Fashion’s biggest pollution problems and how to solve them

Fashion while being revolutionary in its design is often stagnant with the pollution impacts on the natural environment. Dyeing can often be overlooked when it come’s to the impact fashion has on the environment. Two-tone, colour blocking and co-ord colours are fundamental in expressing one’s self through fashion. With dyeing techniques having such a harmful impact on society how must we as consumers, fashion companies and manufacturers stay accountable to evolve into a more sustainable world. Here are five key problems and possible solutions in play to help achieve a positive contribution to create a harmonious blend of fashion and nature:


Fabric dyeing 1


Problem: Water Waste

The textile Industry uses between six to nine trillion litres of water globally each year, just for fabric dyeing. It takes approximately 2,720 litres of water to make a single t-shirt, so that’s as much water as you’d drink over a three-year period. With every continent facing a lack of water its crazy to think that so much water would be used per year to dye our clothing; it’s basically the size of filling more than two million Olympic swimming pools per year.

Possible Solution: Biologically Inspired Materials

Natsai Audrey Chieza (designer and founder of creative biodesign agency Faber Futures) says “Design and science working together is about combining two different ways of knowing and doing, to try and tackle a problem.” Chieza is a leading voice in the growing bio design movement which integrates living things like bacteria into new materials, products and even artworks to help solve the problem of water waste. Recently her team began working with Ginkgo Bioworks and discovered that a pigment-producing microbe could be used as a clothing dye. The colour oscillates between pinks and blues based on the pH of the soil in which the microbe is found creating a beautiful tie-dye effect on the materials. Their new concept uses 500 times less water than standard dyeing techniques with no harmful chemicals, helping to limit the harmful impacts on the natural environment.


Problem: Chemicals

Three quarters of water used by dyeing mills ends up as undrinkable waste: a toxic combination of dyes, salts, alkalis, heavy metals and chemicals. When the dyeing process is complete much of the waste is dumped into the neighbouring rivers and lakes. Waste filtration is often an expensive initiative to implement leaving many of the world’s largest dyeing hubs in Bangladesh, India and China discharging the chemical waste into the surrounding bodies of water. In Mumbai the water once became so polluted that local dogs turned completely blue after swimming.

Possible Solution: Dyes Made from By-Product

A new biotech company called Colorfix is helping to change the chemical dyeing process with converting molasses (the by-product of sugar) into colourants that can be used for textile dyeing. Their new fabric dyes are sustainable on three fronts: environmental, social and economical. Colorfix replaces fixing chemicals (the most toxic aspect of the dying process) with the by-product of bio fuels. The reusing of waste materials uses 10 times less water and 20% less energy providing a win-win solution for companies and the environment.


Fabric Dyeing 3


Problem: Unemployment Risk

81 per cent of Bangladesh’s export economy is based on purely ready made garments. Dye houses are a crucial source of employment and income generation in these third world countries and emerging economies. Women also fundamentally make up 80% of the global garment workforce and are most at risk if any changes are made to the dyeing system. If new biodesign concepts are implemented it is important that they don’t create a flow on effect where companies let-go of workers due to the increased prices of operation. The last thing the world wants to see is the mass unemployment of much of the garment industry’s workforce from biodesign innovations.

Possible Solution: State Intervention

Colorfix has began to revolutionise the dyeing world with their new dye initiative and they have noted that they have done so while simply replacing the dye and not any jobs or machines in the efforts to not affect workers in this extensive industry. Michael Stanley-Jones, co-secretary of the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion says “The only way real change can happen is if we rapidly share innovations that work and roll these out more quickly – everyone needs to have access to the same information, and technologies,”. He believes this integrated approach can cause the right types of incentives, investments and legislations that can be thrashed out globally; ultimately creating systematic change. It is crucial for all parties to be of mutual understanding to create lasting change for these locations.


Problem: Hardwired Consumerism

A fundamental difficulty that’s arisen for many years is the ideal of our throw-away society. We as consumers act in a ‘take, consume, destroy’ cycle where we buy, use and throw away our products. It is no use implementing low-impact dyeing if the item is ultimately going to be thrown away and end up in landfill.

Possible Solution: A Circular Economy

A circular economy encompasses the idea which envisions products that are designed and optimised for a continual circle of recycling and dissembling. As consumers we have the ability to change the way we interact with products and fashion pieces to better a environmental cause for all. A circular encompasses a big impact that both consumers and fashion brands and companies can have on the world. If picked up globally, it would be the biggest shift in human consumption since the industrial revolution. The idea is to create a circular system, redesigning, reusing and reselling the clothing. Manufacturers can reuse and redesign old garments to create new pieces with the previous fabrics. Consumers can purchase second hand clothing pieces and sell their old garments instead of dumping their used clothing. I am an avid lover of op-shopping and who knew this would be such a positive shopping ecosystem.


Fabric Dyeing 2


Problem: Scaling Natural Dyes

Despite natural dyes being more environmentally friendly than their synthetic counterparts they are hard to source for mass production.  Natural dyes still rely heavily on heavy metals to fix the colours and often need an array of land for planting.

Possible Solution: Resurrecting Artisan Techniques

Ever since the 1960’s when synthetic process were introduced many of the artisan traditional dyeing methods became archaic and extinct. That is until the climate crisis has reintroduced these historical dyeing methods. Mexican textile artist Porfirio Gutiérrez says “The colours that come from plants go beyond just beauty – dyes are connected to a living being, a higher knowledge and wisdom”. Him and his family are working on a book that commits thousand-year-old, word-of-mouth techniques - like the use of cochineal insects for reds, tree moss for golds, pomegranate for blacks – to a wider audience. Despite Gutierrez being an avid educator for these traditional methods he doesn’t believe natural dyes can be sustainable mass scaled for mass consumerism needs. While natural dying can be an amazing process on a small scale, when it is enlarged it can not cope with the mass demand and supply needed in today’s fashion industry.


While fashion has extreme impacts that affect the natural environment there are innovations in play to change the way manufacturers and consumers influence the natural economy. In a world that’s facing extreme climate issues its comforting to know that the world of fashion is lending a helping hand to improve practices to better the globe. Now time will tell if the world is able to overcome this global environmental change affecting us all and how we will all change to create systematic change to benefit all.