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Can Natural Dyes Remedy Fashion’s Dirty Dyeing Habits?

Colour, perhaps even more than fabric, is one of the biggest deciding factors when it comes to buying clothes. And yet the impact from the toxic dyes that colour them tend to get easily overlooked. Environmentally sound and biodegradable, natural dyes have the makings of a sustainable solution, but can they be practically put to use?

Bad Habits Dye Hard

Processing is an essential part of converting raw fibre to fabric and finally to a Sustainable fashion garment, but it’s also a key contributor in sustainability impact. Turns out, textile dyeing and finishing are amongst the most polluting and water intensive processes involved in making clothes. And they collectively account for 20% of industrial water pollution on a global level. Soon as the dyes are used, factories tend to discharge the dye-laden wastewater by throwing it into water bodies nearby. Once the waste enters the water streams, these dyes wreak further havoc by releasing chemicals that don’t even break down, but percolate inside causing further damage to aquatic plants and animals. The World Bank has identified 72 toxic chemicals in water solely from textile dyeing, 30 of which can’t even be removed. 60-80% of all colourants used in textile dyeing are AZO dyes which release chemicals when fabrics come in contact with the skin. After prolonged skin contact, these chemicals can increase the risk of cancer, acute illness and cause diseases.

Get Back to Nature

Where synthetic dyes have failed the ecosystem, natural dyes provide hope to succeed. Natural dyes are simply colours derived from organic sources like plants. In fact, most of us have experienced the effects of natural dyes first-hand without even realising it. Ever had an unfortunate wine stain that just won’t budge? That’s because wine comes from grapes that are high in tannins, which are responsible for giving your favourite glass of Merlot that rich burgundy hue. But grapes aren’t alone in their ability to be able transfer colour onto textiles. Items that would otherwise be found in your kitchen pantry can be used to produce a range of colours on fabrics. These include onion skins, red cabbage, beets, black beans and turmeric, to name a few.

Image credit: Clever by Architectural Digest


Extracted from leaves of the Indigofera tinctoria plant, indigo blue was one of the earliest forms of natural dyes which can be dated back to ancient India’s Indus valley civilisation. Obtaining natural indigo from its plant leaves behind impurities in them called indirubins. These impurities are responsible for forming interesting colour variations on the textiles once used. But synthetic indigo yields a uniform blue colour throughout, which is why it's rampantly used for dyeing denim jeans. Like most unnatural dyes, synthetic indigo requires toxic chemical fixatives to adhere to the fabric. Whereas, a large number of natural dyes don’t even require chemical fixatives as they can just as easily use natural mordants like soy milk or salt.

Sustainably Scalable

Recently, Mexican food chain Chipotle launched a sustainable clothing line where all of their merchandise is available in a distinctive millennial pink hue that’s been naturally dyed using avocado pits. While this form of expansion works well for Chipotle since they have readily available food waste in-house to upcycle; natural dyeing may not be sustainably scalable for mass production. Not only are natural dyes tricky to source but also require ingredients in large quantities to create the same depth in colour across metres of fabric. 

If anything, natural dyes conform to the slow movement in fashion — one that resists being scaled or speeded up and packaged to industry standards. The exploration of natural dye practitioners are more directed towards a deeper connection with land and working within the very limits of nature. So while employing the use of natural dyes in a collection or entire Women's Sustainable Clothing fashion brand is much more difficult than opting for synthetic dyes, the environmental benefits simply cannot be beaten. Many upcoming sustainable fashion labels and slow-fashion proponents have been able to find a way to safely provide naturally dyed garments.

Older Brother, a Portland-based clothing brand, has been committed to using natural dyes from the start. They sell shirts colored from turmeric, hibiscus, sustainable wood bark and more to create muted palettes.

Published by: Vibhuti Vazirani/ 2020-11-18

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