DYES - Is colour costing the Earth?

DYES - Is colour costing the Earth?

We've got some very exciting tie dye treasures coming your way soon as part of a wonderful collection with We Are Hairy People, and we've already been a bit partial to tie dye in our products. Tie Dye is making a comeback in a big way, but this trend brings to light some questions about potentially harmful substances being used - not just in tie-dyeing but in the whole textile dyeing industry.

Colour is such a huge part of the fashion industry - including here at Lucy & Yak! We love making fun, colourful clothing. But at what expense can these gorgeous colours come?

An estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to bleach, treat, and brighten our clothes. The most commonly available and conventional dyes can include chemicals and heavy metals such as iron, copper and chrome, which get into waterways and damage people’s health. Azo dyes, which account for 60 - 70% of all dyes in the industry, are responsible for high intensity hues, poppy reds in particular. But when broken down they are a known carcinogen

Photo: Business Insider / Stringer / Reuters

This is a real health risk to the people involved in the production of the dyes and the fabrics, as they are directly exposed to these chemicals, but the impact is felt by the whole local communities too. Estimates say 90 percent of the local groundwater is polluted in China, and The World Bank estimates that 20% of freshwater pollution has been linked to textile treatment and dyeing. 

In areas where textiles are dyed, whole rivers have changed colour from the poisonous chemicals, with devastating effects. The impacts are far reaching and long lasting - chemical dyes are made to last through light and heat and can remain in the environment for a long time. For example, the half-life of hydrolysed Reactive Blue 19 is about 46 years. 

Similarly in Indonesia, the Citarum River (often dubbed the most polluted river in the world) is the dumping ground for many waste chemicals from the textile factories which line its banks, despite estimates for the number of people relying on the water from the river being between 28 and 35 million. Locals report the river changing colour daily based on what the latest colour trend is. It's linked to increased cancer rates, skin diseases, and slow mental development in children, but they often have no choice but to use it. 

Photo: Daily Mail / AFP / Getty

They pose a threat to human life and it's equally damaging to nature - dyes and chemicals released into waterways block sunlight and destroy ecosystems within them. The effects of poisonous dyes are even felt at the end of the garments lifecycle - the synthetic dye actually stops the fabric from biodegrading, and more chemicals can seep back into the waterways when the item is discarded.

From 2017, the Chinese Government started to crack down on tens of thousands of factories that produce synthetic dyes, which were forced to close and undergo environmental inspections. In Indonesia, President Joko Widodo's a huge campaign aims to make the water in the river basin drinkable by 2025.

But there's still a long way to go until we no longer rely on toxic chemicals to colour our clothes. 

We are want to minimise our impact where possible and are continually looking at ways we can improve.  The dyes we use are certified Low Impact, specifically they're Oeko-Tex approved. Oeko-Tex sets out strict criteria for the human AND ecological impact of all areas of production of the textiles - from yarns and pre-treatments to dyes and finishing chemicals. Certified fabric has been tested and certified to be free from harmful levels of more than 100 substances known to be harmful to human health. 

We're also very excited to be developing some beautiful vegetable dye pieces which we'll share more on soon! A great alternative to conventional dyes, veggie dyes use no chemicals, and can come from roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood.

They can be harder to care for, and certain colours can fade more quickly than conventional dyes. Although there are (currently) a limited number of colours available, vegetable dyes are often collected from waste from the food industry - perfect for any low or zero wasters out there!

Handling vegetable dyes is much better for those involved in its productions, as no harmful man-made chemicals are present. This also means that vegetable dyes don't impact on the fabric biodegrading at the end of its natural lifespan.

So there's some great changes being made and increasing numbers of alternatives out there. A San Francisco biotech firm is pioneering natural dyes by genetically engineering bacteria to mirror the way the Japanese indigo plant (responsible for early deep blues and original jeans) makes and holds its colour. Colorifix converts molasses, the by-product of sugar, into colourants that can be used for textile dyeing. And Companies like ColorZen and AirDye are introducing new ways to dye fabric and alleviate the water waste associated with dyeing. 

There are lots of people out there paving the way for dyes which don't cost the Earth - but what can we do on an individual level?

While your at-home DIY tie-dye job doesn't have the same impact as industrial textile manufacture, should we be trying to use eco friendly dyes where possible? 

Websites such as allnaturaldyeing.com have helpful information if you're looking to dye an item naturally.

We've also got a fab tutorial on our IGTV with Sarah from WAHP showing you how to give your clothes an update with natural household dyes. 

Natural upcycling, buying second hand clothing, seeking out sustainable brands, and even just building awareness goes a long way.

Look out for the Oeko-Tex label on fabrics, from clothing to bed linen, as a good indicator that the beautiful colour in the piece hasn't come at the expense of the Earth or the people in it.