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Toxic dyes : the impact of colors on fashion

Our clothes are the skin we choose to wear every day, and the use of color is essential for personal expression. But have you ever thought about how the clothes you wear are colored?

The love for colors is generating a much darker picture for our planet, according to the World Bank, 20% of water pollution is caused by the textile industry processes. This positions the sector as one of the most polluting industries of the planet's freshwater resources.

What are the main problems with textile dyeing?

There are two major problems with these production processes that affect the environment and people. On the one hand, there are the chemical components found throughout the production chain of conventional garments. On the other hand, there is the high water consumption and the highly polluting wastewater generated during production.

What do we know about the chemical components in our clothes?

The majority of the population is exposed to a considerable variety of toxic substances that generate health risks. Although work has been done to detoxify textiles, it is estimated that only 15% to 20% of companies in the textile sector are committed to eliminating these substances from their products.

Before reaching your closet, a garment goes through preparation, bleaching, dyeing and printing processes that in most cases are extremely harmful to the environment. This is due to the immense amount of untreated wastewater generated by the textile industry, which affects the health of people who work or live near the production centers.

The Fashion Revolution movement has given us some examples of heavy metals used in the production and dyeing processes, some of them are:

  • Copper, present in dark dyes such as blues, grays and greens. Also used in the manufacture of synthetic fibers of artificial origin, such as rayon, formed by cellulose, ammonia and copper.

  • Lead, used in the leather industry, synthetic fabrics and low-quality pigments to achieve glossy finishes.

  • Mercury, present in very low quality pigments.

  • Zinc, also used in some industrial processes and especially common in pesticides and fertilizers.

You can find more information about this in the reports made by Greenpeace within the Detox campaign, "Toxic Stitches" (2012) and "Destination Zero" (2018) and the documentary "River Blue".

Are we in time to save freshwater sources?

Garment dyeing and finishing processes are responsible for 80% of the total wastewater generated during manufacturing. Water used in fiber processing accounts for 12%, with the remaining 8% coming from other links in the supply chain.

The demand for colors in clothing means that today we use between 6 and 9 billion liters of water each year just to dye these fabrics. This generates wastewater containing high concentrations of toxic dyes and heavy metals.

Globally, one estimate suggests that industrial wastewater volumes will double by 2025. A total of 1.8 billion people are expected to live in countries or regions affected by drinking water scarcity by that year (United Nations Environment Programme Finance Initiative - UNEP FI, 2007).

Nor should it be forgotten that these substances generate significant losses in the flora and fauna of the waters near the manufacturing centers that affect fishing communities. A well-known example is that of Bangladesh, whose river has been photographed in different colors due to the discharge of water mixed with dyes.

The way fashion is made and consumed can be rethought, your choices and your voice can contribute to change.

The fashion industry has a lot of work to do to change its current practices and encourage the development of circular economies that take into account the environment and people.

Cotton is a fiber that in ancient times grew in different colors until we decided that white was the only one with value for us, causing the extinction of the different varieties. However, we can find companies such as Organic Cotton Colours, which works to recover these lost species and has managed to introduce cotton seeds that provide natural colors such as brown and green, without the need for toxic dyeing processes.