Today we wanted to talk about something you may never have considered - the environmental impact of dyes used in the textiles industry. Many commercial dyes are in fact incredibly harmful to the environment, something which many of us as consumers are unaware of. Colour is such a huge part of the fashion and textiles industry - including for us. We love making colourful and eye-catching textiles for your homes, but we know that these colours do not need to cost the Earth.
Approximately 8,000 synthetic chemicals are used to bleach, dye, treat, and brighten textiles. The most commonly available, conventional dyes often include chemicals and heavy metals such as iron, copper and chrome, which get into waterways and damage people’s health as well as local wildlife and eco-systems. Azo dyes, which account for 60 - 70% of all dyes in the industry, are responsible for high intensity hues, poppy reds in particular. But when broken down they are a known carcinogen. This is a terrible health risk to the people involved in the production of the dyes and the fabrics, as they are directly exposed to these harmful chemicals. But the impact is felt by the whole local communities too. An estimated 90% of the local groundwater is polluted in China, and The World Bank estimates that 20% of freshwater pollution has been linked to textile treatment and dyeing.
Jian River in China, Image via The Designers Studio.
In areas where large amount of textiles are dyed, whole rivers have changed colour from the poisonous chemicals, such as the Jian River in China, with devastating effects. The impacts are far reaching and long lasting - chemical dyes are made to last through light and heat and can remain in the environment for an incredibly long time. In the communities in which these textiles are produced, people rely on these natural water sources as their only source of water. In Indonesia, the Citarum River, which is often called the most polluted river in the world, is the dumping ground for so many waste chemicals from the textile factories which line its banks that the river is reported to change colour daily. However, the number of people relying on the water from the river as a vital resource is estimated to be between 28 and 35 million. The water in the river is linked to increased cancer rates, skin diseases, and slow mental development in children, but the local people often have no choice but to use it.
Some progress has been made. From 2017, the Chinese Government started to come down on tens of thousands of factories that produce synthetic dyes, which were forced to close and undergo environmental inspections. And in Indonesia, President Joko Widodo presented a huge campaign which aims to make the water in the river drinkable by 2025. However, there is still a very long way to go when it comes to the big companies and the mass-production of textiles.
That is why we at Artisans & Adventurers do not use harmful, toxic dyes in any of our textiles. We only use natural dyes for all of our textiles, from our Indian Indigo Rugs to our Kenyan Woven Wall Hangings, each piece is made with 100% natural dyes. Most natural dyes are vegetable based which are a great alternative to conventional dyes as they use no chemicals, and come from natural materials such as roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood. Although there are (currently) a somewhat limited number of colours available, on the plus side vegetable dyes are often collected from waste from the food industry, making them a great low or zero waste option. Our Indian Indigo Textiles are all dyed using natural indigo dye, a plant based dye that has been used to create striking blue textiles for centuries. Indigo dye is also chemical free, making it a great choice if you have children or pets running around the floor. A variety of plants have provided natural indigo dye throughout history, but most natural indigo is obtained from a genus of plant which is native to the Indian subcontinent. It is believed that even the Ancient Egyptians used natural indigo dye back in 2400 BC to dye decorative patterns on the cloths used to wrap mummies! We never use synthetic indigo to dye our textiles, you will only find natural dye and 100% cotton making up our rugs!
Textiles coloured with natural dyes are just as easy to care for as those dyed with synthetic dyes. Our Indian Indigo Textiles can all be machine washed on your coolest cycle - just be sure to wash with similar colours. Similarly, our Indian Block Printed Textiles are made using 100% Indian cotton and chemical free, natural dyes. They can be machine washed on your coolest cycle of 30 degrees or below. Our collection of incredible West African Mud Cloths are made using a unique natural dying method that has existed for many years. To make these mud cloths, narrow strips of hand woven cotton are stitched together and traditionally dyed with fermented mud. These cloths have an important place in traditional Malian culture. The dying and printing can be a long and cumbersome process. The cloth is soaked in a dye bath made from mashed and boiled leaves from the N’gallama tree. This turns it a yellowish colour. The cloth is then sun dried and painted with designs using a piece of metal or wood. The paint made from mud is collected from riverbeds and fermented for up to a year. Thanks to a chemical reaction between the mud and the dyed cloth, the brown colour remains when the mud is washed up. The N’gallama tree dye is removed from the unpainted parts of the cloth using soap and rendering them white. It is a fascinating ancient process that does not include the use of any harsh, unnatural dyes.
It is incredibly important to us that every beautiful product we make is kind to the environment and causes as little harm as possible. That is why we will only ever use natural dyes and we urge our customers to look more closely at the textiles you are buying. Luckily, there is a lot of innovation happening in the textiles industry right now and change is definitely coming. A San Francisco biotech firm called Tinctorium is pioneering natural dyes by genetically engineering bacteria to mirror the way the Japanese indigo plant makes and holds its colour. "Because bacteria are powerful multipliers, when you put them in the right conditions, we can grow these organisms to create dye product in a much more scalable and sustainable manner that isn't reliant on petroleum," says co-founder and chief executive Michelle Zhu. Norwich based company, Colorifix converts molasses, the by-product of sugar, into colourants that can be used for textile dyeing and they are passionate about providing sustainable solutions.
We hope you found some useful information and learnt more about the world of textile dyeing. We think every decision can be made more consciously to help support a sustainable future which is why it is so important for us to be transparent about our production and the materials and processes we use. You can shop all our beautiful textiles under the 'Textiles' tab on our website.