Did you know that one plain cotton t-shirt requires 2700 litres of water, and a third of a pound of chemicals to produce? The fact that everyone’s favourite classic tee is created using chemicals that end up contaminating our water supply certainly gives us food for thought!
This is a subject that I am not looking to preach on. But I do want to educate those not in the know whilst informing those who want to learn more. It is no secret that the textile industry is the world’s second largest polluter of water. Today’s textile mills are responsible for dumping chemical-laden, used dye water into oceans and streams leading to unnecessary Eco destruction. Shouldn’t this shocking fact be the encouragement needed to adapt to new radical approaches when it comes to the making of fabrics for our clothes?
Before we look into answering that question lets first, define what sustainable fashion is? Sustainable fashion is a growing movement also known as slow fashion. Many have argued that Sustainable Fashion is the responsible solution to the current fast fashion trend. Not only does it discourage our waste of clothing, it has the power to change our mindset when it comes to how we treat mass market fashion as disposable. So where does dye come in? Well, most, if not all of our garments go through the dyeing process. It is a procedure that uses a lot of water and produces harmful chemicals that hurt our already vulnerable environment.
There are two types of dye, natural and synthetic. Natural dyes are derived from plants, invertebrates, or minerals. The majority of natural dyes are vegetable dyes from plant sources—roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood—and other organic sources such as fungi and lichens. Synthetic dyes are man-made. These dyes are made from synthetic resources such as petroleum by-products and earth minerals. The use of natural dyes over synthetic dyes is encouraged, but the hard truth is that the fashion industry still uses a lot of synthetic dyes. One of the main reasons being that the natural dyes seem to lack the vibrancy of synthetic dyes. Cotton is the easiest fabric for natural dyes to adhere to, but unfortunately not all of our clothes are made of cotton, the majority of garments are made from polyester which is made from petroleum. The manufacturing of polyester and other synthetic fabrics is an energy-intensive process requiring large amounts of crude oil. It is this process that releases emissions, including volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and acid gases such as hydrogen chloride, all of which can cause or aggravate respiratory disease.
Attempting to find a solution to this problem is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and Scottish Enterprise Silvana Beatriz Palacios Guberti. She has developed ways to digitally print natural fabrics using natural dyes. The advantage of this being that it will vastly reduce waste and chemical input whilst also having a positively vast impact on the industry. Another one to watch is Dana Liu. She is a sustainable fashion designer who has created a different procedure to naturally dye clothes. She believes that we should all be environmentally and socially responsible by using environmentally friendly fabrics and natural dyes.
The Godmother of the natural dye movement is Liz Spencer, also known as the Dogwood Dyer. She is part of the fashion, sustainability, and natural dyeing movement and is famous for using New York City’s wild & abundant plants to extract natural colour for dyeing. No chemicals whatsoever are used in her process, instead the dogwood dye uses fibres such as alpaca, mohair & Cormo wool from local Northeast farms & mills. On the process Spencer shares, “There’s a lot of variables in natural dyeing — the fabric, the water type and temperature, pH variations in the water, the time of the extraction — which can be a challenge when you’re trying to colour match for a client.” She continues, “But it’s also the beauty of the process. I’m not colour matching for Pantone, I’m working with what nature provides.” I do love that the London College of Fashion graduate has managed to sell her naturally-dyed fabrics, to various boutique designers such as Steady New York, Ulla Johnson, Titania Inglis, Marlow Goods, and Rebecca Atwood.
Spencer’s enormous efforts leave me wondering whether the fashion industry is equipped to join the waterless-dye revolution? I do think that it is, especially with corporations like Nike already operating their first waterless-dye facility in Taiwan since 2013. The sports giant is proving that the industry can be part of the solution and not be part of the problem. Another brand addressing the problem of water pollution and waste caused by dye is Adidas. They have incorporated waterless dye technology into their product development. This is a technology used by DryDye to produce sportswear fabric, that according to them, saves millions of litres of fresh water annually. Brad Poorman, chief marketing sales office of DryDye, explains that the process works by taking a roll of fabric into a torpedo tube and close it up. The carbon dioxide is then heated to a gas inside the tube which then disperses the dye. According to Poorman, it takes about half the time of traditional dying, plus there is the energy-saving benefit.
Another company to take note of is DyStar. Founded in 1995 as a joint venture from Bayer AG, Hoechst AG and Mitsubishi, DyStar is one of the leading suppliers of textile dyes and boasts a broad product range of almost all fibres. With innovation in textile as part of their heritage, DyStar also launched the econfidence® program which assures that the dyes and chemicals that they supply comply with legal requirements, for example REACH. They also offer guidance so that the selected products are compliant with voluntary regulations- Oeko-Tex and Brand & Retailer RSL (Restricted Substance List) requirements.
All this progression is definitely a step in the right direction, but I must acknowledge that natural dyes do have some limitations compared to their synthetic counterparts. So therefore, in order for the fashion industry to truly embrace sustainable fashion and the natural dye movement, we might need to take a more hybrid approach. Until then, widespread industry adoption will continue to progress at a snail slow pace until the fashion industry is ready to invest in sustainable fashion that promises a more socially responsible existence for everyone in the long run.