Just exactly how bad are fabric dyes on the environment?
This blog looks into the impact of fabric dyes on the environment, type of dyes and what ethical fashion brands are using to dye clothing.
Ethical fashion brands are finding more sustainable alternatives to fast fashion dyeing, but the process of dyeing fabrics still has a huge detrimental effect on our environment. We’re going to look into dyes you want to avoid and the brands you should look at when buying more eco-friendly clothes.
Photo by Alexander Schimmeck on Unsplash
Dyeing fabrics sustainably doesn’t seem easy in a world where there are a large number of fast fashion brands. The dyeing process of these brands has contributed to water pollution with some streams in China turning pink and other colours due to trends such as tie-dye being in high demand.
The dyes used on synthetic materials such as polyester can pose serious health risks to both the workers making the clothes and the environment. Around 6-9 trillion litres of water are used every year to dye and wash fabrics, along with a large number of other harmful chemicals. Disposing of wastewater is often unregulated in the textile industry, leading to this waste often being discarded in the environment.
Some of the nasty chemicals used in textile dyeing include:
- AZO DYES
Azo dyes are low-cost, commonly used dyes made up of synthetic nitrogen. The chemicals in azo dyes can be carcinogenic, which can potentially cause cancer and other respiratory issues after continuous exposure. They are banned in European countries but are still commonly used in countries such as China and India.
This resin compound is used to make clothes stain-resistant and to prevent wrinkles in the fabric. This chemical is classified as a carcinogen and wearing clothing with it can cause contact dermatitis. Brands such as Patagonia have boycotted formaldehyde, preferring to have a product that may wrinkle as it is safer for both consumers and the environment.
PFAS are also chemicals to avoid. This chemical is used to make clothes water-resistant and is commonly found in products like hiking boots and raincoats. PFAS are often referred to as ‘forever chemicals’ due to them not breaking down in the environment, which has led to them being found in soil and some waterways. PFAS can also cause respiratory and hormone issues for workers and people may be exposed to them by drinking contaminated water or consuming contaminated food.
Are there eco-friendly dyes?
Many fashion brands, particularly those with a sustainability focus, are starting to use more "eco-friendly" dyes such as low impact dyes or natural dyes. While these are definitely a set up from the nasty chemicals listed above, it is important to realise that these can still negatively impact the environment.
Low impact dyes are typically free from toxic chemicals and mordants, need less rinsing and have higher dye absorption rates, which mean less waste water. However, low impact dyes such as fibre-reactive dyes can still require very high salt concentrations, surfactants and defoamers, which all require appropriate waste water treatment.
While there are exceptions, many Natural dyes are not considered low-impact as some require very high concentrations of dye to be used. Natural dyes also still require mordants to fix the dye, some of which may not be eco-friendly. Large quantities of water may also be required for the dyeing process.
If a brand has GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standards) certification you can be assured that their clothing meets a high environmental standard. Details of GOTS certification can be found here.
While there have been advances in the dyeing process, the best way to minimise the environmental impact is to change our behaviours. Buy clothes from sustainable brands, buy only the clothes you need and wear them until they physically need replacing (not just because a fashion house says so). Check out our blog on Curating an Earth Friendly Wardrobe for more information.
BRANDS THAT AREN'T SUSTAINABLE
Photo by the blowup on Unsplash
Fast Fashion brands that use some of these harmful dyes include Shein and H&M.
Shein is a low-cost brand that mass produces trendy pieces, which encourages people to overconsume. The brand has inconsistent sizing and photos on the website are different to the actual product. This can result in clothing ending up in landfill as people are not getting the item they expected.
Many fast fashion brands use greenwashing tactics to seem like they are taking a sustainable approach but in reality aren't (or at least not to a meaningful level). H&M also sells a Conscious Collection that seems sustainable at first, but they use cotton blended with other fabrics that cannot be recycled. They offer a recycling program that promotes returning clothes in exchange for a 15% discount to encourage people to purchase more.
Designer brands can also be just as bad as fast fashion as the high pricing does not necessarily mean their clothing was ethically or sustainably made. Some fashion houses burn goods to stop items being stolen or sold cheaply so that it keeps their prices high, and their items remain exclusive. Even some of the luxurious brands that manufacture in Italy fail to provide eco-friendly clothing or adequate rights for workers. The worst thing about some of these companies is that they are owned by some of the richest people in the world, yet they choose not to pay their workers a livable wage.
Other factors to take note of:
- Many factory workers are exploited, working un unsafe conditions
- Excess production and waste
- 85% of clothing ends up in landfills
- One of the top contributors to human trafficking
- 60% of their clothes are made from plastics
- Child labor and forced labor
- Livable wages aren’t paid
- Brands such as Zara manufacture 850 million fashion items each year
To check how your favourite fashion brand stacks up in relation to their treatment of workers, animals and the environment head to https://directory.goodonyou.eco/
Despite the number of fast fashion brands, brands such as Outland Denim and Girlfriend Collective are entering the market to appeal to consumers who wish to shop sustainably.
Jeans are a common staple in most wardrobes but they are unfortunately one of the biggest contributors to pollution in the world of fast fashion. It takes about 6000 litres of water to make one pair of jeans from cotton and chemicals like potassium, permanganate and copper are used in the production process. Outland Denim is an Australian brand that has come up with sustainable methods of producing high-quality denim. They are a Certified B corporation that uses state of the art methods such as Ozone, Laser and E-Flow. Outland Denim are also extremely transparent about the workers who make the clothes. They pay the workers livable wages and offer employment and training opportunities for women who have been exploited due to human trafficking in Cambodia.
- Organic Cotton (GOTS)
- Low impact vegetable dyes used in every product
- No bleaching agents as they use O-Zone, which is the most eco-friendly agent on the market.
- Laser is used to distress and fade denim (no water is used in this process)
- They minimise water usage by using an E-Flow technology that dispenses the exact amount of water needed
- OEKO-TEX ® certified
Activewear is also another clothing category that contributes to waste. They are made from synthetic fibres such as spandex, polyester, acrylic and nylon and are heavily reliant on these materials. These fabrics release microplastics when washed, leading to them ending up in our oceans and rivers. PFAS are a chemical finish used to make activewear sweat-resistant and anti-microbial.
Girlfriend Collective is a US-based brand that uses post-consumer waste that would otherwise end up in landfill to make some of their clothing pieces. Their leggings and sports bras are high quality and made using recycled post-consumer plastic water bottles. They are also both gender and size-inclusive, stocking sizes ranging from XXS to 6XL. All of their product shoots feature a diverse range of people.
- Hand-dyed with solid colours
- Oeko-Tex certified
- Wastewater is sent to a water treatment plant close by to their factory.
- Water bottles are sourced from Taiwan
- Dyes and stray fibres are separated from the waste water. Once tested by the EPA in Taiwan they are then released.
- They recommend washing their apparel in a microfiber capture bag, such as Guppyfriend washing bag, which catches microfibers or using a microfiber filter that attaches to your washing machine to trap little micro plastics (they sell an affordable version on their website)
- SA8000 certified factory in Vietnam
- BPA free
- Dye mud doesn't end up in landfill it sent to pavement facilities and is recycled to make better sidewalks for local communities
- Take-back program: Leggings at their end of their lifecycle can be returned to recycle into new leggings
Harvest and Mill
Ethical brands are also looking at ways to show colour in clothing without the use of any dye. One of these brands is Harvest and Mill who grow organic cotton that is spun, sewn and designed in San Francisco. Their new range of casual wear clothing is both free of both bleach and dye, using organic Heirloom cotton that naturally turn brown, red or green. Creating clothing that is 100% dye-free decreases water consumption and energy use.
- Carbon neutral
- Low-carbon supply chains
- Non-toxic dyes or 100% no dye or bleach
- Cruelty-free- PETA approved no animal product
- Most of their clothing is made using natural colour and organic heirloom cotton that are entirely dye-free and bleach-free
- Heirloom cotton uses less water and energy as it doesn’t require dying
- Great for sensitive skin or those with allergies
- Vegan certified by PETA
- Textile patterns are designed for minimal textile waste. Offcuts are simply repurposed, recycled or donated
- Supporting USA organic cotton farmers
- Work directly with their local supply chain
- Work with Natural dye artists
- Free from harmful chemicals such as azo dyes, heavy metals, formaldehyde and phthalates
The natural dyes in their products are locally sourced and grown on farms by dye artists. This provides more work for artisans and offers a better alternative to Azo dyes. Harvest and Mill have a slow fashion approach and use traditional dyes like clay and indigo dyes. Once they have finished with the dyes, they are recycled into fertilisers that are used in the fields where the indigo used is grown. The dyes used for black garments are Oeko-Tex certified and are the best low impact option.
Other ways you can help reduce the impact of textile dyes
Besides shopping with ethical brands other ways to be more sustainable is thrifting which is not only great for saving but limiting your environmental impact. Just another friendly reminder that you don’t need to buy from sustainable brands to participate in a sustainable fashion. Here at Scrubba we advocate for shopping used first, shopping from your closet or swapping with friends and family.
We are continually committed to environmentally-friendly lifestyles for a cleaner future. This is why we are excited to announce our greenest Scrubba yet, the Scrubba wash bag Untouched. The original wash bag launched in 2012 and has provided a convenient way for every traveller to pack less clothes and wash them anywhere without using any electricity. The 240,000 Scrubba wash bags being used around the world save up to 226 million litres of water and 1797 tonnes of carbon each year. Our newest bag is undyed and unbleached for a cleaner future.
Find out more about the Scrubba wash bag Untouched here!
If you are interested in discovering more about our favourite travel-based sustainable brands or our sources of information, please follow our links below: