Fashion has been an integral part of human civilisation for centuries. It was in the 18th century when the pioneers of fashion design (royal dressmakers) came to light. Fashion slowly made its way to the common people and, since then, the fashion industry has been on the rising. Colour is the essence of the fashion industry.
The substances used to colour any material are dyes and pigments. Dyeing is an old practice and it has its roots in the Neolithic period. Traditionally, dyeing was done using natural materials obtained from plants and animals. But, the accidental discovery of the first synthetic dye ‘Mauve’ by William Henry Perkins, really changed the face of the industry. Soon many more dyes were successfully synthesised and manufactured on a large scale. This changed the fashion industry’s game altogether. Fashion became easy and pocket friendly with synthetic dyes. It added countless hues to our fashion industry metaphorically as well as literally. There were innumerable shades, combinations, and all of this at very affordable rates.
Dyes have wide applications in the textile, paper, food, rubber, plastic, and pharmaceutical industries. Dye is a chemical, composed of two parts chromogen and chromophore (attached to an auxochrome). A chromophore is the colour and chromogen is the chemical structure that helps the lodging of the colour on any material. There are different types of dyes depending upon their physical and chemical properties. The process of manufacturing synthetic dyes is quite complex, involves multiple steps, and consumes lots of water and energy.
Synthetic or Natural, why and how does it matter?
As per the report submitted by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, dye manufacturing and application consume around 93 billion cubic metres of water annually! Yes, that’s quite a lot, and unfortunately, 60% of humankind does not have access to fresh water. It is heart-breaking that some of us are deprived of our most fundamental need for survival.
Effluents from the dyeing industry have become a source of major concern to us. They are contaminating our water bodies, deteriorating our soil quality, and polluting our air. During the process of dyeing, 15-20% of the excess dye is washed off and wasted. Not only does it pollute our waters, but also alters its aesthetic value. Moreover, washed-off dyes also alter the physical and chemical properties of water, interfering with the aquatic animals’ intercommunications, as chemical signalling is their primary mode of communication.
Bioaccumulation is another challenge posed by the dyeing industry. Dyes are chemicals with varying degrees of solubility and reactivity. Their reactivity results in the production of harmful and toxic by-products. These products enter our environment by different means, ultimately accumulating in our food chains. Some of these chemicals are mutagens and carcinogens, causing dreadful diseases (cancer, organ failures) and disorders of the central nervous system.
This is the dark face of the dyeing industry. The advent and popularity of synthetic dyes has definitely made fashion affordable for us, but our environment (humankind in a long run) is paying a great price for it.
Natural dyes, a climate-friendly alternative?
Natural dye is a dye obtained from natural sources such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, leaves etc. They are eco-friendly being devoid of any harmful chemicals. Apart from being chemical-free, they pose many more advantages. Production of natural dyes does not involve complicated procedures and high-tech machinery; thus, they are energy efficient. The raw material is abundant and renewable. It promotes the growth of local artisans and generates employment, thus contributing to the economy. Natural dyes give a soothing appearance and feel to the fabric.
Natural dyes are available in various colours and shades from different sources. The most popular sources are indigo plant, turmeric, saffron, cranberries, pomegranate, beetroot, rose petals, marigold etc. Most of these natural dyes can be easily applied to the fabric with the help of a natural mordant like alum.
India has always had deep ties to the natural way of life. The art of dyeing is known to us since the Vedic times. We were foremost in the production and export of natural dyes, especially Indigo. However, the discovery of synthetic dyes and their short-term gains shifted the focus from natural dyes to synthetic dyes. Nonetheless, in the wake of the global climate crisis, fashion designers across the world are now leaning towards the use of natural dyes. The Indian fashion industry and fashionistas are also marching towards natural and sustainable fashion choices. The government of India is encouraging the use of natural dyes by promoting and funding various projects and local artisans working in the field. The natural dye industry has also caught a lot of attention from private companies at home as well as offshores.
Here are examples of a few Indian start-ups taking us to sustainable fashion.
- AVANI: It is a Kumaon-based start-up promoting local artisans. They are involved in the manufacturing of eco-friendly apparel using natural fabrics and dyes.
- LEAFAGE: It is a home-based start-up in Pune, run by Shraddha Joshi-Barde. She makes apparel and home decor items using fallen leaves, barks and twigs. The colours come from the leaves and twigs and are absolutely chemical free.
- ARANYA NATURAL: It is a Munnar-based start-up, manufacturing apparel, papers etc from natural resources.
- BELITTLE: It is a Tamil Nadu-based setup that specialises in baby clothes. They make baby clothes and accessories using natural products, making fashion comfortable for our babies and friendly for our environment.
- INDIGREEN: It is an eco-friendly fashion label in India started by Ms Nidhi S and Mr Gaurav G. They are manufacturing fashion clothes using various organic fabrics and dyes.
- ANOKHI: It is an oldeco-friendly brand offering a wide range of fashion items of clothing. They aim at conserving our ethnic designs and patterns.
- TILHORI: It is an Indian fashion brand offering trendy western as well as ethnic Indian clothes, made from natural and sustainable resources.
- BHUSATTVA: They are one of the pioneers of ‘going green’ initiative. They are promoting organic fashion and natural dyes. They aim to promote organic farming and the conservation of natural resources.
- MULYA CREATIONS: It is an Uttarakhand-based start-up promotingsustainable fashion through organic fabrics and natural dyes.
- FORTY RED BANGLES: It is an eco-friendly fashion house founded by Ramona Saboo. The focus is on sustainable and eco-friendly lifestyle products ranging from clothing, footwears to other accessories.
These are just a few examples of the countless efforts that our fashion entrepreneurs are taking to make fashion sustainable. But all these efforts will bear fruits only when we, the consumers, adopt sustainable and clean fashion. Fast fashion comes cheaper but we should not overlook the long-run prices that we are paying for it. Moreover, sustainable fashion will become more affordable only when its demand in the market increases.