Color, Color, Color
We are visual creatures. When we look at an object, color is usually the first thing we take note of. The lady in the green dress, the red shoes to the left, the blue car across the street. When it comes to textiles and clothing, be it synthetics like polyester and viscose, or silk, linen and even organic cotton and recycled polyester, if it has color, more than 90% of the time, it is not eco-friendly.
Historically all dyes had natural sources; plants, insects and sea life. But that all changed in 1856 when 18 year old William Henry Perkin, accidentally discovered the first chemical dye. The color, purple mauveine, known today as mauve. Perkin's goal was to find a new treatment for malaria, but his discovery led him to create the start of the synthetic dye industry. According to local lore, the waters of the Grand Union Canal, located near Perkin's Greenford dye works, changed color from week to week with his experiments.
Changing the color of a river is a sad reality for modern day China, and other countries in Asia. If one set eyes on any body of water that was a neon green or bloody red, our instinct for self preservation will start setting off alarms. This is not natural, therefore it must be dangerous and must be avoided.
Up to 50% , an estimated 200,000 tons of the dyes used in the dyeing process are lost or allowed to enter the environment.
There are over 10,000 dyes and pigments used industrially today. Over the years synthetic dyes have been formulated to be highly resistant to fading by light, laundry detergents, heat from dryers, and just about any other day to day abuse our clothes take. In other words, these dyes are formulated to be fairly indestructible and require a very long time to break down and biodegrade. Azo dyes are the most widely used world wide and not just for textiles. They are used in cosmetics, household paint, food and even pharmaceuticals. What's most alarming is that these dyes are highly carcinogenic and mutagenic, and are capable of damaging DNA. They are ingested by wildlife in and near the polluted waters and also harm workers by entering their blood stream through the pores on their skin. The half life of Reactive Blue 19 is 46 years.
There are now over 7 billion people on the planet, each in need of clothing just as food and shelter. That number will raise. The dyeing process uses the largest amount of fresh water in the creation of textiles. Combined these too often unadvertised or mentioned facts classify waste water from textile dye plants into the most polluting of all industrial sectors.
Now there's been a lot of talk about us consumers becoming better educated and voting with our dollars. This has placed a lot of responsibility on us to do the right thing and help save the world. Unfortunately it has removed a lot, the majority to be frank, of the responsibility of the manufacturer to deliver better healthier product. But how can we as consumers even begin to make better purchasing choices if we are kept in the dark. When we buy clothes the content label doesn't even begin to tell the story of what the garment contains. Are the dyes natural or synthetic? If synthetic are they the less or more harmful kind? What other chemicals were used to bond the dye to the fabric, how harmful are they? And those anti-wrinkle and wicking properties that are so attractive to us as buyers, they too are chemicals sprayed onto fibers that over time wash off and get into our bodies through our skin's pores. What are their effects on our health? How long do they live in the environment before breaking down and biodegrading?
If a consumer product like cigarettes, containing harmful chemicals, carry a label that informs a buyer, shouldn't every other consumer product, especially those we come into contact with the most?
Doing the right and healthy thing, including educating consumers, is, always was, and always will be the responsibility of the manufacturers, inventors and designers of any and all consumer products.