Since the accidental discovery of the first synthetic dye, mauve, made from coal by William Henry Perkins in 1856, the use of natural dyes begin to phase out. And why not? Synthetic dyes are more colour fast, have a wide spectrum of colours that can be easily and accurately reproduced, cost less and can impart qualities such as making the cloth wrinkle free or even having a permanent, fashionable crease. It does seem quite the novel invention but have you ever paused to think; just what you are wearing actually harms the environment?
Let us take a look at the ingredients used for manufacturing synthetic dye. Synthetic dye is usually made from aniline or chrome. While dyes made from aniline are less poisonous than aniline on its own, we need to think how aniline can impact not just the environment but the workers involved in the manufacturing process. Aniline’s level of toxicity is not known but it does disrupt the oxygen distribution process in the body. Are we going to let innocent workers become unsuspecting lab rats by exposing them to a known poisonous compound?
Chrome is easily found in the land, air and even water but is most attracted to the land. Once soil is contaminated with high levels of chrome, it stays there as chrome does not enter the water easily, therefore its molecules cannot move around once it is in the soil. It stays. Workers in industries which utilize chrome have been prone to nasal irritations and have a heightened chance to develop lung and respiratory cancer. Imagine having organic cotton dyed with synthetic dye that has endangered the health of people. That will completely ruin the concept of having an eco-friendly piece of cloth.
During the manufacturing process of such dyes, strong acids, alkalis and solvents are used along with certain heavy metals to get a particular compound. Besides posing a health hazard, it also generates a great amount of toxic waste. Plus, they usually need high temperatures to produce a certain compound. For example, creating a dye known as Mordant Blue 23 in the Color Index, part of its production includes combining a few ingredients with sulfur to produce Sulfur Trioxide (S2O3 )at a temperature of 1300C. It strains the environment because industries still depend on un-renewable energy sources such as petroleum and coal, especially since most dye mills are located in poorer regions of the world such as India and China. With a greater demand for synthetic dye, a greater carbon footprint will be left on our environment due to the depletion of coal and petroleum as well as the fumes emitted.
Even after the dye has been completed, there is wastage that gives a negative impact on the environment. For example, the grinding of materials or the dumping of dry, powdered materials; these actions can pollute the air, making it toxic to anyone who inhales it. Between each batch of materials processed, the equipment needs to be cleaned as well for quality control purposes and this uses a great deal of water. The water that is flushed from this process is not safe as it contains lots of chemicals such as the dye itself, remnants of dye intermediates (ingredients that kick start certain chemical processes) and minute solids. These are all highly toxic and till this day, not many companies treat this wastewater properly before disposing of it.
Due to the unavailability of an efficient waste disposal system, cases such as the Fuan textile factory in Guangdong which deals primarily with export textiles of brands such as Gap, Target and Walmart; dumped its dye waste into the Maozhou River, contaminating not just a direct water source but the underground water source as well. Underground water contamination lasts for many years which endanger the health of the current and future generation. This is just one of the many illegal cases of dye waste dumping in China; though it may be hard to fault the dye mills alone for doing so. American apparel companies which forms the largest customer base for China’s dye mills demand lower and lower prices and to keep up with demand, the waste water is not treated to cut costs.
Synthetic dye and various clothing finishes have also been known to be a trigger for clothing dermatitis, which is a skin condition resulting in an allergic reaction from synthetic dye or any additives in clothing. This is commonly present in heavy-set and or individuals who sweat easily and is normally concentrated in the armpits, groin and the waistband area. Natural fibres such as angora, cotton and linen have never caused this condition though treated or starched cotton can be a trigger.
Going for natural dyes
Why should you?
So, how do we choose clothes that are eco-friendly? The best choice would be to go for raw, undyed clothes but that might seem too drastic. We all need colours in our life. The other solution that can be taken would be to go for naturally dyed clothes. To be fair, natural dye does have its share of toxic affluents such as the mordants used. Yet, why is it we should go for natural dyes?
For practical reasons, natural dye would be the optimal choice as it greatly reduces the risk of skin allergies. As we constantly have clothes on a part of our body, our skin can absorb any poisonous components in the synthetic dye. These chemical compounds can irritate our skin, causing skin conditions such as eczema and clothing dermatitis.
Babies are extremely susceptible to environmental changes as they are still growing, causing their cells to be active enough to absorb any carcinogenic matter from the synthetic dyes in their clothes. With subsequent exposure to such substances, it increases their risk of developing health problems that can last a lifetime.
For aesthetic reasons, natural dyeing is a way of getting back in touch with the roots of your ancestors. Dyeing is an ancient art. In search for the most modern piece of technology, we still need a keepsake to remind us of our roots; and why not with naturally dyed clothes? Naturally dyed clothes have a dazzling variety of shades that not only look good but when they fade, they still look good as well. Any hand dyed product reigns far superior compared to its machine made counterpart because when something is made by hand, the maker would want that product to be his or her masterpiece. Besides, naturally dyed material is dyed in small batches which give various shades to the intended dyed colour. For example, dyeing a piece of cloth with natural red dye might make it crimson, vermilion, cochineal red or a pinkish red. This imparts a sense of exclusivity to a piece of naturally dyed clothing.
On the plus side, there is only one toxic factor to deal with, which is the excess mordanting liquid. But unlike the harmful toxic sludge that synthetic dye produces, most mordants are easily neutralized. With proper waste management and an awareness towards the conservation of our own environment, we will be able to reduce the damaging effects dyeing has on our environment and still wear colourful clothes as well.
There are challenges faced in the world of eco-friendly dyeing such as the availability of natural dye and naturally dyed products. However as consumers, we need to remember we are in charge of the market and not the other way round. With demand, there is supply. We are the ones who will make a difference. We need to show a high level of eco-friendly consumer awareness not only towards the product itself but also towards the entire manufacturing process. It may seem like an uphill struggle, but the ball is in our court to change the environment for the better. Starting by using naturally dyed clothes is beneficial not just for us but for the environment as well.