The Issues And Solutions To Synthetic Textile Dyeing


Its no secret that synthetic textile dying is one of the worlds biggest polluters - but why is that?

Textile dying and finishing is considered the “single worst contributor to climate change” within the fashion industry, responsible for 20% of global water pollution and 3% of global CO2 emissions.

The main pollutant (accounting for around 80% of total emissions of the textile industry) is the dumping of untreated dye effluents into water ways. The colours of the dyes in water systems can cause difficulties for light penetration into the water ways, which has a great effect on the photosynthesis process and oxygen levels for the plant and animal life below water. They are also highly toxic.

Nearly 200 billion litres of coloured effluent is produced annually, and the result of this is significant biodiversity loss and human harm.

Synthetic dyes weren’t invented until the late nineteenth century, before then dyes were made of natural materials like minerals, plants and animals. We moved to synthetic dyes when they were realised to be cheaper to produce, brighter and more colour fast. Though synthetic dyes are colour fast (meaning they don’t run/fade when worn or washed) it has been revealed that after prolonged contact with skin, especially when the body is warm and perspiring, chemicals from the dye can be absorbed into the body. People who suffer from chemical sensitivity can experience “skin rashes, headaches, trouble concentrating, nausea, diarrhea, fatigue, muscle and joint pain, dizziness, difficulty breathing, irregular heart beat, and/or seizures.” (3)


“The genotoxicity of textile dyes is the greatest potential long-term hazard to human health”. (2)


Not just exclusive to the synthetic dyes, equally as harmful chemicals have been found in garment finishes used for “wrinkle-free, stain resistant, flame retardant, anti-static, anti-fungal, anti- bacterial, odor-resistant, permanent-press, and non-shrink fabrics.” (3)

Dyes used in textile production and finishes are full of complex chemicals, often containing toxins and carcinogens (cancer causing substances) which when consumed by plants and animals can increase in toxicity as they move up the food chain. They can also be highly flammable, and have been the cause or fuel of dye factory fires. Air pollution, VOC’s (volatile organic compounds), workplace safety and odour are amongst other concerns when it comes to textile dyeing. (7) 

Workers exposed to synthetic dyes are often left with varying health issues when the dust particles are inhaled, and can lead to skin and eye irritations, asthma, dermatitis and even disorders to the central nervous system.


“Dyeing and finishing can also be a dangerous sector to work in. In early January 2022, six workers at a dyeing plant in India were killed after inhaling toxic gas caused by an illegal dump of waste chemicals.” (4)


So what is the textile industry doing to counteract these extreme issues?

Some dye manufacturers are researching into more responsible ways of disposing their dye effluent, and minimising the hazardous chemicals used in the process altogether, focusing on natural plant based dyes, which are making a steady return into the fashion industry. Another solution in sight is the technology of ‘Air Dying’, which uses air instead of water to dye textiles.

Fashion for Good launched a new project called the ‘D(r)ye Factory of the Future, partnering with other major brands and organisations like Adidas, Kering group and more, to explore and innovate dyeing techniques that use less water, moving from wet to dry dyeing.

“…the project brings together several innovations in textile pre-treatment and colouration that have the potential to reduce emissions by up to 89 percent, and to cut water consumption by between 83 and 95 percent.” (9)

Alternatives must be explored, as well as responsible waste disposal, along with the reduction of mass production in the fashion industry. It is down to the brands, manufacturers and consumers to demand for changes in the production of the clothing that we wear everyday.



References and further reading:

  1. Dyes and dyeing - Textiles

  2. Effects of textile dyes on health and the environment and bioremediation potential of living organisms - ScienceDirect

  3. Synthetic Dyes: A look at Environmental & Human Risks | textileaid's Blog

  4. Dyeing for fashion: Why the clothes industry is causing 20% of water pollution - Wings Environmental

  5. Textile dyeing effluents and its impact on environment

  6. Textile dyeing industry an environmental hazard

  7. Study of Environmental Concerns of Dyes and Recent Textile ...

  8. The State of Fashion 2022

  9. Fashion for Good initiates project with brands and innovators to shift textile processing from wet to dry

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