Why Sympatico Chooses Low-Impact Dyes

Posted by Marty Paule on

Using natural dyes is ecologically preferable to their synthetic counterparts, right? While that may make sense intuitively, as with many environmental questions, the truth is more complicated.

Because we take our commitment to minimizing Sympatico’s environmental impact seriously, we’ve spent a lot of time looking at ways we can offer you a pleasing array of shades without poisoning the planet. In this article, we’ll address the realities that involves.

The Downside of Natural Dyes

In order for most dyes to bond with fabric, they need a mordant—a chemical that will make the bonding process happen. Some mordants are toxic.

Dye runoff pollutes waterCompared to synthetic dyes, naturally derived dyes must be used in much larger quantities making them currently impractical for textiles and apparel produced in any significant quantities. Where a teaspoon or two of synthetic dye will treat a pound of fabric, depending on the shade to be achieved, up to three pounds of natural dyes are needed to dye that same fabric. Switching from synthetic to natural dyes would entail committing farmland to production of the crops needed to produce those dyestuffs. Land clearing, fertilizing and insect-control would all potentially exert powerful effects on what were formerly natural ecosystems.

One further concern with natural dyes is their potential toxicity. All vegetal dyes are made from plants. There are many plants that produce toxic and allergenic substances (although a responsible dyer will avoid using such material as a dye source). Though some companies are working to produce natural dyes for production in a sustainable manner, it is currently a cutting edge technology, not widely available. Conversely, many synthetic dyes have little or no toxicity, as we shall see.

The Fade Factor

The longevity of natural dyes is a concern too. Natural dyes tend to fade much faster than their synthetic counterparts, which could lead people to prematurely discard what are otherwise still wearable clothes.

Of course, we could opt to wear clothing in its natural, undyed state. Wool, cotton and other fabrics, such as the hemp/Tencel fabric we use here at Sympatico, naturally range from off white to creamy yellow shades to browns and greys that are quite attractive. There have also been developments in the last few decades involving hybridizing cotton to offer soft pastel shades, though these are not widely available. Undyed fabrics like these offer the only truly zero-impact colors. But the reality is modern consumers want and expect to choose from a much broader palette.

So What About Fiber-Reactive Dyes?

Fiber reactive dyes molecularly bond with fabric, creating colorfast, long-lasting shades. They’re used on cellulosic fabrics such as cotton, linen, hemp, rayon and Tencel. They can also be used with wool and some synthetic fibers including nylon. All Sympatico clothes, apart from those in natural, are processed with fiber reactives in small batches that conserve water.

Most fiber-reactive shades are classified as low-impact because they meet the requirements of the Oeko-Tex 

Standard 100, an international textile certification program. To meet this standard, low-impact dyes cannot contain toxic substances, must have an absorption rate in which 70% or more of the dye is absorbed by the fabric and require relatively little rinse water.

Fiber-reactive dyes that are not classified as low-impact contain trace amounts of toxic metals. Jewel-like colors such as turquoise, cherry and emerald often may require the use of heavy metals and other toxics. As a case in point, when we planned our Spring 2013 color palette, we had planned to include a bright emerald. But after hearing from our dyer that achieving the shade would require adding turquoise dye containing trace amounts of copper to the formula, we instead opted for a softer shade of green that was more environmentally friendly.

Buy Less, Dye Less

Most apparel is now made in the developing world where environmental regulations are laxly enforced or non-existent. Much of this clothing is dyed using vat and direct dyes—two classes of dyetuffs that pose substantial hazards to both people and the planet.

As detailed in a New York Times story, the impact of dyeing on the environment and people’s health is an ongoing disaster that affects everyone. Although the U.S. has largely shipped its dyeing issues overseas, we’re still experiencing their consequences here. Nearly 50 percent of the American workers who were exposed during the last half of the 20th century to benzidine, a compound used in vat dyeing, have developed bladder cancer.

The truth is that dyeing, like most other industrial processes, carries inevitable health and environmental consequences. The single most important thing we can do to minimize those consequences is to reduce our consumption of consumer goods. The world’s current infatuation with cheaply made fast fashion is clearly unsustainable. The recent 2012 fires and 2013 building collapse in Bangladeshi sweatshop factories has brought both the human and environmental toll into sharp focus. Shopping for well-made clothes that are ethically produced and designed for decades of use is part of the answer. Weaning ourselves from unconscious consumption and rethinking our attitude towards our possessions can go a long way to reversing the downsides of dyeing.

For more about dyes: Why I use low-impact dyes vs natural

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