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So far, we have seen how hydrocarbons sneak in when textile is made. However, we are far from reaching the stage where clothes are proudly displayed in a window shop and we have already made an extensive use of the black gold. From making petroleum derived textiles like polyester to pesticides and fertilisers to grow cotton, the petrol bowser is flowing. But now, fast forward to the next step in the sexy “supply chain” of garment making: dyes.
Pre-treatment and dyes
An other way in which the garment label keeps the consumer in the dark is the absence of details about the dying process. Unless the garment brand really wants to let you know that it’s using an alternative dyeing process, you could be led to believe that cotton just grows in various hues….. of course, it’s not. The shocking thing is that here too… you can find abundant traces of hydrocarbon derived products.
Beautiful hues of blues, yellows and red have long lost their connection with nature and these days, the vast majority of dyes are derived from tar-petroleum products.
There are a phenomenal amounts of dyes out there, each one has a specific composition and particular use. Some are more suited to celluloid (plant based, like cotton), others to protein textiles ( from animal source, like wool) and others for synthetic textiles like polyester. The process by which textile is impregnated with colour also varies. From the temperature, amount of water, solvent, pre-treatment and post-treatment the process is variable. From a bleach before starting the process to finishing where the product is treated so that colours won’t fade and leach in the washing machine.
Those processes, including the formal dyeing stage, involve a staggering number of chemicals in a what sounds like a toxic potion. Acetamide, benzene, trichlorobezene, Etylene…. Mixes typically include, water, solvent, emulsifier, Tickner, white spirit, catalyst, binder and pigment dispertion agent. All of which, except water, can be derived from petroleum products. The list is long and scary.
These days, dyes have evolved quite a lot in terms of human toxicity for the end user (the consumer) but there are still derived from petroleum or coal tar. Toxicity though is still an issue for the communities living and working in and around dyeing houses. Chemical leaching in water, air and soil is a major issue. This is especially true as the majority of dyeing houses are located in developing countries where waste disposal and wastewater treatment is either subject to little or no standards. That is, if standards are enforced.
One of the clear problems with dying houses is that they are heavy water users which can create water allocation issues for nearby other uses. Conflicts between agriculture and the textile industry are common in developing countries. In addition, the lack of effluent treatment and appropriate waste management can create serious health issues as well contaminating the natural habitat.
Dyes are clearly involved in our petroleum dependency, yet, unless you really start researching the issue, there is no easy way to find out about the dyeing process clothes undergo. Unlike synthetic textiles, which have to be identified on the garment tag, there is no easy way to identify what was used and certainly no way of finding how it was done. Furthermore, it is not because the textile is of an eco-friendly type (like organic cotton) that the dyes used are any better than common practices.
One would think that the natural dyes would be the solution, however, this is not that simple. Natural dyes often need more mordant and more water. Mordant, although not necessarily a derivative of petroleum contain nasties such as chromium and copper. Furthermore, natural dyes are agricultural products (such as tumeric, tea and natural indigo) which can be hard to scale at an industrial level and where unsustainable agricultural practices can create additional problems.
Still a lot of work needs to be done to break the dependency on petroleum derived products in this area. The efficiency of natural dyes, non -toxic mordant still needs to be worked on as very few manufacturers appear to have developed such dyes.
In the meantime, innovations on the dyeing process by which water can be treated and re-used or even not needed (closed loop system) was developed to reduce the impact of pollutants in the surrounding. Have a look at some examples here and here.
The use of low-impact dyes which focus on the impact of dyes, but are still petroleum derivatives, lessen water use and the need for pre and post dyeing chemical treatment.
If you are interested in reading about the complicated world of dyeing, I would suggest reading this article.
There is a lot of ugly in the world of dyeing, high use of petroleum based product, high use of toxic chemical released in the environment, negative impact on health and safety for workers and surrounding population. The question is how, as a consumer can we make better choices.
As the garment tag will not likely tell you anything about how the textile was dyed, the consumer is left with third party certification parties to help them choose. Several third party certification processes exists and the most relevant relating to dyes are as follows:
Bluesign is a third party certification system that ensures that chemicals and raw materials are safe and take into consideration consumer safety, water and air emission occupational health and safety of workers and ensures that resources are best used to limit impacts. Unsure if they have any “natural” dyes on their approved list of suppliers considering that those dyes can also be toxic, can use lots of water and are not very scalable. That leaves us with low-impact dyes which although petroleum derived, have a lesser impact on the environment that traditional ones.
Oeko-tex standard 100
Okeo-tex Standard 100 will test textiles (from yarns to finish products)to make sure there are no nasties in them. Many unsafe chemicals can be detected at the final stage of manufacturing through laboratory testing. It does not, however, ensures that clothes are made with organic components such as organic cotton and natural dyes. It does not either look at the way the clothes were made. For example, how much untreated water was released in the environment. An other standard, the Okeo-tex Green will have a look at those.
The made in green label is also lab tested for any nasties but in addition, adherence to sustainable practices must be demonstrated. With do’s and don’t practices that needs to be verified.
Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS)
An other third party certification is the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS). We have come across this one before as it is also relevant to organic farming and covers the entire supply chain.
It includes ecological and social criteria. From the farm to processing, manufacturing and distribution. The Standard cover things such as fair wages and environmentally friendly dyes.
Dyes are probably one the areas of clothing manufacturing that is the most damaging for the environment and where alternatives to hydrocarbon based products are a rare find. Lots of work needs to be done in that field. The main challenge is scalability of natural dyes. There is hope though, for example, Sodhani Biotique, has developed GOTS certified natural dyes that can be used as alternatives to hydrocarbon products. As consumers, finding low impact dyes is a challenge in itself so finding products that uses natural dyes that respect sustainable practices is an added bonus.
So, as consumers, lets cheers for those who do and put our money where our mouth is by asking for low impact and natural dyes.
Next time you pack up your suitcase and need to do some shopping before you travel, stop, think and make a better choice.
Until then… go on…. Come with us and explore the world.