Have you heard of AirDye®? Perhaps not. It’s a not-so-new-but-still-new way to dye fabric and alleviate some of the accompanying water waste in the process. But, how bad is the problem, you might ask, to warrant the use of sophisticated new technological processes in order to dye fabric? Really bad it turns out.
In the opening scene of the documentary RiverBlue, deep magenta wastewater spills into a river in China as the voice of fashion designer and activist Orsola de Castro can be heard saying “there is a joke in China that you can tell the ‘it’ colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers.”
Image courtesy: A worker displays colourful yarn in a garment factory in Gazipur, Bangladesh. Photo: Shafiqul Alam:Getty Images | STATEMENTS | Sustainable Fashion
Conventional dyeing methods can produce great looking results but these processes use polluting heavy metals, a huge amount of precious water, and don’t provide permanent coloration. Up until now the effluent from dye houses that can often be seen in rivers flowing through the textile manufacturing areas of India, China and elsewhere is a result of unabsorbed dyes, chemicals and heavy salts that are used during the dyeing process. In China, the factory of the world, it’s estimated that 70 percent of the rivers and lakes are contaminated by the 2.5 billion gallons of wastewater produced by the textile industry, posing substantial hazards to both people and the planet in terms of health and environmental consequences.
Image courtesy: RiverBlue
Unlike with water’s pretty poor relationship with cotton and jeans, no one piece of fabric or clothing is to blame for dye pollution. Rather, it’s the estimated 8,000 synthetic chemicals used to bleach, treat, and brighten our clothes that pose the problem. According to Greenpeace, the most frequently used additives in the dyeing and finishing process are dangerous to human health, marine life, and the environment.
Azo dyes, which account for 60 to 70 percent of all dyes in the industry, are responsible for setting high intensity hues, poppy reds in particular. But when broken down and metabolised, they are a known carcinogenic. And even if it seems like the colour of our clothes and cancer couldn’t be less related, azo and other chemicals don’t dissipate, but evaporate into the air we breathe or are absorbed through the skin.
Image courtesy: Greenpeace activists put on a fashion show to pressure fashion companies to remove toxic chemicals from their supply chains in Indonesia and address water pollution. Photo- Romeo Gacad:Getty Images.jpg
Yes these dye options are cheaper — if you don’t count the long-term cost. In China, estimates say 90 percent of the local groundwater is polluted and, according to the World Bank, 72 toxic chemicals in the water supply are from textile dyeing. Indonesia’s landscape looks similar. It’s said that for every pound of textiles produced in Indonesia, a pound of chemicals is broken-down and later illegally bled into the Citarum River.
It’s no longer possible for brands and the global apparel industry to ignore the fact that 17-20% of industrial pollution comes from textile colouring and treatment, and that 72 toxic chemicals are discharged into our water, 30 of which are permanent.
Thankfully we have companies like AirDye and ColorZen who are introducing new ways to dye fabric and alleviate some of the accompanying water waste. The difference? While AirDye was developed for synthetic fabrics in particular and uses air to transfer dye to the fabric, ColorZen modifies cotton’s molecular structure, allowing dye to settle in the fabric without the need for toxic fixing agents and massive water discharge. Both processes embed dye within the fibres instead of merely coating them, resulting in brighter, crisper colours ideal for spring cleaning and the colour coding that comes with it.
What makes these dye methods better?
Providing a sustainable and responsible method to colour and print fabrics, AirDye basically allows you to dye and print on textiles without the use of water. The process transfers dye from paper to polyester fabric using printing machines, uses up to 95% less water, 86% less energy and 84% less greenhouse gases than conventional print and dye methods. On a single garment, the water savings alone can be as much as 170 litres. That’s huge. Plus, AirDye recycles paper used in the process and the dyes are inert, which means that they can go back to their original state and be reused.
Cotton is actually fairly difficult to dye and there is a lot of associated pollution,” says Michael Harari, president and co-founder at ColorZen. His company cuts the need for chemicals, salts and alkalis by offering a pre-treatment service for cotton, which makes that cotton more receptive to dye. Harari says “the result is up to 90% less water, 75% less energy and 95% less chemicals, and zero toxic discharge.”
DyeCoo technology, which pressurises powder dye into polyester fabric using CO2, uses zero water and reduces energy and chemical use by 50% compared to traditional dyeing methods. The CO2 is even vacuumed out after use, allowing for 95% recovery and reuse.
The only draw back is the price tag, since the most significant problem is consumer expectations for inexpensive clothing. But, we also know that the textile industry is consumer-driven and unless customers are willing to pay more for products made with waterless dye technology, the industry isn’t going to adopt it.
TL;DR: the fashion industry’s textile dyeing problem is multi-faceted. The single most important thing we can do to minimise the consequences attributed to dyeing is to reduce our consumption – buy less, dye less. Seek out sustainable brands particularly looking out for GOTS and Oeko-Tex certified fabrics and undyed textiles, avoid synthetically-dyed textiles in general (especially from fast fashion retailers), buy secondhand and just be mindful.