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We need to talk about the synthetic dyes in our clothes

Artificial colours pollute waterways and harm textile factory workers. Natural dyes made with bacteria could be a safer alternative.

Colours are hugely important to us. They reflect moods, seasons, identity, ethnicity and emotions in fashion and other choices that shape our lives. Yet one awkward fact is often overlooked: the production of dyes can be extremely toxic — to people and the planet. If we want to ensure a vast palette remains part of our clothing choices, we must improve how we create colours for future generations. The dye industry needs a meaningful overhaul.

The textile industry consumes 800,000 tonnes of synthetic dyes every year, yet only a fraction of that makes it on to clothing. Much of it is rendered into dye baths and then flushed through industrial sewers into waste tanks or directly into waterways.

People who work at or live near dye houses in developing countries, where fast-fashion garments are made, are often diagnosed with rare diseases not seen in other industrial areas or serious skin ailments and rashes. The other collateral damage of synthetic colouration is the environment. Effluent from dye operations is a major source of water pollution, with effects that include dying fish species, contaminated soil and poisoned drinking water.

Along the Pearl River in China, the pollution from the nearby textile factories has largely killed off what was once a thriving fishing industry. The same tragic result has descended on many more waterways throughout Asia, Africa and Central America.

The encouraging news is that both consumers and large clothing firms are asking for a quick and high-quality fix to the horrible impacts of synthetic colouration. And there are abundant natural solutions we can use to make textile colouration safer for our environment and to close the sustainability loop.

Microorganisms can be the natural dye producers of the future. Many microorganisms, including algae and bacteria, can be made to produce dyes without harmful chemicals in a circular process that uses organic waste material from industries such as sugar refineries and beer breweries. These dyes can be immediately used in existing clothing factories — there is little to no retooling or new equipment needed.

At the startup I co-founded, Lite-1, we have developed high-performance, safe dyes using common microorganisms. The colours we create have the same vibrant pop as existing dyes without harming the people who make the clothes or the rivers and soil downstream from the factory. We are working to ensure our dyes will leave minimal impact on the environment, can be created in processes powered entirely through renewable energy and have a circular consumption pattern. Our source material comes from the waste of others, and our waste material is harmless and can be released into the environment.

The worldwide textile dye industry is valued at $11.3 billion. Currently, only a fraction of 1 percent of that is made up of suppliers of natural dyes, mostly artisanal producers. This is still a fledgling sector that urgently needs an overhaul in its production systems. Using nature biology systems, we are able to offer a clean and scalable alternative that could shift the dye industry.

After more than a century of using harmful chemicals to create fashion statements, we now have the technology to put synthetic dyes permanently off-trend. It’s essential we start talking about this problem and make the transition sooner rather than later.

Roya Aghighi is CEO of Lite-1, a sustainable dye startup that’s part of the RBC Women in Cleantech Accelerator. Meet the other innovators in the accelerator program here.

Image source: istock

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