How do plant based dyes make fashion more sustainable?
The fashion industry is a big contributor to the state of our environment. Whether it’s through carbon emissions or textile waste, there are a variety of avenues production itself leaves a negative mark on our Earth.
Today, we wanted to particularly look at dyeing, how it affects various ecosystems, as well as how it is a solution that could do a great amount of good if implemented more often by fashion brands.
What are the facts?
There are a range of dyes conventionally used within fashion. What most of them have in common though are that they are often synthetic or chemical dyes. Although, historically, dyes used to be derived from natural sources, to meet consumer demand that has only increased in the decades and centuries gone by, the fashion industry currently relies on methods that are faster and yield more vivid colour results.
As such, generally, fabrics are often dyed like so:
“Acrylic fibers are dyed with basic dyes, while nylon and protein fibers such as wool and silk are dyed with acid dyes, and polyester yarn is dyed with disperse dyes. Cotton is dyed with a range of dye types, including vat dyes, and modern synthetic reactive and direct dyes.” - wikipedia.org
You can learn more about each dye type here.
Why is this a problem?
According to a UNEP article, “Textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally” due to weak regulation and unsustainable systems that are currently in place. Moreover, due to the toxic nature of the dyes, this jeopardises the health of the ecosystems that they are put in as well as the communities living around it.
For example, as stated by Fashion Revolution when regarding the impact of azoic dyes, another popular synthetic type used in textiles, “They are popular because they can be used at lower temperatures than Azo-free alternatives, and achieve more vivid depths of colour. But some are listed as carcinogens, and under certain conditions, the particles of these dyes can cleave (producing potentially dangerous substances known as aromatic amines). Upon contact with the skin, these can be harmful to humans and pollute water systems.”
According to a CNN article, Bangladesh, home to the world’s second largest garment manufacturing hub, experiences toxic wastewater being dumped into natural water bodies like rivers and streams regularly - “The discharge is often a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts and heavy metals that not only hurt the environment, but pollute essential drinking water sources.”
It’s safe to say that the direct impact of such a practice weighs heavily on our planet and people.
What is the solution?
Sustainable clothing encompasses many different methods, it’s all about considering each stage, and natural dyeing would play a huge part in changing the fashion landscape into something far more mindful. And so, since staying away from dyes completely is not a solution that would be easy to come to, reverting back to a more traditional, organic way of crafting may do a great deal of good. Like mentioned before, originally, garments were dyed using natural ingredients, ingredients that are both renewable and much safer for everyone.
Some advantages of natural dyes include:
- Being safer for sensitive skin.
- Some have beneficial natural characteristics like being hypoallergenic or antimicrobial (fun fact: It was found “that sandalwood extract prevents the development of skin tumours and has antiviral activity against herpes simplex” - fibrebio.com).
- Natural ingredients are biodegradable.
- Natural dyeing is mainly honed by artisans which would help revitalise and support these communities as well as help us move away from utilising heavy machinery in every production aspect.
- In saying that, the ingredients are also much safer for workers to use, which would promote a much more ethical standard.
We can’t speak for how natural dyeing is conducted in every workshop that exists, however, we would like to use our own methods as an example of what the typical process can look like.
We work with an ethical herbal dye partner called BioDye who explain their method here in short:
- “RFD cotton yarn is washed with non-toxic biodegradable detergent and then mordanted with alum and tannin.”
- “The mordanted yarn is then rinsed and treated with an inorganic, non-toxic, levelling agent and then immersed in a hot dye bath containing dye extract (water extract of leaves/ Indian madder/ lac/ Cutch). The dyed yarn is rinsed and thereafter washed in hot detergent, rinsed with water and then dried. To get darker shades the process is repeated.”
- “The waste-water from all of the above steps are mixed, pH adjusted with lime and the precipitated material is settled. The insoluble vegetal matter and sludge are composed and used as manure. The top clarified water is aerated in a bioreactor to remove biodegradable material.”
- “After the biodegradable contents are consumed by the microbes, the water is filtered and used for irrigation. The smoke from the stoves is treated to remove particulate matter prior to releasing it into the atmosphere.”
Other ways in which they stay sustainable:
- “We mainly use shrubs as source of dye-yielding leaves. As they provide an income source for the land holders, they are not cut for fuel. The flowers provide nectar for insects, and fruits provide food for birds and bats, the birds roost on their branches.”
- “For the past 14 years we have used the treated water to irrigate our fruit trees, and have used the sludge as manure. The trees are growing well and the fruit yield has increased. This non-polluting and manurial character of our effluent is the biggest benefit.”
Natural dyeing is certainly something we will be implementing more and more in our craft as we grow. It’s a great way to directly lessen our own negative impact as well as provide better, safer clothing to you, our community.
We hope this gave you some insight and we hope you continue choosing consciously.