The True Cost of Colour

The impact of fabric dyeing is often overlooked when it comes to fashion's footprint on the environment. It's been overshadowed by topics like landfill and plastics, but our love for colour is wreaking havoc on the natural world.

Colour is such a fundamental part of our self-expression and is often the first thing that catches our eye when we pick up a piece of clothing. A conscious shopper usually pays attention to where a garment is made and the fabrication it's made from, but few people realise the effect that different dyeing techniques have on the environment. 

Here we explore the impact dying is having on people and our planet, and look at local designers who are actively making decisions to minimise this impact.

The impact on people and our enviroment

Fashion is to blame for one-fifth of industrial water pollution due to poor regulation and enforcement in manufacturing countries such as Bangladesh and China, where wastewater is often discarded into rivers and streams. Orsolo De Castro, Co-founder of Fashion Revolution talks about the ongoing ‘joke’ in China;

"they say you can forecast the 'it' colour of the season by looking at the colour of the rivers".

It's common practice for factories to discard wastewater laden with residual dyes, heavy metals, hazardous chemicals, microfibres and mordants (chemicals used to bond dyes to fabric) into waterways, posing health threats to humans, marine life and polluting vital drinking water sources.

Jian River in Luoyang, in north China's Henan province, turned red from red dye that was dumped into the city's storm water pipe network. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

Jian River in Luoyang, in north China's Henan province, turned red from red dye that was dumped into the city's storm water pipe network. Credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images

The fashion industry is responsible for the use of approximately 93 billion cubic metres of water annually. Dyeing and finishing are the most energy-intensive and polluting aspects of making our clothes. The process of finishing requires the application of chemicals or treatments to fabric in order to produce the desired look or feel - such as making the garment anti-wrinkle, faded or water resistant. Vast amounts of water are further used during the dyeing process to ensure vibrant colours bind to the material and don't fade.

There are many different types of dyes used in the textile industry, with azo dyes (synthetic nitrogen-based dyes) known to be the most harmful. They are the dyes responsible for producing bright colours like yellows or reds. Some azo dyes break down in certain conditions and produce aromatic amines, a chemical compound that is known to enhance cancer risk. These are so toxic that the EU has prohibited their use and import, but they are still used in some Asian countries. A quandary for those of us wearing imported clothes. However, it's not just azo dyes that are problematic. The World Bank has identified 72 toxic chemicals used solely in the textile industry for dyeing and fixing purposes. 

The impact on workers and people living close to the factories is most severe. Fishermen have lost their livelihoods, and people are forced to drink contaminated water once it enters their freshwater supply.

Dhaka in Bangladesh, where many of America and Europe's leading fashion houses have their clothing produced, is one of the worst affected areas. Many of the rivers and canals have turned a pitch black colour as a result of the sludge churned out by textile dyeing processes. The water in the canals is very thick, like tar, and has a strong odour. It's so contaminated that light cannot penetrate the water's surface, which diminishes plants' ability to photosynthesise. In turn, oxygen levels in the water begin to drop, killing aquatic plants and animals. 

The landscape in Indonesia looks similar. On the Citarum River - hundreds of textile factories dump waste and chemicals into the once freshwater source daily. For each pound of textiles produced, a pound of chemicals is broken-down and later illegally bled into the river. 

A man walks through colored rainwater past a dyeing factory in Shyampur in June 2018. Its waste is dumped into the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

A man walks through colored rainwater past a dyeing factory in Shyampur in June 2018. Its waste is dumped into the Buriganga river in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Credit: Allison Joyce/Getty Images

So who is to blame and what is the solution?

Large Western brands who outsource a large proportion of their manufacturing to countries like Bangladesh and China to exploit their cheap labour force play a significant role here. 

“Here at The Harmonic, we are proud to stock brands like Esse Studios, who commit to sourcing high-quality, low-impact fabrics and manufacture locally” says Nessy Robinson, Co-Founder The Harmonic.

For example, Esse's denim, derived from Italy, is yarn-dyed naturally using the leaves of the Indigofera plant. Their premium cotton, used in their classic range of cotton shirts, is also sourced from quality suppliers in Italy. Denim and shirting styles are produced in Australia by factories with socially responsible and ethical practices, while specialised knitwear is made in a boutique factory in China.

Esse’s Founder Charlotte Hicks acknowledges that to be genuinely sustainable requires questioning and challenging everything. "As a brand, you're working with so many people along supply chain to achieve a sustainable end result" Hicks says, "that's why I try to partner with people who are doing due diligence, who are trying to shift and change their business practices and have a shared vision."

Another local designer that shares this vision is Bassike - who produce more than 90% of their garments in Australia. They maintain close relationships with manufacturers and work closely with their entire supply chain - designing and creating their own trims and fabrics rather than buying finished products. 


However, the challenge  with sustainability is that it encompasses so many separate issues.

“It’s great to see fashion brands championing low-impact dyeing, however, it's futile if the product is thrown away or the supply chain is exploitative” says Libby, Co-Founder The Harmonic.

“The linear mentality of take, consume, destroy has been around for centuries, and it seems to be difficult for businesses to encourage their customers to break with this ‘tradition’ to influence change.”

We give kudos to brands like KitX, who consider how materials can be reused at the end of their life cycle. Founder and Head Designer Kit Willow says that even though she's built circularity and up-cycling into her designs,

"it's still the most sustainable to be naked or just wear vintage".

Hicks shares this sentiment - who sees the endurance of each Esse garments as paramount to the brand's sustainability pledge. According to Hicks, The wastefulness and thoughtless speed of fashion were initial motivators to develop a brand that embraces small capsule collections, slow release editions and seasonless style. 

“Here at The Harmonic, we believe there needs to be a global, systematic overhaul of fashion as we know it.” Says Ness. A circular economy and changing perception around second-hand fashion is crucial to alleviate some of the woes associated with the planet's second dirtiest industry - fashion.

“If this phenomenon is truly embraced globally, it would be the most significant shift in human consumption since the industrial revolution.” Says Libby. “At The Harmonic we’ve implemented a Buyback Program where customers can create their own circular wardrobe. It’s a small step in our journey to create a more circular ecosystem. The really exciting part is coming later this year, we hope to empower brands to really embrace a circular model and pre-loved. Stay tuned.”

Written by Chelsea Donaldson.