Future Fashion III - Sustainability of synthetic and natural textile dyes

Posted in: biobased

In this article, we cover conventional synthetic dyes, their compositions, variety and environmental impacts. Subsequently, we explore natural alternatives, reviewing their potential and limitations. Finally, we review the impact that textile colour dyeing is having on water around the world.

The two previous articles in the Future Fashion series focused on the most used textiles and fabrics within the fashion industry. The articles explored the range of raw materials used for the manufacture of both natural and synthetic products, putting the sustainability of such materials into context and into perspective. Throughout those articles we mentioned the chemical side of clothes manufacturing on a few occasions – in particular in the second article which dealt with leather and leather tanning – however we have not yet delved into the textile colouring process.

The first textile dyes are thought to have originated during the Neolithic Era (circa 10,000 BC). Evidence of textile dyeing was also found in China and Egypt, dating back 5,000 years. The dyes had been manufactured from natural raw materials such as plants, bark, algae and insects (e.g. Cochineal insect for red; octopus for sepia brown; pomegranate rind for yellow; and lichens for a range of colours). Nowadays, natural dyes are the exception rather than the rule, with 80% of all dyes in circulation being manufactured from petroleum-derived synthetic compounds.

The recent history of colour dyes, and the discovery of synthetic dyes, is strongly entangled with European colonialism during the 19th and 20th centuries. As European countries colonised other nations around the world, natural resources for the production of natural colour dyes were overexploited for the benefits of European fashion trends. Colonialism also sparked the discovery of the first synthetic dye, when Sir William Henry Perkin was commissioned to synthesise the first artificial quinine from a coal tar-derived aromatic oil, with a view to fight malaria more efficiently and strengthen the colonial hold of the British in Asia[i]. In 1856, through his experiments, Sir William accidentally discovered “mauveine”, the first ever man-made colour dye. This discovery sparked a surge in dye manufacturing, with new dyes being synthesised rapidly, and in organic chemistry in general. Following these discoveries, multiple chemists also noticed that some of these new synthetic dyes had medicinal properties. Mauveine in particular is known to have applications in immunology and chemotherapy.

To read the rest of the article, click here.

For more information:


This article was written by Thea Allary, Research Analyst at NNFCC.

You might also be interested in: