Should the Fashion Industry be Using Natural Dyes Instead of Chemical Dyes?

You may be aware of the harmful chemical dyes used by much of the fashion industry, the affect they can have on the human body and the environment. According to Cambridge University’s Well Dressed Report, “During the dyeing process, an average t-shirt will use 16-20 litres of water. 80% of the dye is retained by the fabric and the rest is flushed out … The global textile industry discharges 40,000 – 50,000 tons of dye into the water system.” So even though less of these chemicals are directly coming into contact with human skin, they are polluting our environment and returning to humans anyway.

In a 2014 study on Effects of Textile Materials Harmful to Human Health by the International Conference on Computational and Experimental Science and Engineering, it was found that chemical textile dyes can cause:

  • Cancer from long term exposure to AZO dyes
  • Dermatitis as an allergic reaction from being in contact with the textile
  • Dermatitis as an allergic reaction to the adhesive property Epoxy resins (which actually occurs to 50% of people who come into immediate contact with the chemical)
  • Dermatitis as an allergic reaction to fibre additives to create flame retardants

The study also concluded that:

  • “Fabric production and materials and chemicals, used for production of fabric, cause deterioration of ecological balance”
  • “Textile industry is one of the most water consuming, chemicals-consuming and energy-consuming industries”
  • “Dyeing of textiles requires high amounts of water”

So what should the fashion industry be using instead of these harmful chemical dyes?

Natural dyes are a clear alternative. Common natural dyes include: indigo, cutch, weld, madder and cochineal. Many plant based natural dyes can also require large amounts of water and land to grow. Many require chemical fixing agents to prevent fading. However the waste water from indigo, for example, can actually be reused to water and provide nutrients to plants and crops.

Another effective alternative could be to use low-impact dyes. Although they are synthetic, low-impact dyes to not contain heavy metals or toxic chemicals. Low impact dyes have higher absorption rates and therefore require less water. They also do not require chemical fixing agents as they manage to maintain their colour. Low-impact dyes are consequently classified as eco-friendly by the international certification system, Oeko-Tex Standard 100. The certification allows consumers to be certain that what they are wearing is eco-friendly and safe from harmful chemicals.

Commonly, fashionable items that have been dyed naturally are subsequently rather expensive. Why is this? The process is not as common, of course, and demand is low in comparison to the booming fast fashion consumerist industry. But imagine if all people were aware of the harmful effects of chemical dyes and the fashion industry took more responsibility for that. Imagine if the fashion industry put more research into sustainable dyes that have a more ethical outlay on humans and our planet.


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