The Effects of Textile Dyes on the Environment

The Effects of Textile Dyes on the Environment

The Importance of Color in Clothing

Do you ever let your little ones pick out their own outfits? What do you think draws them to a certain piece of clothing? Could it be the dinosaur graphic on their pajamas, or the embroidered daisies on their jeans? Or, could it be the color?

Color is a huge factor in choosing what to wear, whether you’re a child or an adult. Some of us shop for more muted tones, while others prefer to stand out in brighter hues. Whichever color route you choose to go down, know that there are many rigorous textile dyeing processes that go into getting your garment the color that it is. Unfortunately, most of these processes can have extremely harmful effects on the environment – such as using up valuable natural resources and contaminating the earth’s water with harmful chemicals and toxins. Which is why, here at Bowfish, we exclusively partner with brands that are aware of their environmental impact and are actively working to reduce their footprint. 

And we take responsibility for our part, too! Learn more about some of the effects of the clothing industry on the environment below and how you can join us in doing something about it.

The Usage of Drinking Water in Textile Dyeing

First off, there are a multitude of steps within the garment production process that use water. These steps include bleaching, washing and—you guessed it—dyeing. All of these processes done to the textile utilize water that might otherwise be used for drinking or other basic human needs. According to an article written by Bethany Noble titled “Fashion: The Thirsty Industry,” only 0.3% of Earth’s freshwater is available to humans, and just 2.5% of water on Earth is freshwater. While it may feel like water is abundant and readily available in our everyday lives, this is not true for much of the world. To put it in perspective, Noble states that three years’ worth of drinking water goes into making just one cotton t-shirt. Numerically, this amounts to an insane 2,700 liters.

Image by AFP/Getty Images via “Where does your t-shirt come from? Follow its epic global journey”, by Matthew Green

Detrimental Dyes

In addition to the textile industry consuming vast amounts of our planet’s freshwater, it also pollutes our environment with excess dyes and toxins. Noble goes on to cite that a shocking 20% of industrial water pollution is caused by the dyeing and treatment of textiles. This means that not only are these dyes carelessly disposed of into natural bodies of water, thus making it toxic for human and animal consumption, but they also make the residents of local communities sick with disease by merely coming into contact with these chemicals. The Conscious Challenge states that in countries like Bangladesh and India—where the clothing and textile industries flourish—dye wastewater is carelessly discarded into local rivers. Those polluted rivers then go on to flow into the sea, creating a global impact.

Image by Allison Joyce/Getty Images via “Our colorful clothes are killing the environment”, by Helen Regan

As for China, almost one third of the entire country’s rivers have been deemed much too polluted for any direct human contact. The Conscious Challenge also notes that a whopping 85% of water involved in textile processing is used in dyeing the fabrics alone, meaning that not only is a great amount of valuable freshwater being utilized for non-essential purposes, but the wastewater from that process also has detrimental effects on our ecosystem. The good news, at least in terms of China, is that the government is cracking down on these harmful synthetic dyes, according to an article by Melody M. Bomgardner, “These New Textile Dyeing Methods Could Make Fashion More Sustainable”. Many factories were required to shut down while inspections took place during the summer of 2017. Since then, approximately 60% of denim-dyeing in China has been forced to close.

Historical Textile Dyeing

The use of chemicals in textile dyeing did not come about until the 19th century, so how were clothes dyed before then? Ancient Egyptians utilized local, natural resources in order to add color to their clothing. Plants, roots, bugs, and snails were just a few of the bases for their dyes. According to, some of the Ancient Egyptians’ dyes were successful in achieving long-lasting, vivid hues, but many others faded with wear and tear over time. Native Americans showed European settlers how to use native plants for dyeing, according to the U.S. Forest Service. Some of these plants included mountain alder, red alder, bloodroot, and butternut. However, as with the Ancient Egyptians, European settlers realized that many of these natural dyes faded over time. This is likely why synthetic dyes came about to begin with—natural dyeing methods could not achieve as rich of a hue with as long of a life as synthetic dyeing methods could.

Image by Doug Sherman via Sanguinaria Canadensis (bloodroot)

Alternatives to Synthetic Dyes and Processes

Levi Strauss invented denim jeans using the indigo plant. Once synthetic indigo was discovered, manufacturers took to using this instead (likely because it lasted longer and gave a richer hue). However, synthetic indigo contains a chemical called aniline, which easily escapes into and contaminates natural bodies of water in the denim manufacturing process. That’s why responsible companies are working to bring back the use of the indigo plant for dyeing their textiles. 

Image by Rehahn via “Into the land of indigo”

Generally speaking, natural dyes and fibers are always better for the planet, and brands like Cheeni Clothing are acutely aware of this. Cheeni Clothing is committed to only using natural fibers and dyes, completely free from synthetics, in the beautiful, bohemian childrenswear they create. 

Making Conscious Purchases

There are a multitude of ways to shop smarter. Being on the lookout for clothing made of organic cotton as opposed to regular cotton is a great way to shop sustainably. In conventional cotton farming, chemicals contaminate the soil and run off water. When consumed, these chemicals have harmful consequences on our bodies and have even been linked with causing birth defects! A brand that has a thorough understanding of this—and that we carry here at Bowfish!—is Colored Organics. Colored Organics not only uses synthetic-free, water-based dye that still ensures long-lasting color, but they also use GOTS-certified, organic cotton in all of their pieces, meaning they are composed of at least 70% organic fibers. Similarly, our brand partner Magnetic Me, which is known for its clothing that utilizes magnetic fastenings, also makes it a point to use GOTS-certified organic cotton in their clothing.

Hopefully, when you’re shopping around for either yourself or your little ones, you’ll be able to recognize more sustainably-sourced pieces that do less harm to the environment. The effects of textile dyeing are extremely damaging to humans and nature alike, and we each can do our part to make a difference. 

Besides supporting brands that are making a conscious effort to clean up the textile industry, another great way to help lower your own impact is by joining the Bowfish Environmental Club! We collect trash and litter on a weekly basis to ensure it is properly disposed of, and also to keep our oceans as free of contamination as possible. Learn more about what the club is up to and how you can be a part of it, here.