementing sustainable technologies and safe practices, the more reach these brands will have.

The more we support ethical fashion brands, the more they will prosper and the more other brands will follow in their footsteps to create a greener sector.

The power for creating the future we want with the fashion sector is within our hands and our wallets. We need to support the brands that are helping to build this future.

A Colourful Sector

A core part of fashion has always been expression, and colourful clothing plays a core part in how we express ourselves. 

The use of toxic dyes in the textile industry must stop for the health of the planet and the people that make and wear these clothes. We should always be able to enjoy vibrant clothing in every colour of the rainbow. From natural dyes to new technologies, there are solutions to make colourful dyes part of a sustainable future.

After all, a green future should include every colour of the rainbow.

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