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Pretty Colours: Poisoning our earth

There are days when it’s really hard to stay positive, to remember that we all have a say in how the future will unfold. In the case of synthetic fabric dyes, where the colours are highly toxic, it’s really hard to find much good news. Positive change is happening, though, in some places. And, what has been shown time and time again is, if enough consumers speak up and vote with their purchasing power, more producers will respond.

Toxic Textiles

The textile industry has a lot to answer for. One of the most damaging industries when it comes to the health of our waterways, what is dumped into rivers and streams as a by-product of making fabric eventually winds up in the oceans, leaving a toxic wake of destruction behind. Perhaps the only industry with a worse reputation than textile production is agriculture. While we all have to eat, once we understand the real impact of our food choices on the environment, it gets easier to make organic, whole food choices and to support our local farmers whenever possible.

The Earth’s Waters Are Suffering

Water, we all know, is the lifeblood of our planet. No living thing here on Earth can survive long without water. And yet, every day we persist in dumping toxins of all kinds into the world’s waters. Fabric mills spew millions of gallons of chemicals into our waterways as waste from processing.

Depending on the type of fabric, Ecotextiles reports that it takes between 10 and 100% of the weight of the fabric in chemicals to produce that coloured piece of fabric. Industrial chemicals used in the process include chlorine, heavy metals, and formaldehyde, all of which cause damage to the health of the planet and all those (plants, animals, insects, and, yes, people) who live here. Conventionally grown textile crops (cotton, for example) use farming methods that degrade the soil and chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, all of which are associated with a myriad of health and environmental risks.


Lest you think these crops are small potatoes when compared with human or animal feed crops, think again. The pesticides used to grow cotton make up more than 25% of all pesticides used worldwide!

We may love bright, bold colours in our latest fashions, but the chemical dyes used to produce those colours are full of potent chemicals like toluidine and benzidine (amines). Many colourants include organically-bound chlorine, a well-known carcinogen. The effluent flushed out of textile factories after fabric has been dyed may include ammonia, alkali salts, heavy metals and much of the original pigment.

These slurries of wastewater are incredibly toxic with damaging health impacts not only downstream, but also in the air that we breathe (evaporation takes along some of these toxins) and in the very fabrics we desire. Worn against our skin or slept in for hours each night, the slow, ongoing exposure and absorption process may be at the root of certain allergies, diseases and their side effects linked to chemical overloads. Yet another source of chemical pollution, it’s no wonder that our bodies struggle to deal with ever-increasing loads of heavy metals used by the textile industry and impossible for the body to get rid of.

We find these chemicals making their way into the food chain, the atmosphere, our clothing and bedding and, eventually, they build up in our organs where they wreak havoc with our health. When we wash our new, brightly coloured garments, some of those toxic dyes and chemicals flush into our own, local waterways, bringing the problem very close to home.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Because we don’t see the shocking changes to water colour in rivers in places like India and China where labour and energy costs are low and government regulations are lax, the impact of our buying choices isn’t as obvious as it might be if we lived along the banks of some of the most polluted waterways in the world.

Change is Possible - It’s Happening

It can be tempting to throw up our hands in despair and give up. How can we make the kinds of drastic changes necessary to turn things around? In fact, each of us makes choices every day that impact decisions made at the boardroom level of the world’s biggest companies. Those companies do listen - not because seeing those filthy rivers make their hearts ache, but because when consumers go elsewhere, it hurts corporate bottom lines.

Expensive Change Funded by Big Business

Some of the big brands are, in fact, looking for cleaner technologies. AirDye technology claims to use a fibre-impregnation technique that requires only a fraction of the water and energy of some other dyeing methods (which basically coat the fibres with dye). Adidas has been trialling a nearly waterless dye process that uses pressurised carbon dioxide (which they then capture to reuse) to disperse the dye.

Ikea and Nike have also been experimenting with new technologies like these but until consumer demand rises faster than the demand for cheap fashion we won’t see these existing technologies becoming commonplace. And, without demand from consumers, there’s little incentive for big corporations to invest in research to develop new strategies that will reduce the negative environmental impacts of the textile industry.

Look for Other Fashionable Options

Sure, letters, campaigns and boycotts can be very effective, but so to can choosing to make your purchases elsewhere. By buying from small independent businesses you may be paying a little more in the short term, but the quality is always better and you can actually discover exactly how the item was produced.

Here at Mandala Dream Co we try to be as transparent as possible so you know exactly what you are (and aren’t) getting in every hand-created item we produce. We care about the environment and your health as much as you do, which is why we only use organically-produced, natural fabrics and why we are so keen on natural dyes created with non toxic plant, flowers and herbs that we produce ourselves. But our product range is limited, slow and ethical, which is why we encourage you to also explore other, small-scale producers with similar ethical standards, and to consider upcycling, recycling, clothing swaps or second-hand stores instead of fuelling the fast-fashion cycle by running off to a big chain store when you feel like switching up your wardrobe.

As long as we keep supporting cheap fashion outlets, shoddy production practices will follow cheap labour, toxic dyes and sloppy regulations to the next country willing to turn a blind eye and put up with the impact on the planet and our health. Working together, WE CAN make a difference. It’s never too late (or, too early) to start.


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