I don’t wear colours. So much so that a couple of years ago when I put on a really bright pink V-neck sweater for a coffee date with the girls one of them said ”Wow, you are very colourful, is there something wrong?” However I do wear a lot of black and despite what some may say, that is still a colour and like everything else in fashion, it comes at a cost.
To get a certain colour natural or synthetic fibers have to be dyed which is normally done in a special solution containing dyes and particular chemical material. After dyeing, dye molecules have uncut chemical bond with fiber molecules.
Researching about fabric dyes is like opening Pandora’s box. Textiles have one of the largest waterfootprint on the Planet and dyeing is an especially big problem. The process is done at dyeing houses in India, China, Bangladesh using and exhausing the often already scarce local water supplies. Then dumping the untreated toxic wastewater into the streams. Apart from the toxicity of the dyes themselves they change the absorbtion and reflection of the sunlight which dimishes the photosythetic activity of the algea. The lack of algea then affect the whole food chain. To make things worse some of these toxins can build up in the food change and end up in the food that we eat, while others are washed out by ourselves in the washing machine may end up in the drinking water. During the dyeing process an average T-shirt will use up 16-20 litres of water, so the global textile industry releases 40 000- 50 000 tons of dye into the water system per year.
The legistlation regarding the limits of such toxins released in the water is often ineffective and not universal. Each country has a different system. In the United States, Canada, Australia and the European Union there are limits that must be complied with but in countries where the wast majority of the production takes place like Malaysia, India and Pakistan limitation are recommended but not mandatory.
Our skin is the largest organ of our body and clothing comes into prolonged direct contact with it so toxic chemicals are often absorbed into the skin, especially during perspiration. Textile dyes can cause an array of significant health effects from irritation and allergies to an increase in tumours and respiratory diseases. To produce colours that are normally non-existent in nature, manufacturers use an array of chemicals such as:
- Alkylphenol Ethoxylates or APEOs: These are used in the final stage of the production process for coating and waterproofing. A study done by Greenpeace in 2012 found these compounds in many popular brands and that this chemical is linked to reproductive health issues like reduced sperm count and early termination of pregnancy. Is also tends to build up in living organisms and able to move up the food chain to eventually end up on our plate.
- Aniline or AZO dyes: These are highly flammable deadly poisons that are considered to be carcinogens. Many used to produce the colour red and as red is a primary colour it is used in about 60-70% of dyes.
- Dioxin: One of the strongest poisons that man can produce. It is found as a residue of the pesticides used to grow cotton. It may cause liver and lung cancer and mess with the immune system.
- Formaldehyde: It is used to make clothes more stain resistant and to look new and fresh when they arrive to the store after a long time in transit. It may cause cancer, damage in the nervous system and mess with the DNA structure.
- Toxic heavy metals: Like chrome, copper and zinc in large amounts have a negative effect on the health yet they are widely used ion synthetic dyes.
The solution is largely dependent on industry practices. There are dyeing methods that can reduce the amount of water needed by 95% by using air, heat and pressure but investing in these technologies are very costly and would mean that the cost of a garment would increase of which fast fashion companies and their customers are very sensitive.
You may think now, OK great , another thing that will cause me some severe sickness and destroy the Planet. Before you leave the page in dismay that our world is doomed, there are a couple of things we can do:
9 tips to decrease the negative effects of dyes:
- Choosing safe materials and natural dyes. Organic manufactures are investigating ways to treat their clothes with dyes made from organic materials and bacteria, rather than chemical treatments. These treatments are both more safe for the environment and for the workers. Natural dyes are made from plant and animal sources, such as indigo, cutch, weld, madder and cochineal, but also require exorbitant amounts of water usage. They are perfect to be made at an artisanal level, which would promote smaller businesses. By buying clothes dyed with natural fabrics you will be supporting the natural dying processes and soon hopefully natural dyes will be as abundant, or more, than synthetic dyes.
- Look for logos. There are certifications available that indicate safe dyes such as the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOATS)
This lable certifies that the cotton and wools is free from pesticides and herbicides, GMOs, NPEs and was dyed without harmful chemicals. This sounds great but to be honest I’ve never seen it on clothes that I came in contact with in a retail store. On their website it is possible the search the companies that are certified but they are mainly producers so not retail brands.
- Wash them before wearing. Always wash your new clothes before wearing them! This way you are able to elliminate at least some of the chemicals that are used to make the garment look better on the hanger and survive the shipping in good condition.
- Buy vintage – Old clothes tend to be less toxic.
- Avoid extras: Extra chemicals are used to make a clothing, wrinkle free, water-resistant, moth proof, stain resistant etc. Certain buzzwords make toxic textiles easy to spot—for example, “permanent press,” “durable press,” “easy care”, and “wash and wear.”
- Until the industry figures out a cost-effective way to reduce water consumption: Buy less stuff. (I know its starting to get old but it is the most effective solution to reduce our footprint.)
- Wash less. Washing your clothes less often will elongate the life of its colour, reduce water and energy use and save you time and money.
- Line/air dry. This one doesn’t concern the colour of the garment as much as a general a environmentalist tip. Dryers use an insane amount of energy and money. Hang your clothes to dry in the summer especially whites as the detergents that used during the washing have compounds that activate for sunlight to make them appear whiter. There you go, bleach without the bleach.
- Go lighter – when buying jeans the darker the colour the more dye hence chemicals were used to create it. However this is a tricky one because if the fabric is distressed or stone washed an immense amount of water was used for that too.
- Wearing white – It is true that by wearing white you can elliminate the harmful effects of dyes but they are still treated with chlorine or some other bleach to make them sparkling.
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