What Dyeing Does

Exactly one year ago I visited a talk on sustainable fabrics during the opening weekend of De Wasserij, a fashion-hub in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. One of the guests was Andriana Landegent, an entrepreneur who, with her company Ecological Republic, was one of the first to supply 100% biological and naturally dyed fabrics to the fashion industry. During that talk I realized that even though certain fabrics are made of biological materials, they probably underwent a chemical dyeing process. This changed my perception of sustainable clothing once again. Dyeing fabrics is a nasty business. Luckily, some amazing innovations are changing the game!

What’s happening
There are a whole lot of problems in the dyeing phase of textile production. The most worrisome to me is its waste, consisting of concentrated dye, high amounts of salt, chemicals and heavy metals. Much of this waste flows directly into rivers, destroying aquatic life, crops and availability of clean drinking water for entire communities (Greenpeace). The dyeing process also needs a lot of water, mainly in order to wash off the dyes and chemicals. At least 200 liter of water is needed to dye only 1 kilogram of textile Fashion Revolution 2020, C&EN 2018, Common Objective 2018). As synthetic dyes are mostly derived from coal and petroleum, even producing the dyes themselves is a harmful and non-sustainable endeavor. To get a grasp on the devastating effect of textile treatment on the environment and communities, I recommend the documentaries River Blue (2018) and The World’s Most Polluted River (2020).

Aside from being harmful to our environment, dyeing causes serious health risks for humans. Most dyes (60 to 80%) that are used in the industry are Azo dyes (Common Objective 2018). They are popular because they work at low temperatures and are therefore cheaper (Fashion Revolution 2020). However, azo dyes release chemicals when fabric comes into contact with the skin. One of the three big dye producing companies, Archroma, admitted that much of the used chemicals remain ‘hidden’ in garments that go to stores (C&EN 2018). Not only does this make painted clothing a health risk, but washing our (new) clothes also releases chemicals in our water systems. Worst of are the workers in dyeing factories who are often exposed to the toxic chemicals, often under bad or absent safety measures.

Even though there is existing regulation in the European Union when it comes to the use of chemicals (REACH), unfortunately there is no global regulation yet (Fashion United 2017). There are initiatives to improve the current system though. This year, Colour Connection Consultancy published a report in which they advocated Chemical Circularity: a system in which chemicals are reused throughout the production chain to reduce toxic waste.

Natural Dyes
There are many natural alternatives to synthetic dyes. Dyeing clothes with natural sources such as plants and roots goes back for thousands of years. I decided to give it a try this week and used turmeric to dye a white cotton dress. It was super easy to do and I was surprised by the amazingly bright yellow color (see my Instagram-page for the process). Unfortunately, upscaling botanical dyeing to the current market is not quite possible. Aside from possible production inconsistencies, the demand for resources would be so big that the chance of disrupting the environment in new ways is big. Also, botanical dyeing works best on textiles made of natural fibers and about half of currently produced textiles are plastic-based. There is one pretty cool company, Stony Creek Colors, that is doing exciting work in this field. They’re engaging farmers, mills and the fashion industry in order to create a supply for natural indigo dye.

Another way to dye textiles naturally is by using bacteria. There’s a lot of innovation going on in this field and it seems like it has the potential to upscale. I enjoyed this TedEx by Natsai Audrey Chieza, a material designer that uses a particular bacteria that creates a red-purple pigment to dye textile.

TedEx Natsai Audrey Chieza

Some of the other designers that I ran into that work with natural dyes, either botanical or bacteria-based, are Suzanne Dikker, Sustain by Kat, Laura Luchtman and Siv Støldal.

Dye Innovations
There are some cool innovations happening in the area of dyeing textiles. I’m most impressed by Colorifix and Pili: companies that use synthetic biology to replicate colors found in nature. Using genetic codes, they program microorganisms to produce these natural colors and attach them to textiles. Both companies are working with the industry to upscale their product, so it will be interesting to follow them in the upcoming years. Hoekmine is a company that goes even further by letting bacteria create ‘structural colours’. I’m terrible at science and chemistry, so how it works is beyond me, but the effect reminds me of holographic textiles.

Another technique that excited me is by DyeCoo. Again, I cannot wrap my head around it, but they created a process that uses CO2 under high pressure to dye textile. There’s no water involved, no additional treatment chemicals are needed and the company claims its technique is already available on an industrial scale!

Finally, due to technical developments and changing demands from brands, the use of digital color printing on textiles is growing in the fashion industry. Printers are bigger and better and new types of materials are allowed to be printed. Not only is this technique quicker than regular types of dyeing, it also requires way less water and chemicals (C&EN 2018, X-rite 2020).

This little research into dyes made me much more aware of where the colors in my clothes come from. It’s good to realize that not only the textile itself, but also its color can be harmful for the environment and for those who make and wear it. I’m excited to follow all of these companies that are innovating in these field and to see which direction the industry will go. If there’s one thing to take away though, just don’t buy any new clothes. Maybe just try to naturally dye that unused garment in the back of your closet. I know I’ll certainly try out some new techniques soon! Follow me on Instagram, @thrifted_by_marjo, for the results!

Read/See more
Destination Zero: seven years of detoxing the fashion industry, Greenpeace, 2018
Safer Chemistry Innovation in the Textile and Apparel Industry, Fashion for Good & Safer Made, 2018
River Blue, 2018
The World’s Most Polluted River, 2020

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