The subject of dyes is little discussed when considering sustainability in fashion. We are more inclined to take into account the organic culture of fibers, transformation processes, circular economy or working conditions of garment workers. As a result, not many brands are interested in clearly indentifying dyeing processes on their clothes or websites. It doesn’t seem to be one of the most interesting subject for the public, and yet it should be.
There are no legal requirements to indentify the dyeing processes on the garment label, as it’s the case for fiber composition and country of manufacture1. But this step is crucial. It’s increasingly pointed out as a great source of pollution not only when the garment is dyed at the factory, but also when washed in our domestic washing machines then poured out into our water treatment plants or septic tanks not well enough equipped2 to handle these products.
The complexity of the issue is the main obstacle to the understanding of the problem and the awareness of the public. There are many different dyeing processes 3 (reactive, acidic, dispersed, vat, …). In addition, some products may or may not be used in dyeing: mordants (quality and durability of coloring, colour fastness, usually heavy metals), wetting and dispersing agents (to help disperse and improve speed of the process). A highly chemical cocktail that can be difficult to understand.
A bit of history
Like many facets of the textile industry, synthetic dyes are a relatively new phenomenon. They were invented by mistake in the middle of the 19th century when a chemist created a purple dye from coal tar4. Synthetic dyes took over the market almost instantly in the late 19th century5. Those were cheaper and more efficient than their alternative dyes made from plants or natural products.
What is a synthetic dye?
It is important to understand that a textile dye is a synthetic element derived from petroleum products. Although ideologically, it isn’t ideal to use products that come from the petrochemical industry, this doesn’t seem to be the biggest problem related to dyes. Other products used in the dyeing process (mordant or wetting agent) are toxic and should be what we need to worry about. Paradoxically, toxic mordants can be used for natural dyes.
1. PLANT WASTEWATER
The most visually striking and often the most reported problem is the discharge of untreated (or even treated) wastewater from dyeing plants. It’s released directly into the environment and contaminates drinking water sources that humans and animals depend on. In most developed countries, laws are in place to regulate the treatment of effluents. On the other hand, this is not the case for most developing countries, which are now the largest clothing manufacturers.
In Canada, ecologists have worked with our elected officials to put in place the Canadian Environmental Protection Act6, voted almost 20 years ago in 1999. A well-identified subject in this legislation was the Effluents from textile factories2. In other words: water that is rejected from textile dyeing plants.
In short, several studies were conducted to conclude that water discharged by textile mills was toxic even if these waters were either treated in the plant and / or discharged into a water treatment system. There were still toxic residues after the treatment.
So we voted to force the textile mills to take tests, treat their wastewater and comply to not using a list of products7 considered toxic. Included on this list are Nonylphenol and its ethoxylates (Wetting agent better known as NPEs), Benzidine and benzidine dihydrochloride (known carcinogen), Formaldeyde, Benzene, Toluene diisocyanates, bis (2-ethylhexyl) phthalate ). Mordants that contain heavy metals: Mercury, lead, chromium compounds, Inorganic cadmium compounds, Oxygenated, sulphidic and soluble inorganic nickel compounds.
Admittedly, it was a good job by our legislative system. Since the early 2000s, textile dyeing plants have been closely regulated and there is less to fear from water effluents in Canada. Annual reports on CEPA8 are available online. But did you know that the implementation of this law coincided with the massive outsource of clothing manufacturers to China and developing countries. Of the 145 textile dyeing plants operated in Canada in 19992 (58% of which were in Quebec), a handful9 remains.
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2. CONTAMINATION BY DOMESTIC WASH
The problem persists because the majority of clothing sold in Canada is made (and dyed) in countries that do not have regulations like ours. So, not only do these textile dyeing plants release toxic water in the environment (which is now far from us, but that does not mean we shouldn’t worry about it), but we are still directly affected by these toxic products which are transported to us on the garments. When those are washed in our domestic machines, either dye particles that have not completely reacted or mordant (heavy metals) or NPEs are released in our septic tanks and in our water treatment plants.
Our water treatment plants still are not able to completely eliminate NPEs, that has not changed. And even if it did, the mud waste from these factories is to be buried somewhere.
As long as there are no rules for identifying dyeing processes on clothing composition labels. It will be impossible to prevent the importation of garments carrying toxic residues.
3. ABSORPTION THROUGH THE SKIN
It goes without saying that if toxic residues are on the clothes we wear, those are necessarily absorbed by the skin and go directly into our bodies. Residues are no longer on the garment after a few washes (they have been transferred to our water treatment systems). But who wants to take this risk? Yet, we do it because we just don’t know.
When talking about eco-friendly dyeing, there is no quick fix. Even dyes based on natural dyes can be used with mordants that contain heavy metals10. Today, natural dyes are not offered by industrial suppliers. One can dye some pieces of clothing with natural dyes personally, but to dye 500 meters fabric rolls, no one offers a natural alternative. At the industrial level, the best one can do is to used low environmental impact reactive dyes and focus on avoiding the heavy metals mordant and NPEs. But still, it’s synthetic dyes.
In our research we found only one company, in Canada, that offers handmade scarves that use with a natural dye: Infuse
And I know of only one company who use natural clay based dyes on a fair proportion their clothing. It’s Earth Creation based in Bessemer, Alabama, USA.
Maybe this will be something that Respecterre will be developed in the future.
It is good to highlight the problems, but what can we do to act now for our health for all and environment? Here are 3 thing you can do to avoid toxic products in your clothes.
1. DYED LOCALLY
As discussed above, with the Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (S.C. 1999, c.33)6, we can be confident that a garment dyed in Canada contains no toxic residue. Many countries in Europe, the United States and other developped countries have similar regulations.
It not easy to know if your garment has been dyed locally, as it’s not a requirement of the Competition Bureau1 to have dyeing information on labels. Take the time to ask brands. If companies see that there is a growing interest to get more information on dyes, they will be more interested in displaying this kind of information.
Something that is knitted in Canada has more chance of being dyed in Canada. Most of the time dyeing happens once the fabric is fully knitted or woven. Avoid products made abroad. It is necessarily dyed abroad. Be careful, “Made in Canada” does not automatically mean “Dyed in Canada”.
2. THE STANDARD 100 BY OEKO-TEX®
The OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 10011 is an independent system created in Switzerland in 1992 which tests for harmful substances in textile products. Several laboratories around the world are part of this association can test the products to certify them without danger to health. Their list of harmful substances12 is very comprehensive. It tests for: mordants of heavy metals (Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, Chromium, Cobalt, Copper, Nickel, Mercury), Phthalates, Benzenes and Chlorinated Tuolenes, Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs), Nonylphenol (NPEs) and several other harmful products.
Either a finished garment can be certified OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100 (there will be a label if this is the case). Or, a fabric (or any other trim, button, zipper, etc) can be certified OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100. Currently, not many products are certified by OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100. Encourage your favorite brands to have their clothes tested for certification that they do not contain any toxic products!
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3. NO DYE
Colours named “natural” are most often the original colour of the fiber and have not been dyed. It looks like an off white or light brown depending on the type of fiber. By getting this natural colour, there won’t be any toxic substance related to dyes for sure.
4. SECOND HAND
As with many environmental problems related to fashion, buying second-hand clothes is one of the best ecological and economical solutions. It’s also the case to avoid toxic dyes. Any kind of residues were removed as the garment was washed many times during its first life. In addition we reduce the volume of clothing destined for the landfill. And all that for an unbeatable price.
In closing what has certainly been the article that has required the most research on this blog, it is obvious that the subject of dyeing is complex and that the vast majority of consumers do not understand the full extent of the it. There is no simple and universal solution, but one way to make sure that the products you buy do not contain toxic redidues is to ask the company where the clothes are dyed and if it has been tested for the OEKO-TEX® STANDARD 100. Buy natural no dye colour. Never forget that if the client is interested in these topics, brands will follow suit.
Other technologies exist for a near future. Like this machine which can dye without using water or toxic chemicals… It only dyes polyester though. If you’ve read our article “Plastic Clothing Causes Microplastic Pollution”, you know what our opinion on polyester is. But, do not believe that the need for polyester will not go from 30 million tons a year to 0 overnight. Can this kind of technology help minimize the damage?
Written by Ugo Dutil :
I grew up in the ecovillage Cite Ecologique. I like this way of life that values human relationships, sustainable development and personal growth. I’ve been working with Respecterre since 2013. Minimalism, #slowfashion and moving towards sustainability, especially in textiles, fascinate me.
1. Canada’s Guide to the Textile Labelling and Advertising Regulation
2. Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 – Effluents des usines de textile (FRENCH)
3. Different dyeing processes
4. A History Of The International Dyestuff Industry
5. The Birth of (Synthetic) Dyeing
6. Canadian Environmental Protection Act, 1999 (L.C. 1999, ch. 33)
7. List of toxic substances managed under CEPA
8. Archived annual reports CEPA
9. Active dyers in 2009
10. Toxic mordant can be used with natural dyes
11. STANDARD 100 by OEKO-TEX®
12. List of harmful substances Standard 100 Oeko-tex
13. GLOBAL ORGANIC TEXTILE STANDARD
14. Greenpeace Dirty Laundry 12 pages
15. Wikipedia Nonylphenol
16. Greenpeace Fashion at the Crossroad
17. Greenpeace A Little Story about a Fashionable Lie
18. We Have No Idea How Bad Fashion Actually Is for the Environment
19. NPEs (nonylphenol ethoxylates)
20. Nonylphenol (NP) and Nonylphenol Ethoxylates (NPEs) Action Plan
21. Risk Management Approach for Acetamide, Disperse Yellow 3
22. Disperse Yellow 3
23. Why natural dyes?
24. Health & Environmental Hazards of Synthetic Dyes
25. Ajax Textile Dyer
26. Wikipedia Oeko-Tex Standard 100
27. Detox Outdoor (PFCs)
28. Detox Campaigns