Dying to Dye Textiles: part 1 of 3

I’m starting my exploration of fast fashion issues with dyeing.  I got interested in this after spending a lot of time using dyes during my Textiles Degree.  Latterly  using locally available materials rather than commercial dyes and working out how to fix them to wool without the use of harmful substances.

Today I will look at why industrial scale dyeing is a problem and then in part 2 what technologies and practices are being used to improve the situation and in part 3 what alternatives can we consider at a more local level.



Industrial Dye: what is the problem?

The fibre and fabric often travel to different countries to continue being processed before we get to the cut-make-trim stage.  This means that the size put onto the yarn to keep it strong during weaving is often removed by a different company, so rather than using a chemical that can be reused, the producer is likely to be using whatever is cheapest, as they haven’t got to deal with washing it off and disposing of the polluted waste water.

The dyes used vary depending on the fibres to be dyed cellulose fibres like cotton, animal fibres like wool, and synthetics like polyester all need different treatments to get the dye attached to them.  We might not be decimating a shell fish population to get purple anymore, but the processes to produce commercial dyes and to attach the dye to the fibres have an environmental impact.

If you want to know more, I highly recommend Kate Fletcher‘s book Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, chapter 2 Ethically Made, goes into detail about the methods and chemicals used.

The fact is that while ever we have our fabrics made out of sight, mainly in Asia, we in the West, seem to be able to ignore the environmental impact on the planet of industrial pollution going into the rivers and lakes.  This is often the drinking water and irrigation water for crops.  The pollutants include heavy metals such as zinc, copper and chromium, and known carcinogens.


A dye factory turned this river in China red.

Textile dyeing and finishing is up there in China’s top 10 list of polluters in their Water Ten Plan aiming to reduce pollution by 2020.

Closer to home, the clothing we import will still have chemicals, that could be carcinogenic or hormone disrupting rubbing off onto our skin and through the washing process, polluting our water supplies.  Greenpeace 2012 Toxic Threads report says:

‘A new investigation commissioned by Greenpeace International has found residues of a variety of hazardous chemicals in clothing made by 20 global fashion brands. The chemicals found included high levels of toxic phthalates in four of the products, and cancer-causing amines from the use of azo dyes in two products. Nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs) were found in 89 of the 141 garments tested…In addition the presence of many different types of hazardous or potentially hazardous industrial chemicals were discovered across a number of the products tested.’

This report is well worth a read, it has some great graphics on page 10 and 11 showing the problem.

Wastewater in Guangdong Province
Wastewater discharged from a denim washing factory in Xintang, Zengcheng. In Xintang, where the economy is centered around textile production, Greenpeace has found high levels of industrial pollution and has documented the effects on the community.


What is the responsible consumer to do?  I think it’s time we took a serious look at our relationship with industrial fashion, our constant buying of more and more clothing which we soon throw away is fuelling an unsustainable industry, which is so complex, that we really have no idea where the fibre has come from, what processes it has been through and who is being abused to provide us with ‘cheap’ clothing.

I will look at the new technologies that are available and being used by some manufacturers in part 2


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