The Shy Activist- Dyeing for Water

Well actually water for dyeing. A trillion gallons of water is used for dyeing to be exact.

Today’s post explores toxic dyes in the textile industry.

Before the synthetic dyeing industry, dyes were made from exotic plants, insects or sea life. The dyeing industry was born accidentally when an English chemist was searching for the cure for malaria. Unfortunately the new discovery had a devastating impact on the environment.

Now dye formulations, colorants and finishing chemicals make up the 20,000 chemical substances used in the textile industry. These chemicals create the beautiful colours we love to wear.


Affect of dyes on workers

Chemical dyes can cause health problems for garment workers. They can get diseases which cause their skin to peel off and become discoloured. “In the nineteenth century, little regard was paid to the safety and of dye worker labor conditions. However, it soon became apparent that there were deadly risks to workers who manufactured chemical dyes and who dyed garments.Even today, Japanese dye workers are at higher risk of tumors. And in the United States, deaths amongst factory workers exposed to dyes in their work suffer from several diseases, including cancers, cerebrovascular disease and lung disease at significantly levels than the general population – up to 40 times higher incidence, for some afflictions.”

Affect of dyes on the environment

Indonesia’s Ciratum river is one of the biggest rivers in the world…and one of the most polluted. 

Before the 80′s people had fond memories of the river. It was clean and full of fish. Similarly there are for memories of the Nayyal river in India where a factory owner remembers playing on the banks as a child.

Now the river’s are full of rubbish and chemicals that are deadly to humans and aquatic life. 

Greenpeace described the discharge from one of factories on the banks of Ciratum river as “highly caustic, will burn human skin coming into direct contact with the stream and will have a severe impact (most likely fatal) on aquatic life in the immediate vicinity of the discharge area.”

The chemically saturated water is carried onto fields and affects the soil. The crops are then affected and this “can be observed through symptoms like plaque in teeth, joint pain and grey hair of villagers.”

Does the damage end there?

The chemical nonylphenol stays on clothes and only comes out after two washes. Clothes with this chemical are banned in EU member states but not in the US.

Now what?

Factory Owners

Factory owners like Eswaran, who reminisces of the days when the banks of the Citarum river were safe for children, are “investing in organic farming, natural dyes and a transparent supply chain”.

“Though doubtful at first about the change, Eswaran says he has found that the smaller quantities with higher profit margins characteristic of the organic industry can be profitable. “Before it was about large quantities, and small margins. Now it’s the opposite,” he says.”

Natural dyes have minimal environmental impact, they are renewable and safe. Unfortunately they are more costly and aren’t always as vibrant as synthetic colours. The industry is also affected by seasonal changes and availability of raw materials.


What can we do? We can demand that the fashion industry take this issue seriously.

Manikam, CEO of a company that sells 500 tons of indigo, says he could produce more natural indigo if enough textile and clothing manufacturers sought it out.


“Since 2011 the Detox campaign has challenged some of the world’s most popular clothing brands to eliminate all releases of hazardous chemicals.

Thanks to the action of over half a million designers, bloggers, fashion fans and activists twenty global fashion leaders, from adidas to Zara, have made a commitment to Detox their clothes. Many of these brands are now taking action – taking steps to create toxic-free fashion on behalf of their customers, the local communities and future generations.”


“Waterless dye technologies have been developed, but have not yet been deployed at most manufacturing sites. The textile industry, which has been using copious amounts of water to dye garments for hundreds of years, may be reluctant to embrace this change. After all, this new technology is expensive to install and only works on certain fabrics.”

Phil Patterson, a consultant to textile companies globally and director of UK-based Colour Connections believes “Ultimately, the problem hinges on a larger issue. “The world has gone consumption-mad…As a result there are enormous amounts of textiles produced.” He argues that consuming less is the only way to make an impact in the long run.”



Everlanes values are- Know your factories. Know your costs. Always ask why.

Their website is transparent about the factories that they use. Read more here

The Cotton Long-Sleeve Crew


The Wide Leg Crop Pant


The Japanese GoWeave Sleeveless V-Neck Dress


The Ribbed Wool-Cashmere Crew