Dye Off: Natural vs. Synthetic

Can you imagine the fashion industry without colour? Having a wardrobe that looks like a stuffed skittle packet has become the norm for many a shopper. And yet, many fashionistas will still wait to see what hues will become the shade of the season; and immediately add them to their closet rail rainbow. However, critics say that if you want to know which colour will be the next trending sensation, you simply have to take a look at China’s rivers. In an earlier post we highlighted how entire rivers change colour due to textile industry’s releasing untreated water into nearby water sources; greatly contributing to devastating water pollution in the region. (See our post on water and the fashion industry).

 

[Image: Keycolour.com]
[Image: Keycolour.com]

However, the clothing and apparel industry relies and thrives on colour. Asking them to completely do without dyes would be an uphill battle. So the focus of the colour debate tends to shift towards which is more sustainable: natural or synthetic dyes? It may be knee-jerk reaction to immediately assume the former but for textiles/designers to make an informed choice, they’d have to understand the pros and cons that each offer.

Natural Dyes

Dyeing fabric was done just as much in the ancient world as it is today, with the first recorded mention dating as far back as 2600 BC. These dyes are derived from fruits, minerals plants and other natural resources which means little or no harmful chemicals were used in their creation.  Take for example the colour blue which was derived from a plant called indigo that is indigenous to South East Asia and India. What makes indigo so valued, apart from the rich blue colour it turns fabrics into, is the fact that it doesn’t need a ‘mordant’ for the colour to stick to the fabric and slow down the fading process. 

Natural dyes [Image: Wild by Nature New Millennium]
Natural dyes [Image: Wild by Nature New Millennium]

You guessed it, here’s the first con. The other natural dyes do rely on mordants to make sure the fabric catches the colour and so it doesn’t fade after the first wash. Mordants tend to be heavy metals, such as iron, copper, chrome and tin that can be toxic to the environment and detrimental to human health. However, the most used mordant for natural dyes is Alum, which is said to be relatively safe. 

Natural dyes [Image: Wild by Nature New Millennium]
Natural dyes [Image: Wild by Nature New Millennium]

But let’s go back to the natural indigo for a second. According to an article by expert columnist Emma McGinn for Ethical Fashion Forum, natural indigo is made from an organic fermentation process that gives back to the ecosystem through its waste water that can be used as fertilizer. This is because the water contains microorganisms that can provide much needed nutrients to the land. However, with all the excitement for the synthetic indigo in 1890, very few people still practice –or have the knowhow- on how to conduct this process.

[Image: Panico Magazine]
[Image: Panico Magazine]

The second con is that although they don’t have chemicals, they tend to be more expensive and infrequent than their counterparts. In addition, the director of UK-based Colour Connections, Phil Patterson, points out that larger quantities of plants would be required to produce the same colour depths the industry has become accustomed to. That requires more land and irrigation measures – both which are global consumption issues the fashion industry already has to address. To give you a mental picture, Patterson estimates that you’d require at least 13 acres of land to grow dye that would effectively colour one acre of cotton. Which, from a business perspective, doesn’t make sense if you’re producing fast fashion that is required to be cheap/affordable.

 

Synthetic Dyes

Since English chemist, William Henry Perkins, discovered the first man-made artificial dye known as mauveine in 1856, nearly 90% of clothing is now synthetically dyed. And it’s easy to see why the textile manufacturing industry quickly shifted towards this discovery.

 

William Perkins, who in 1856 (aged 18) discovered the first aniline dye, mauveine
William Perkins, who in 1856 (aged 18) discovered the first aniline dye, mauveine

 

For starters, it allowed them to scale up productions in a way that made economic sense. It also widened the scope when it came to the variety and intensity of the colours they could produce. You didn’t have to settle for whatever blue you got, now you could get azure, royal, or baby blue… you name it. Consumers further benefited from the transition since the synthetic dye wouldn’t lose their pigmentation as easily as natural dye would.

BHH8Y5 Devaraja market in Mysore, Karnataka, India [Image: The Guardian]
BHH8Y5 Devaraja market in Mysore, Karnataka, India [Image: The Guardian]
 

But all this colour comes at a price. They have an extremely larger water pollution footprint than natural dyes. this dye is made from chemical compounds that contain elements such as lead, mercury, copper, toluene, benzene, chromium and sodium chloride to mention a few. Being exposed to large doses of these substances can have sever effects on the human body and the environment as a whole. Hence when untreated dye effluent is released into surrounding habitats, entire water sources have been made unfit for human consumption for the price of cheaper, vibrant blue jeans.

 

Indigo Stepping Extraction Process
Indigo Stepping Extraction Process

 

Unlike its natural counterpart that plays well with the ecosystem, McGinn explains that synthetic indigo is mostly made up by a chemical process in order to be such a success. Chemicals such as sulphur, hydrosulphate, sodium hydroxide, and formaldehyde, are used by the denim industry to reproduce indigo pigment in laboratories. Its wastewater, in this case, is harmful due to the fact that even after treatment, some of the chemical residue still remains; exposing consumers and the environment to increasing levels of toxins on a daily basis.

[Image: Style Me Sustainable]
[Image: Style Me Sustainable]

Natural dye may seem like the winner, having the smaller footprint, but they’re not economical or a sustainable source on a large manufacturing scale. While synthetic dyes are more versatile and easier on the manufacturer’s pocket, it carries a large pollution footprint. So, how does the fashion industry respond to a consumption crazy world without putting the environment at risk or having to close up shop? Companies such as Colour Connections recommend a synthetic-natural dye hybrid to combine the better of the two. Patterson also called for a shift to slow-fashion platforms as a contingency in the long run.

[Image: The McCarl Coverlet Gallery]
[Image: The McCarl Coverlet Gallery]

No doubt, making the right choice isn’t an easy task. Both dyes have disadvantages yet there is the pressure to meet the consumer demand. However, good news is that there are efforts to not only work on more environmentally friendly dyes, but how the dye effluent is dealt with. A move that we hope will start to fix the current water pollution issues. We will to highlight some of the innovations and brands that are already putting these thought into actions, next week.

 

 

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