In recent years, the harmful effects of the textile industry have been slowly revealed to the Western world. From enabling human trafficking in sweatshops to synthetic dyes being a major cause of water pollution, our consumer culture has wrecked havoc on humans and eco-systems alike. The solution, much like the problem, is complex and multi-faceted. Today, I want to talk about why synthetic dyes are one of the major causes of water pollution, explore the consequences that synthetic dyes have had on both human beings and the planet, explain why natural dyeing on a large scale is impractical and contains its own host of problems, and look into some possible solutions for our future that combine the sciences with the arts to address the cause of water pollution.
Synthetic Dyes Cause Water Pollution
Synthetic dyes were discovered in 1856 by 18-year-old William Henry Perkin, a chemist that was working on a cure for malaria.¹ This purple dye was given the name mauveine – from which we derive the name mauve.² While the color was not permanent, it sparked interest in the field of synthetic dyes and lead to the creation our current spectrum of colors.¹
Today, nearly all textile color comes from synthetic dyes. This is problematic because the Blacksmith Institute (in partnership with the UN) named synthetic dyes as one of the top 10 global polluters in 2012. ³ And to my knowledge, this did not change in 2020, and will likely not change in 2021 either. This ranking is based off of the DALYs or the Disability-Adjusted Life Years (aka: “the number of years lost due to early death, disability, or disease.” ⁴) The dye industry is believed to score at 220,000 – 430,000 DALYs – which is tragic for those who are directly impacted by this industry. ⁴ Synthetic dyes are one of the major causes of water pollution.
It is estimated that more than 1 million people (primarily in South Asia) are at risk from exposure to chemicals like chromium (a known carcinogen,) lead (exposure causes neurological, developmental and cardiovascular harm,) cadmium, sulfur, nitrates, chlorine compounds, arsenic, mercury, nickel, cobalt, etc. This exposure is primarily from water contamination when dye houses dump untreated waste water into the local water sources. It is believed that 17-20% of the total industrial water pollution is generated by textile dyeing. ⁵
In these industries, there is little to no accountability or incentive to do better. Waste water dumping happens anonymously and these industries thrive in their current regions because of a lack of oversight which allows them to have minimal overhead costs. This is appealing to large Western brands that are looking to keep their costs low. In China, around 70% of rivers are polluted and many of their citizens have no access to clean surface water. ⁶
In summary, there are 5 main issues with the dyes being used today: ⁷
- Excessive Water Waste: 6-9 trillion liters of water per year is used (and most of it is subsequently disposed of in toxic form) by the dye industry.
- Chemical Pollution: Chemicals are often dumped directly into the environment causing serious problems for humans and the local eco-systems. This is why synthetic dyes are one of the major causes of water pollution.
- Unemployment Risk with Change: While it is obvious that much change must happen, it must also be handled delicately so that those who are employed by these industries (which is mostly women) are not forced out of jobs and livelihoods.
- Hardwired Consumerism: The main driving factor behind these practices is Western brands demanding more products for less cost. This means that corners are being cut – in this case, the management of waste and the abandonment of best practice. Society as a whole needs to adopt a more circular economy mentality that reuses and repurposes waste rather than disposes of it.
- Ineffectiveness of Scaling Natural Dyes: I’ll discuss this in the next section. 7
Why Natural Dyes Aren’t the Solution to Water Pollution
By contrast, natural dyes have been around since 3500 BC. ⁵ On one hand, they seem promising to help the environment. After all, they are naturally occurring products in the earth that are usually derived from bark, leaves, wood chips, insects, flowers, lichen, shellfish, etc. ⁸ They also only work on natural fibers – eliminating the use of synthetic fabrics. (Another topic for another day.)
Using natural dyes, one can obtain almost any hue of color. However, duplicating those results can prove to be challenging or nearly impossible. Growing conditions, the health of the plants, the mineral content of the water, and many other variable factors can affect the color outcomes. Additionally, color-fastness with some natural dyes can be tricky, when compared with their synthetic dye counterparts. These inconsistencies would not bode well with our fast fashion culture. Other issues also arise when one tries to scale natural dyes to an industrial level.
Natural dyeing on a large scale would require huge amounts of farm land and water to grow and cultivate. This option would be taking land and water away from food agriculture. Also, many of these plants and insects are only found in certain regions of the world. The transportation of the raw materials would leave a very large carbon footprint. ⁶
Another aspect to consider is human rights. Historically, natural dyes have been the cause of horrific human exploitation, abuse, and appropriation. In an industry already rife with human rights abuses, it seems impossible to regulate the massive supply chains that would exist all over the world, if natural dyeing were to be industrialized. ⁶
Lastly, while natural dyeing uses natural materials as dyes, mineral salts are used as mordants to help adhere the dyes to the cloth fibers. When used appropriately, these mordants are safe and effective. However, appropriate use requires adequate education, willingness to comply, and an understanding of how to properly dispose of the mordants. The current dye industry has demonstrated that it cannot and/or will not properly dispose of dangerous chemicals, making this a poor option moving forward.
Natural dyes might not be the right option for large scale production, but they are still important art forms for artisans around the world! One of the ways that we, as consumers, can make a difference is by supporting these small studios and dyers in their art forms rather than the big corporations who are the driving forces behind the devastating effects of fast fashion.
As Mexican textile artist Porfirio Gutiérrez said, “Natural dyes were never meant for mass commercialism, they are for personal clothing and expression.” ⁷
What is the Solution to this Cause of Water Pollution?
This is the million dollar question! No really, I was just speaking with another dyer and she noted that whoever finds a workable solution to this issue will likely find themselves to be a very wealthy individual! It’s true!
The solution has to be sustainable, has to fix the problems that our current dyes cause, and has to be easy and simple to implement into the already established dye house practices. ²
One possible solution that has been presented by a company called Colorifix is the use of microorganisms to transfer colors obtained from nature via synthetic biology. The methodology is above my pay grade, but you can read more about it below! ⁹
Another interesting company that I’ve discovered is We aRe SpinDye. While this company only works with polyester fabrics, they have found a method of fabric creation that utilizes recycled polyester. We aRe SpinDye’s dyeing process utilizes 75% less water than conventional methods by adding the dye to the step where the polyester pellets are melted down to be extruded into fibers. You can read more about them below! ¹⁰
Undoubtedly, there are countless scientists and visionaries who are exploring other means and methods to find a workable solution to this cause of water pollution. The pollution and harm that comes from the textile dyeing industry is multifaceted and will take a unique and complex answer! While that solution might not be fully developed, we can all make individual choices that can help tip the scales in the right direction.
What are real actions that will help? It might look like finding creative ways to use things you already own, borrowing and returning things you might need, swapping items with others, thrifting what you can’t get from borrowing/swapping, making what you can, and only buying what you cannot get from any of the other methods. ¹¹ When it’s necessary to buy new items, you can make the greatest impact by shopping small and local for quality items that can be used countless ways. This supports artisans and your own community!
This topic is important. We need to continue to address the things that cause water pollution. People’s lives and wellbeing is on the line. It’s time to pursue workable options and to make sacrifices in our consumer practices.
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¹ Chemical and Synthetic Dyes by Robyne Williams
³ Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes: The (Ill-Informed) Battle Continues by Amy Dufault
⁴ The World’s Most Polluting Industries by World Atlas
⁵ Top Ten Toxic Pollution Problems | 2012 | Source #10 – Dye Industry by worstpolluted.org
⁶ The True Cost of Colour: The Impact of Textile Dyes on Water Systems by Beth Ranson
⁷ 5 Ways to Fix Fashion’s Biggest Pollution Problem: Dyes by Jess Cole
⁸ Natural Dyes by Sara J. Kadolph
⁹ Colorifix Solutions by Colorifix
¹⁰ Our Coloring Process by We aRe SpinDye
¹¹ Buyerarchy of Needs: Using What You Have, Borrowing and Swapping by Laurie Rivetto
Please feel free to reach out with any questions or comments!