"Bye" to Synthetic Dyes

After looking at an overview of the entire fashion production process, one can see that the opportunities for pollution, waste, and mistreatment of workers are plentiful. One specific stage in the production process has impacted our vision for a cleaner and more equitable world—the dyeing and finishing step. The NRDC identified fabric dyeing as the “hottest spot” of the industry’s environmental impact (Leibowitz 2019). The unethical side effects for the dyeing and finishing process not only harm the natural environment but people too. This post is going to take a quick look at how this has come to be and what we are doing to push the system in a sustainable direction.

 An Example:

 Just to show what the dyeing and finishing is, lets break down a pair of jeans. Once the cotton is harvested—already used 2,000 gallons of water to make the jeans—, spun, and woven, it will be repeatedly dunked into massive tubs of synthetic indigo dye (Regan 2020). Once the color is perfect, it will then be treated and washed with further chemicals for desired softness. To get the worn in look essential to jeans, they will require even more chemical bathing—utilizing acids, enzymes, bleach, and formaldehyde (Regan 2020). This just goes to show how many chemicals are actually involved in this production stage.

 Environmental Side Effects

 The dyeing and finishing stage leave both environmental and social side effects. For the fabric to endure these processes, large amounts of freshwater resources are required. These freshwater resources typically return to waterways unchecked. This is because most dye houses exist in Asian countries which lax environmental regulations. Weak regulations and enforcement create a haven for major garment manufacturing hubs like Bangladesh. Post-production water is returned to ditches, rivers, and streams while still being full of toxic chemicals left behind from the dyeing process. These chemicals, like mercury, lead, arsenic, etc., are harmful for aquatic life and humans too. Globally, the fashion industry is liable for more that 20% of industrial water pollution (McFall-Johnsen 2019). Two-hundred thousand tons of dyes are discharged into waterways each year, and 90% of developing countries do not treat their wastewater prior to discharge (Sustain Your Style 2020). These are toxic and synthetic chemicals that do not degrade, meaning they will be with us forever. 

Image: RiverBlue

These are waterways that locals depend on for their livelihood, yet fish and wildlife can no longer survive here. The sludge generated from all of these chemicals creates a barrier that light can not penetrate. Plants cannot photosynthesize which therefore creates a low-oxygen environment. No aquatic wildlife can survive in such an inhospitable ecosystem. Many of the rivers and lakes in China—largest garment manufacturer worldwide—are effectively dead (Regan 2020). Over 70% of their rivers are polluted and unusable.

 Social Consequences

 If fish and wildlife cannot survive in water laden with carcinogenic chemicals, salts, dyes, and heavy metals, how are people supposed to drink and utilize this water? Many rivers in garment dyeing hubs turn a deep black color from the sludge and sewage produced by textile companies. Or the river takes the color of whatever the dye house upstream is dyeing. It has described as “very think…like tar” (Regan 2020). Because of this “water” and the chemicals evaporating from it, people with weakened immune systems cannot live near them, especially children. The heavy buildup of chemicals and metals increases the risk of cancer, illness, and skin problems.

Then there are the dye house workers themselves who are exposed to hazards as well. Barefoot and maskless, these workers are trying to make a living in a toxic environment. These congested dye houses are basically incubators for cancer. But the workers have no choice. Places like Bangladesh—second largest garment manufacturer globally—employ 4 million people in the fashion industry (Regan 2020). Citizens rely on it to survive while it is killing them at the same time.

 There has been an increase in awareness regarding the harm that synthetically dyed clothing present to the consumer. We are still early on in this fast fashion era, and clothing dyed like we see today has not been around long enough to know what side effects they hold. If these chemicals are harming locals and workers near them, then what does that mean for the people wearing them? Skin is our largest bodily organ—weighing about 8 pounds and stretching 20 square feet. Placing synthetic dyes on our very absorptive organ daily should pose a concern to us.  

 A Happy Alternative

Wishing to steer clear of this dyeing horror story, eMpulse concentrates on plant-dyes. Plant-dyes are natural dyes derived from things like plant matter, botanicals, natural extracts, foraged materials, etc.

Any water used in the dyeing process is able to be recycled in gardens and continue its path happily in the water cycle. Plant dyeing honors nature in the process and the beautiful colors that are produced. Although choosing plant dye for our textiles is much more costly, we know our customers wish to live a deliberate and low-impact lifestyle. Choosing plant dye eliminates the negative impacts on the environment and dye workers. Hopefully, other brands will see this as an ethical dye solution as well and help pave a sustainable future for generations to come.

Continuously Questioning the Norm,

eM and the eMpulse Team




Leibowitz, Domenica. 2019. “Guide to Sustainable Strategies.” Council of Fashion Designers of America, January 14, 2019. https://cfda.com/resources/sustainability-resources.

McFall-Johnsen, Morgan. 2019. “The Fashion Industry Emits More Carbon than International Flights and Maritime Shipping Combined. Here are the Biggest Ways it Impacts the Planet.” Business Insider, October 21, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.com/fast-fashion-environmental-impact-pollution-emissions-waste-water-2019-10.

Regan, Helen. 2020. “Asian Rivers are Turning Black. And our Colorful Closets are to Blame.” CNN Style. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/dyeing-pollution-fashion-intl-hnk-dst-sept/index.html

Sustain Your Style. 2020. “The Fashion Industry is the Second Largest Polluter in the World.” Sustain Your Style, https://www.sustainyourstyle.org/old-environmental-impacts#scroll-to-top.