FASHION UNZIPPED SERIES
Learn more about your clothes, how they obtain their colour and what this means for you and the planet.
URBAG dives into the world of colours to explore the environmental impacts of dyes used in fashion and what can be done to reduce their effects.
Adding colour, what's the problem with that?
Society is addicted to colour. It is a catalyst for sales in the fashion industry as people don't just think of how an item of clothing fits or its durability. They think about how it makes them feel and look.
Fashion is an aesthetically driven industry, and its environmental impacts are far-reaching and long-term. Too often, the environmental effects of fashion focus on overproduction, CO2 emissions and waste.
There is a failure to reveal the significant environmental impacts of the fashion colouring processes. The dyes used in fashion, particularly in fabric dyeing, can substantially affect the environment, from water pollution to the depletion of finite resources.
Dyeing unzipped: the cold truth
Here is a quick glance at the damage that adding a little extra colour to our lives can cause.
1- Fashion is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution.
2- The fashion industry uses around 93 billion cubic meters (21 trillion gallons) of water annually, enough to fill 37 million Olympic swimming pools, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
3- According to the United Nations, producing a single pair of jeans consumes around 7,500 litres (2,000 gallons) of water, from growing raw cotton to the finished product.
4- World Bank has identified 72 toxic dyes that stem solely from textile dyeing.
Old process, a new method
Dyes are a familiar invention. Fruits, vegetables, flowers, leaves, roots. Their existence, the colour extraction process and art of dyeing have been known by humankind since ancient times. It was only within the 19th century that the manufacturing process started to change.
This change involved the introduction of synthetic dyes, which are created in a laboratory setting or through the combination of different chemicals. Synthetic dyes are precious and used in many industries, such as paper printing, food and pharmaceuticals.
Yet it is undisputed that the primary consumer of these dyes is the textile industry, and the impact of the production and use of these dyes is shocking. Greenpeace states that the dyeing process harms humans, the sea and the wider environment.
Where do we begin?
Let's start with unzipping the truth about "Azo dyes", a typical textile dye that accounts for 60 to 70% of all dyes in the industry. Despite their popularity for the poppy reds they produce, they leave a mark in the wrong way.
In recent research, it has been discovered that when azo dyes break down and are metabolised, they are carcinogenic. Long-term exposure to azo dyes has been linked to an increased risk of cancer and a higher risk of reproductive and developmental problems. But that is not it. The chemicals released upon its use do not dissipate but remain in the air we breathe. This can result in respiratory conditions, allergic reactions, skin conditions and rashes.
Out of sight, out of mind? Not for us
Society likes convenience, and the fashion industry is no exception. Once factories have completed the high water and energy-intensive dyeing process, they need somewhere to dispose of the unusable contaminated wastewater. The easiest way is by pumping it out into nearby lakes and rivers. This discharge of millions of gallons of hazardous toxic waste into nearby water sources will inevitably have severe environmental consequences.
One consequence is the sheer volume of compounds added to the water, such as the colours and oily scum from the dyeing process. These additives make the water murky and produce a foul smell. The opacity of the water, apart from damaging the place's aesthetics, also affects the growth of any aquatic life. The murky water prevents sunlight penetration, which is needed for vegetation to grow.
Another consequence is the wastewater that flows into the drains surrounding factories entering marine food chains, building up their concentrations until they reach toxic levels. Clothes are, therefore, poisoning not only our waterways but also our oceans. New studies have found microfibres, tiny shreds from fabric on the shorelines where wastewater has been released.
Who is to blame?
Do people acknowledge the damage dyeing does? It appears not as textile manufacturing factories produce and use dyes in harmful ways due to a severe lack of regulations. This is particularly true in countries like India, China and Bangladesh. Where their production for their work and the environment is weak. The lack of protection and legislation is inadequate because it enables apparel companies to produce their clothes, shoes and the rest of their product lines as cheaply as possible.
2- Apparel companies
The disregard for environmental and health protection is, therefore, no accident. Fashion brands are well aware of their actions, yet continue with a business as normal attitude. This reveals that their profit-led mindsets are the ones to blame. Fashion brands must consider the long-term consequences of their choices when selecting materials and dyes for their fashion items.
Not one item of clothing is the most detrimental. This must mean that it is not the clothes but us. Our desire for colour results in an estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals used to bleach, clean and dye our clothes.
Our demand for colour determines and influences the industry, driving synthetic dyes all just for one pretty colour that might be worn for a day or two. So, when you see those gorgeous florals, pastels and patterned prints come out during Spring, we urge you to think again – why not try something soft on the eye and soft on the environment?
Shop Fashion Brands that use natural dyes
Natural dyes is new to the fashion market but we have started to see emerging brands in Europe and in the USA
Did we spark your interest?
If you want to get involved or learn more, read, watch, and take action. Here are a few options to further examine colour in a new light.
- A study by Rita Kant from the University Institute of Fashion Technology on the impact of the textile industry. Read more here.
- Best second-hand clothes shops for finding hidden treasures. Read more here.
Rodger Williams – RiverBlue – a documentary that exposes the fashion industry's effect on freshwater. Watch here
BBC Documentary: The Price of Fast Fashion Documentary
DW Documentary: Fast fashion - The shady world of cheap clothing