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Environmental Damage Caused by Chemical Dues in the Fashion Industry

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Studies
Wordcount: 4452 words Published: 23rd Sep 2019

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Sustainability is the process in which the use of resources, investments and technology are directed towards to enhance the current and future environment.

In the past 5 years, the fashion industry has really started to attend to the problems that lie within the fashion industry and its sustainability. Fashioned from nature exhibition enlightened me that there are several ways the fashion industry is harming the environment and the people but however, there are steps that the fashion and textile industries can take in order to make more sustainable fashion. In this essay I will be exploring the current situation of the textile industry, the problems that the workers face and the environmental effluence together with discussing different alternatives and solutions. 

Labours and The Chemical Dyes

The fashion industry has a supply chain that starts from initial designs, sampling, manufacturing and retail. One of the important fragments of that supply chain is the textile industry. There were about 20 million workers employed in the textile industry in 2000. Currently there are about 60-75 million workers employed in the textile factories. About three quarters of the workers are female and children, this increase in workers employed is due to the rise of fast fashion. As the consumption rises, the production rises as well. One may argue that the rise in fast fashion has increased job opportunities, there are still consequences to be faced due to this.

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The workers in these factories use a lot of different chemicals. One of the main chemicals they use are the chemical dyes. These chemical dyes are used to dye to dye fabrics and then then they are dumped into the ocean. The chemical dyes have compounds such as alkylphenols, which is toxic to the marine life, stays in the environment, accumulate in the human body and biomagnifies (concentration increases throughout the food chain). Phthalates in another commonly used compound which delays and interferes with the developments of the reproduction organs in early life. This compound not only affects the current generation of children working in the factories, but also the ones that may be born from the females working in these factories. Brominated and chlorinated retardants are also compounds that interfere with the hormone system and delay growth and sexual development. This compound is banned by the EU law but however is being used in textile factories built in third world countries like Bangladesh, Cambodia and India. Per fluorinated compounds persist through the environment while leaving an effect on the liver and disrupting the hormone system at the same time. This too is banned to be used within Europe and Canada. Chlorobenzenes is a compound whose affect depends on the exposure however, affects the liver, thyroid and the central nervous system. In Europe, this compound-based chemicals and dyes are classified as ‘priority hazardous substances’ and hence the use has been prohibited. Heavy metals such as cadmium, lead and mercury are used in chemical dyes. These start to build up within the body over time and are highly toxic with irreversible effects caused to the nervous system, kidneys and also known to cause cancer.

Azo dyes are one of the main dyes available in the textile industry. When these azo dyes breakdown during the dying process, the release an aromatic amine which can cause cancer. The use of such dyes are banned within the factories where textiles come in contact with human skin.

Textiles that are dyed and cured in the third world countries, usually do come in contact with human skin. The workers face other more common side effects of using chemical dyes such as, skin rash, nausea, difficulty breathing,

irregular heartbeat, seizures, behavioural difficulties and learning difficulties in children.

The effects of such chemical dyes are so high yet unknown to most of the population consuming fashion and the one manufacturing it. As per the study in India, the literacy rate of the workers involved in the textile industry was only 5.95%. Further in the study, while conducting a survey with the workers it was found that most of the workers were oblivious to the common effects of chemical dyes. The only side effect they seemed to be aware of was the permanent dying of the skin that comes in contact with the dyes. Benzidine-based dyes have carcinogenic properties that can affect the bladder. This side effect can occur if during the process the same air is inhaled, or the dye is ingested. When inhaled, some workers have reported to lose consciousness as a result of being overcome by toxic fumes.

Permanently dyed skin

Chemical Dyes and Its Environmental Effects:

Chemical dyes not only affect the workers that work with them but also the environment. To create chemical dyes, the factories need to use finites resources such as petroleum, natural gas, crude oil, diesel and hydrocarbon. According to the British Petroleum annual statistics, the total reserved barrels in the world in 2013 were 1687.9 billion, which is only sufficient to meet 53.3 years of global production. In the US, to produce 3.9lbs of the colour red, 1000 barrels of fossil fuels are used. This is just to create the colour red in the US, the colour red is created all around the world using these finite resources. These statistics indicate that if the dyes are made with the same pace, the world will run out of these finite resources soon. The by-products of using petroleum and crude oil are atmospheric methane release, carbon dioxide emissions and other pollutants. Atmospheric methane has a lifetime of 7 years in the atmosphere. Methane gas traps heat in the atmosphere and hence it directly contributes to global warming. While creating chemical dyes, the workers need to use heating systems. These heating systems when used with fossil fuels can cause carbon monoxide poisoning if unvented or poorly vented.

Fabrics that are dyed only absorb 80% of the dye. 40,000-50,000 tonnes of the dyes are dumped into oceans. When these dyes are dumped into the oceans, they create a layer on the surface of the water. Special measures are taken to eliminate its pollution from the surface of the water. When the water is not purified, it proves to be toxic for the aquatic life contributing to the number of dead aquatic life. Also, most of the dying process takes place in the third world countries, where the fabric is produced and dyed, the water most of the times is not purified and consumed by the locals. Furthermore, to treat the water, fossil fuels and other chemicals are needed and so further damaging the environment. The compounds of the chemical dyes that are found in the water accumulate within the body which can lead to cancer, hormonal malfunction and developmental growth. Textile dying leaves really large water footprints on the planet. To dye one kilo of fabric or garments, 80-100 litres of water is used. After the water has been used, the dyed water is then dumped untreated wastewater into local streams and rivers. As seen in the picture above, the water then flows through the streams and rivers, dying the most of contents permanently. During the dyeing process, not all the dyes that are used on the fabrics are fixed and hence are washed out. The unfixed dyes contain very high concentration of textile effluents. Some of these effluents are non-biodegradable and carcinogenic. These effluents can cause haemorrhage, ulceration of skin and dermatitis. There are also organic and microbial impurities found in these effluents. These impurities have the capability to change the physical and chemical properties of the soil which in turn affect the agricultural productivity.

In order to permanently dye fabrics, different chemicals and solvents are used to fix the dye. In Europe 200,000 tonnes of salt is used to retain dye in fabrics.

 Mordants are usually used to fix dyes within fabrics. Mordants are usually made of heavy metals such as chrome and iron. These heavy metals, when infused with other chemicals to create a dye fixative, are really toxic for the people handling them and for the environment. After the use of this fixative, the liquid left over from the fixating process is then dumped into oceans. These heavy metals directly affect the aquatic life and the pH of the water they are dumped into. When the pH value of the water changes, depending whether it gets more acidic or more alkaline, it directly affects the fish and the plants. This affects the light penetration through the water, decreasing photosynthetic activity, causing oxygen deficiency and re-regulating the biological cycles of the aquatic life.

Natural Dyes and Other Alternatives:

Natural dyes involve using naturally occurring ingredients to create dyes. Natural dyes can be made using hibiscus flowers, purple basil and logwood produce red to purple dyes. Lichen, turmeric and pomegranate produce yellow to orange dyes. Fungi such as Phaeolus Scheweinitzii are also ideal sources for natural dyes. These fungi produce yellow to gold dyes. Natural dyes have minimal environment impact. Since they come from natural sources, the dyes do not harm the environment, which is why the use of natural dyes has started rise in the past few years. Natural dyes are obtained from renewable resources and hence are better for the environment. Natural dyes are also a lot safer to use and generally do not cause any harm when in contact with skin.

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Colorifix is a company developing a dyeing process to help the textile industry to dramatically reduce its environment impact in a cost-effective manner. They extract dyes from different natural sources and create a solution. They then modify that solution using microorganisms using synthetic biology such that they can produce, deposit and fix dyes to the fabric. The cloth when placed in the dyeing broth, a benign dye transfer agent, which is environmentally friendly, is added. This causes the microorganisms to bind the dye with the fabric. The leftover liquid is removed and then the cloth is exposed to heat. This causes the cells present in the cloth to rupture and then fix the dye onto the fabric.

Green Matters Natural Dyes Company is another company that has developed pollution free natural dyes. They collect 60,000 gallon of rainwater in their studio to use for production. They then remove any impurities that may cause difference in the color outcome on the textile. After the dye has been used, it still contains dye mordants and organic plant matter, but both of these are compostable. They are collaborating with local farmers to help them use their waste solutions responsibly. They are also currently researching the benefits of using their exhausted dye baths as organic fertilizer. All of their products are sources and manufactured within 150-mile radius. By producing locally, they are decreasing the carbon footprint they leave on the planet.

Debs Innovation Group have invented a new way of dyeing fabric. AirDye is a revolutionary sustainable technology that enables dyeing without any use of water and printing on textiles. AirDye uses only one machine for the dyeing and printing process without the need for post process steaming and washing. This saves vast amounts of water and energy. AIrdye saves up to 95% of the water, 86% of the energy and 84% of the greenhouse gases compared to conventional dyeing and printing method. For example, using AirDye will save 170 liters per garment.

By using the latest technology and software, with their specific dyes, the penetration is deeper, colors are richer, and colorfastness is better as well. With the help of the software, penetration control can be used to print or dye both sides of the fabric with a solid color or print or combination of both. Since the technology is efficient and fast, there is no large production minimums and accurate color matching eliminates the use of extra energy and water compared to the conventional ways.

Even though natural dyes are less harmful for the environment in some respects, it can be debated that overall it is more efficient to use chemical dyes. To produce natural dyes to be used for the same demand level, it will be costlier. A larger amount of natural dyes will be needed comparatively to chemical dyes. For example, one pound of cotton will need at least 230 grams of natural dye to dye it a specific color, whereas, 5 grams of chemical dye may be needed to color the same color. Natural dyes also tend to fade faster. And the quality of chemical dyes is better comparatively to natural dyes. To source natural dyes can be difficult during the year, as some dyes are more available during certain seasons only. Whereas, chemical dyes can be produced throughout the year. Also, sustainability will still remain an issue while creating a natural dye, as a larger area of land is required to harvest certain plants to source natural dyes.

After conduction a survey with questions such as how important the colour of the clothing item is, how aware are you of the fabric dyeing process etc. it can be concluded from the survey report that people are aware that fabrics can be dyed naturally and have some knowledge of chemical dyes. However, most people are unware of the consequences of using chemical dyes on the environment and the workers. One way to combat this situation is by more advertising done through tv, websites, schools and universities. Special institutes that are dedicated to textiles can advertise more about the effects of the chemical dyes.

DyeCoo, a waterless dyeing company, has been working alongside Nike and Adidas to produce their product lines. DyeCoo uses technology based on using carbon dioxide instead of water in a closed loop system. After carbon dioxide is pressurized, it comes into a phase between liquid and gas. In this phase, carbon dioxide has a very high solvent power hence the dye easily dissolves. Hence, the dye seeps deeps into the fibers of the fabrics and create vibrant colors. DyeCoo only works with pure dyes as carbon dioxide dyeing does not need additional chemicals to help with the dyeing hence there is 98% dye uptake and no wastage. Since no additional chemicals and water is used, there no water wastage and hence there is no waste water treatment necessary. Since the use of carbon dioxide dyeing is a dry process, it is more efficient as there is no need to evaporate the water. Since this company does not use any water, they are geographically unchallenged and can be set up anywhere. Since the procedure of carbon dioxide dyeing is efficient, short batches and no waste water treatment contribute to significantly reduced operating costs.


There are other measures that can be taken in order to reduce and prevent the effects of chemical dyes. Choosing low-dusting dyes is one of them. By choosing low-dusting dyes such as granular, dust-suppressed and liquid form can reduce the risk of exposure and toxicity. A lot of dye houses lets each worker to weigh their own dyes which increases the tendency of spillage of dyes and reduce the standards of the dye houses for the workers themselves. By restricting the access to different dyes by certain professionals only, it can reduce the amount of spillage and maintain the standard of dye houses. The dye houses should also have well ventilated rooms that so that the air changes within the rooms and do not cause any discomfort. The workers should be provided with all the safety gear necessary to keep all the harmful effects as low as possible. By providing the right equipment a lot of the side effects that occur can be prevented. Reactive dyes and benzidine based dyes should be labeled carefully and should only be used in a very well-ventilated room, even if the amount being used is little. The waste water that is dumped into water streams should be regulated. The waste water should be collected and them purified from any harmful toxins and then perhaps streamed into water streams or used for agriculture. There have been some technological advancements that have allowed other ways of dyeing and printing fabric. These advancements should be funded and thoroughly researched so that in the future this new technology can become the conventional way of dyeing and printing fabrics. There should be more laws and limitations to the use of finite resources. By creating laws that limit the use of finite resources, factories that make dyes will be forced to use other renewable resources, the finite resource will be preserved and there will be less smoke pollution from these factories. There are other ways to prevent smoke pollution. Some factories use scrubbers, these are machines that filter out carbon out of the gases released. Then this gas is released deep underground to diminish the harmfulness of these gases. However, building these machines and using these machines is not cheap and can increase the cost of production overall and hence some companies would not opt to do these processes. 

In conclusion, there are plenty of harmful side effects of chemical dyes, not only to the workers who handle and produce them but also to the environment. However, the use of natural dyes is still not as efficient as chemical dyes. It can be argued that in some instances chemical dyes seem to be more sustainable than natural dyes. Nevertheless, with technological advancements, there may be no need to use chemical or natural dyes. As mentioned earlier, companies like DyeCoo, have developed with better ways of dyeing fabric that eliminate most of the problems faced in the use of both natural and chemical dyes. Even though companies like DyeCoo have managed to reduce the cost of the dyeing process, the initial production of machines to use with these types of dyeing processes can be costly. So, there is a chance that not many companies would risk sourcing these machines at such prices. Also, the companies would charge more to dye fabrics and hence many brands will switch to these companies. To conclude, better technological advancements need to be made more accepted and to make them more cost efficient. In the meantime, the use of chemical dyes should be reduced, and the wastage should be carefully monitored. Natural dyes should also be more researched in order to make them more efficient and sustainable.


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