The Unsustainable Sustainable Fashion – Dyes

I just read this post about a company that does t-shirts on an order base with their designs while using eco-friendly paints for screen printing and I thought it was about time I finally wrote about dyes. Eco-friendly dyes, Biodegradable dyes, Natural Dyes. Clearly all this terms are being used in a very wrong way when it comes to the sustainable fashion industry.


What is eco-friendly?


A quick google search tells us it means “not harmful to the environment”. So let’s go back to the main point. Eco-friendly paints? Seriously? The only possible eco-friendly paints would be those produced with natural products. Not only pigments should come from natural sources, like natural Indigo, or other plants and vegetables, but the binders, the softeners, the preservatives, the thickeners, should all be natural. And even then, it’s hard to say wether they would produce any kind of contamination or not. Perhaps they would be easier to treat with a simple decantation process and bioabsorbents for other compounds. But still we would have to prove it.

So what is it exactly that we are calling eco-friendly paints? I went to the T-shirt site, and fortunately the enterprise clearly states they use water-based inks. Though they are indeed the best solution at the time being it is misleading to think that we can just pour them down the sink and it’ll all be alright. “Wastewater associated with the use of water-based inks is contaminated with colorants (pigments and dyes), vehicles (alkali-soluble, emulsions or colloidal dispersion chemistries), auxiliary solvents (alcohols, glycols and glycol ethers) and additives (waxes, plasticizers and defoamers).”1




What I am trying to say here, is that water-based inks can have heavy metals and VOC’s (Toluene) like any other paint. But you say… Our inks are GOTS or Oeko-Tex certified so they are harmless. Which is not true. These certifications provide assurance that this paints do not cause health problems while wearing them on our clothes. And still highly sensitive individuals might still get allergic reactions from them. So they are still a cocktail of chemicals. Basically to be certified, all your chemical compounds within the water-based inks must be within certain limits. You can check the limits for Oeko-Tex here.


Biodegradable Inks


Another term I laugh about is Biodegradable Inks. Actually, in general I laugh at most of products that label themselves as Biodegradable. Because it is also a misleading concept. First of all, almost everything is biodegradable given enough time. However, it is generally stated that to label something biodegradable it has to degrade due to biological activity, especially by enzymatic TUSF-3action, leading to a significant change in the chemical structure of the material. On the other hand, a quick google search will tell us that biodegradable is to be capable of being broken down into innocuous products by the action of living things, such as bacteria, fungi or other biological means, and in a certain small amount of time. However, for something to biodegrade it will need certain conditions of air, temperature and light. So let’s say we put a t-shirt in a landfill thinking it’s going to naturally biodegrade in its biodegradable supposed time under a whole pile of garbage. Well we might be wrong.

And then again, considering all possible products and chemicals contained in a water-based ink, when they biodegrade, do they do so really into innocuous products? Who regulates a biodegradability label?

GOTS, for example, prohibits products that are not biodegradable based on tests from OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). Even then these test have a range of permissions on not innocuous compounds than can be emitted to nature. What basically this test measure is the COD released in a period of time.2

Otherwise biodegradable could might as well be the same as compostable. Though personally I would not compost something that is biodegradable if I’m going to use that compost for cultivating vegetables, let’s say.


Natural Dyes

Note I mention natural dyes and not natural inks. This is because natural inks don’t exist just yet in the market, or at least at the needed fastness to compete with water-based inks. When I say natural inks, of course I refer to a combination of natural products, that will degrade into there natural components, being completely biodegradable and compostable. We would have to start by obtaining pigments from natural dyes.

And still I include Natural Dyes, because I have seen, and people have tried to sell me water-based dyes as Natural Dyes. I know how natural dyes look like, and a gaudy green is not among those looks.

So back to where we started, let’s just call things what they are. Water-based dyes or inks. Or if you actually use Natural Dyes, then so be it. But let’s stop greenwashing our clients with terms that are not true, or that just don’t really mean anything like biodegradable.

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