Dye Then, Dye Now

Dye ‘then’ was a natural source from nature, non-chemical, non-toxic. Dye ‘now’ is a chemically produced color, mostly toxic, where the residual pollutes our wastewater.

Dye Then

“Then” marks the time before 1856 as far back as prehistoric times where dye was organically sourced from plants, tree barks, and insects. An example would be Ikat dyeing which is a yarn resist-dyeing method. Cloth has long been woven from yarns with the dyeing of yarn before the weaving process, known as yarn-dyed, and the dyeing of the cloth or garment after the weaving process, known as piece-dyed and garment-dyed. Dyers were part of a difficult and time-consuming process sanctioned by tradition mostly rooted in Asian, African, Indian, and Indonesian cultures. Dyeing was skillfully used as design or pattern making of cloth such as Asia’s Ikats, Africa’s Adire, Kente, and Bogolanfini cloth, and Indonesia’s Batik dyeing.

Uzbek Ikats, robe. “Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth”, Seattle Art Museum, 2023 | photo: ©EDGExpo.com
Uzbekistan, Bukhara, fourth quarter of 19th Century, Ikat dye silk (bakhmal) velvet (Munisak) woman’s robe and bridal hat. “Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth”, Seattle Art Museum, 2023 | photo: ©EDGExpo.com
Dye Now

1856 marked the year of the first synthetic dye, founded by William Henry Perkins. Perkins invented a process where natural pigments could be duplicated. Labor efficiency and economic benefits of manufacturing dyes caught on quickly, almost eliminating the use of natural dyes. Fast forward to ‘now’ – mass production of clothes at an all time high – synthetic dyeing generates harmful chemicals that negatively impact the environment and all forms of life, which has gravely led to a crisis. According to Green America, textile dyeing is the second largest polluter of water globally. 43 million tons of chemicals are used to dye and treat our clothes every year AND there are 8,000 different chemicals used to manufacture clothing.

Today, ecological approaches to dyeing have to be acted on. Governments, companies, institutions and organizations committed to a circular economic system are in various stages of research, planning, and execution of sustainable methods that can mitigate these harmful effects. Accelerating the fix to this crisis is imperative. Let’s face it, mankind loves color, and dyeing is and will be a part of the fashion system.

The use of natural dyes has not completely gone away, one might say, it’s in a comeback. Independent fashion companies with small-scale vertical supply chains are making every effort to naturally dye, although challenged with the use of chemically based binders, called mordants, and the high use of water. But on a massive scale, where dye pollutants in textile industry wastewater are a widespread problem and rarely regulated, such as in India and China, the industry should focus on ethical solutions, reversing the harmful effects for all forms of life.

The good news is science is making headway. One of the bright spots is researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have developed a new method that can easily purify contaminated water using a cellulose-based material. This discovery could have implications for countries with poor water treatment technologies and combat the widespread problem of toxic dye discharge from the textile industry.

Uzbekistan Ikats, robe, early 20th Century. Neon bright stripes, chemically based dyes. A decline from natural dyes due to the Soviet invasion of Central Asia which caused Ikat production to die out. “Ikat: A World of Compelling Cloth”, Seattle Art Museum, 2023 | photo: ©EDGExpo.com

The bio-based method is a filtering system that absorbs and breaks down toxins, removing 80 percent of the pollutants, with researchers seeing good opportunities to further increase the degree of purification. The method will be tested in India. India, with its extensive textile production, produces large amounts of dyes released into lakes, rivers and streams every year. Gunmar Westman, Associate Professor of Organic Chemistry, who leads the research group and focuses on new uses for cellulose and wood-based products says, “going from discharging completely untreated water to removing 80 percent of the pollutants is a huge improvement and means significantly less destruction of nature and harm to humans.”

Dye pollutants and access to clean water statistics:
  • Over two billion people in the world live with limited or no access to clean water. It is estimated that over 3.5 million people die each year from lack of access to clean water and proper sanitation.
  •  The global textile industry, which is concentrated in Asia, contributes to widespread water pollution. Production often takes place in low-wage countries, where much of the technology is antiquated and environmental legislation and oversight may be lacking. 
  • Emissions contribute to eutrophication and toxic effects in water and soil. There are examples in China and India where groundwater has been contaminated by dye and processing chemicals.
  •  Producing one kilogram of new textiles requires between 7,000 and 29,000 liters of water, and between 1.5 and 6.9 kg of chemicals. 
  • In 2021, around 327 thousand tons of dyes and pigments were produced in India. A large proportion of the country’s dye pollutants are discharged untreated. 
How do major brands and retailers compare on chemicals?

Green America Toxic Textiles reports companies who identify or are transparent about their use of chemicals. By use of a chemical management policy list, companies either report an MRSL [Manufacturing Restricted Substances List] which restricts chemicals used in the manufacturing process, or report an RSL [Restricted Substances List] which restricts what chemicals can be found in the final consumer product.


New wood-based technology removes 80 percent of dye pollutants in wastewater, Chalmers University of Technology, 23 March 2023.

Toxic Textiles 2019 Report, Green America

Textile dyeing industry and environmental hazard, Scientific Research An Academic Publisher

Feature image: Zurashi/Slipped installation, natural indigo [tsukomo] dyed cotton yarn, Chinami and Rowland Ricketts, “IKAT: A World of Compelling Cloth”, Seattle Art Museum, 2023 | photo: ©EDGExpo.com

Rhonda P. Hill

Founder, Publishing Editor