A Trend to Dye For: Sustainable Fashion Brands and Natural Fabric Dyes

A Trend to Dye For: Sustainable Fashion Brands and Natural Fabric Dyes

Sustainable fashion brands are on the rise but shopping responsibly isn’t always straightforward. In this article we examine the true colours of natural fabric dyes.

Over the past couple of years we’ve seen an outpour of sustainable fashion brands. Today, a quick Google search will reveal hundreds, if not thousands of options from all over the world but the steps, which have been taken by these labels towards achieving a more environmentally, ethically and socially conscious fashion sector have been far from uniform.

Yes, sustainability is (finally) in style and - just like denim - the trend has come to stay. The current, ambiguous definitions of considerably new concepts, however, have left brands with a lot of wiggle room.  Widespread misinformation leads many consumers down a path of assumptions rather than facts and natural fabric dyes, which have substantially gained in popularity over the past couple of years, are a perfect example of this. 

A Splash of Colour 

Of course, natural fabric dyes aren’t a new phenomena, but sustainable fashion brands don't necessarily focus on new modes of production, and rather on the return to traditional practices. Once upon a time, long before fast fashion grew into the monstrosity that it is today, all textiles were coloured using natural dyes. Indigo, which can be traced back to the days of ancient India, is the most commonly known natural fabric dye and the first, which was used on a mass scale. Last year we wrote an article about it, which you can read here.

stack of naturally dyed fabrics

When the first man-made colour, mauveine, was discovered by William Henry Perkin, an English chemist, textile manufacturing was transformed forever. Other synthetic colours quickly followed, which allowed dye houses to operate in large quantities, and offer a limitless palette of rich colours, which didn’t lose pigmentation over time.

And just like that, the easy option became the go-to option, while the environmental implications were swept under the rug. Decades of unchecked and irresponsible use lead to disastrous effects in many parts of the world where the garment industry is thriving. In places like India, Bangladesh or China, discarded chemicals from the fashion industry’s synthetic dye processes have transformed local rivers into thick toxic soups, which eventually mix with the rest of the world’s water systems.

The Return of Natural Dyes 

It’s true, plant based dyes don’t involve chemicals, which protects waterways as well as your skin. They are biodegradable, nontoxic and nonallergic meaning that they are suited much better for the environment and for the humans who create and wear them. That’s why many sustainable fashion brands have chosen to focus their efforts on searching for colours in a way that doesn’t harm people or the environment.

Bad Habits London is one such label that we at SlowCo have chosen to collaborate with. The label is dedicated to small-scale, local production and the exclusive use of natural materials demonstrating what’s possible when nature is harnessed to its full potential. Their clothes come in deep, earthy tones derived from cutch, fustic, gallnut, and several other plants that you’ve probably never heard of. Some of these like logwood, a tree found in Central America or chlorophyllin, a copper compound extracted from stinging nettles, produce strong, vibrant shades using minimal amounts of dye.

bad habits natural fabric dye clothes

Other sustainable fashion brands, like Hong Kong based startup Dyelicious, for example, go even further, and have developed ways to turn food waste into high-quality clothing and other products. Over the past five years, Dyelicious has turned more than six tons of food waste into dyes for dresses, scarves and handicrafts.

This type of innovation is necessary, since natural dyes do not provide all the answers. Most natural fabric dyes, which are mostly commonly derived from plants, are still quite expensive, require much larger quantities to produce strong tones, and oftentimes utilize heavy metal salts based mordants, which is a substance necessary to bind dyes to fabrics during the dying process.

Because we are living in a world full of synthetic food, cosmetics and clothes, we have learned to automatically associate the word natural with products that are better, more pure perhaps, and don't harm the environment. As it turns out, thinking this way is stepping into a misinformation trap. The answer isn’t so black and white because the real problem does not lie solely in the way clothes are dyed but in the sheer quantity of garments being produced.

natural turmeric fabric dye

Plants like indigo, turmeric, or onion, which are some of the most popularly used natural fabric dyes today, require significant amounts of land and water to grow and therefore cannot be used to dye large quantities of clothing. To put things in perspective, almost thirteen acres of land are needed to grow enough dye for just one acre of cotton. Therefore, at the moment natural dyes cannot be used for mass scale production, leaving sustainable fashion brands and independent designers to pioneer the change.

Shopping Responsibly

As is the case with any up-and-coming technology, plant based dyed textiles will change, evolve and hopefully improve over time. The increasing interest among consumers will lead all fashion brands towards making more radical, necessary and sustainable changes, in the same way we’ve seen most restaurants and fast food chains bend the knee to vegan options. It cannot be denied that synthetic dyes lead to pollution, often completely contaminating water reservoirs. Returning to old, natural techniques, as well as discovering new ones is therefore important but in order to make truly sustainable choices when we shop, we must also consider the issues raised by plant based dyes, like resource consumption.

The bottom line is, as consumers today, buying less but buying better is the best choice we can make. Sustainable fashion brands come in many forms, and some are more sustainable than others. While one magical way of creating a sustainable business that solves all of the problems generated by the fashion industry does not exist, it’s important to remember that a truly conscious company, like Bad Habits London will make transparency their priority.