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Ciara Boyle

July 24, 2020

Textile dyeing is impacting the people and environments where our clothes are being made, here’s how:

Textile dyeing is impacting the people and environments where our clothes are being made, here’s how:

Ciara Boyle

July 24, 2020

Textile dyeing is impacting the people and environments where our clothes are being made, here’s how:

With clothes, like most things we buy, it’s easy to forget where they come from and what goes into making them. We are often told about the harmful effects of clothes production and the humanitarian and environmental harm it causes. 

The big picture

A dye is a natural or synthetic substance used to alter the colour of fabric, paper, leather, plastics, as well as other things. The textile industry produces 1.3 million tons of dyes and pigments annually, mainly synthetic. What’s more, garment dying is extremely water-intensive and is said to be responsible for around 20% of the world’s industrial water pollution. To give you an idea, NRDC estimates that a single textile mill can “pollute up to 200 tonnes of water for every one tonne of fabric produced”. When this contaminated water is released back into the environment it has the potential to (and often does) poison rivers and water reserves and subsequently kill animals, plants and humans, mainly in developing communities.  

Toxic exposure 

What we need to remember is that many dyes are toxic, carcinogenic, and may also cause genetic defects amongst those who consume this water. Just consider the streams of reports detailing how dye workers are developing skin, kidney, bladder, and liver cancer, as well as skin and eye irritation, and respiratory illness and disease as a result of coming into close contact with these chemicals. The health risks are stark both for workers and for surrounding communities, who are often exposed to toxic chemicals on a daily basis and then do not have easy access to uncontaminated water at home. It’s sobering to think that this is all happening just so we can have a rainbow of colours in our wardrobe.

Clothing dye

“Too polluted for any direct human contact”

Dyes remain in the environment for many years with almost ¾ of all water used in dye mills ending up as undrinkable due to the heavy metals, dyes and chemicals that are used to fix and colour clothes. China is the largest garment producer in the world, and due to the toxic dyes used in the production of clothes, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration has classified almost one third of the rivers in China as “too polluted for any direct human contact”. The documentary River Blue states that over 70% of the rivers in China are polluted, meaning many people in China cannot access clean and safe water. 

Moving forward

There is some good news, a significant amount of research being done to find alternatives to current dyeing techniques. The likes of air dyeing technology, for example, has been found to be a viable option that is far less water intensive (apparently 95% less water-intensive). 

However, new dying technology is not a solution in itself. We also need to slow down the fashion industry; the very entity that creates demand for the production of these dyes. By buying less clothes and mending old clothes, we will help to slow the turnover of clothes and reduce the amount of new garments produced. Positive change in the fashion industry requires a multidimensional approach; this is not a one size fits all. We need to work to change the change the culture around clothes. By educating those around us about the harms of dyes and encouraging a change towards slow fashion, we can be more conscious of the effects of consumerism. 

 

pollution
Credit: NPR

“Too polluted for any direct human contact”

Dyes remain in the environment for many years with almost ¾ of all water used in dye mills ending up as undrinkable due to the heavy metals, dyes and chemicals that are used to fix and colour clothes. China is the largest garment producer in the world, and due to the toxic dyes used in the production of clothes, China’s State Environmental Protection Administration has classified almost one third of the rivers in China as “too polluted for any direct human contact”. The documentary River Blue states that over 70% of the rivers in China are polluted, meaning many people in China cannot access clean and safe water. 

Moving forward

There is some good news, a significant amount of research being done to find alternatives to current dyeing techniques. The likes of air dyeing technology, for example, has been found to be a viable option that is far less water intensive (apparently 95% less water-intensive). 

However, new dying technology is not a solution in itself. We also need to slow down the fashion industry; the very entity that creates demand for the production of these dyes. By buying less clothes and mending old clothes, we will help to slow the turnover of clothes and reduce the amount of new garments produced. Positive change in the fashion industry requires a multidimensional approach; this is not a one size fits all. We need to work to change the change the culture around clothes. By educating those around us about the harms of dyes and encouraging a change towards slow fashion, we can be more conscious of the effects of consumerism. 

 

Credit: Reuters