Benefits of Natural Dye in the Fashion Industry

Leah wears an orange tank top and rests on a sign that reads Afton Overlook - Benefits of Natural Dye

This post was sponsored by MATTER Prints as part of an ongoing partnership. Research and opinions are my own.

Benefits of Natural Dye

The fashion industry has a dye problem…

The increased demand for textile products… and the use of synthetic dyes have together contributed to dye wastewater becoming one of the substantial sources of severe pollution problems in current times (Source).

In fact, textile dyeing is estimated to be one of the top three polluters in the world, “responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution globally, with the emission of as many as 72 toxic chemicals reaching the water supply.”

But what does this mean in practical terms? 

Though not all synthetic dyes are created equal, many are known to have carcinogenic properties. Azo dyes, for instance, can be fairly innocuous in their stable form but become toxic as they break down in the environment. Dyes made with heavy metals such as copper, chrome, and zinc or with formaldehyde are also known to cause cancer in humans.

When toxic dyes enter the water supply as runoff from factory production, they raise PH levels in the environment, killing off or compromising fish and other wildlife and disrupting the delicate balance of the ecosystem. Humans potentially suffer on both sides of the factory walls: garment workers inhale and touch carcinogenic and reproductive-health compromising compounds and the surrounding community absorbs the same compounds in their food and drinking water.

And while all of Europe and other countries have banned the most toxic synthetic dyes:

The majority of garment production and fabric dying now takes place in developing countries. Often health and safety regulations are not well enforced, with workers not using protective equipment or using banned products, which can be extremely damaging to health and wellbeing (Source).

For these reasons, it is pertinent to consider not only the ethics of production but the sourcing of dyes before purchasing a product.

I confess I’ve been pretty lousy at this. There’s no excuse other than that it’s another thing to put on my long list of requirements, and sometimes I find it all overwhelming. But I need to remember that small steps forward are good, and that knowing more about the world’s suffering, though it can feel heavy, is ultimately a privilege, because it means I can possibly do something to change it.

The alternative to synthetics, of course, is natural dye.

Note: For the purpose of this essay, I am using the natural dye industry’s use of the term natural, which designates the roots, plants, and minerals used in traditional textile dyeing that are known to be nontoxic for textile use. This does not mean all naturally derived plants and minerals are nontoxic.

Natural dyes are produced with plants and nontoxic minerals. In the textile industry, they’re often processed alongside natural mordant – a nontoxic binding agent – to keep the fabric from fading.

If you’ve ever dyed with indigo, you’ve experimented with natural dyeing. Congratulations! But there are hundreds of other possibilities, most of them having been discovered and developed over centuries.

And that’s another reason to celebrate natural dyes: instead of destroying life it tells a story of human flourishing. 

Natural dyes are inherently finicky, which is part of the reason the fashion industry prefers synthetics. But the variation in process and final product also reveals the beauty of people and nature in relationship with one another.

MATTER Prints has experimented with natural dyes in the past, but they’re trying to do so more intentionally with their new collection of ethically made tops. The Cross-Back Top I’m wearing was dyed with the roots of the common madder plant, which has been used for dyeing textiles since at least the 3rd century BCE. The artisan team at Indigenous Industries uses a time-intensive technique to get a rich, color-fast result not usually associated with natural dyes. In fact, it takes about a week to finish the dye process before the fabric is ready to be cut and sewn.

Ethical Details: Cross-back Top – c/o MATTER Prints; Jeans – secondhand via ebay; Shoes – thrifted

My Review of the Cross-Back Top

MATTER’s cross-back top is made with a soft, tightly-woven khadi cotton. It’s a simple pull-over styled with a cropped fit and wide straps. The color is somewhere between rust and red, which I find really suits my complexion and contrasts nicely with most of the colors in my closet. I always feel this way about MATTER, but really, there stuff is wearable art. Thoughtfully designed and beautifully made.

I have a 34″ bust and MATTER suggested I go up a size, to a size 2, so you’ll want to keep that in mind if you plan to order. The Cross-Back top costs $79 USD, a reasonable investment if it suits your style considering how laborious the dye process is. I like the idea of wearing this piece over striped shirts and crew-necks in addition to as a stand-alone, so I included it in my spring capsule, which I’ll be sharing this week.

Grade: A
Size Ordered: 2
Measurements: 34A – 28 – 39″

There are other ethical brands experimenting with natural dye, and I’d like to eventually get a resource post put together, but I would recommend MATTER for sure. You can learn more about their dye and production process here.

More in Materials

Leah Wise

Leah Wise is the founder of StyleWise Blog. She has been writing, speaking, and consulting on sustainable fashion, the fair trade and secondhand supply chain, and digital marketing for over ten years. An Episcopal priest, Leah holds a B.A. in Religion from Florida State University and an M.Div. from Yale Divinity School. When not working, you can find her looking for treasures at the thrift store.

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