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The Sustainable Dyearies: The Core of Dyeraid Part 2

Here we go again, "The Core of Dyeraid" into three parts. If you haven't already, go check out a brief history of natural dye in our previous post "The Core of Dyeraid Part 1." If you are caught up, welcome to "The Core of Dyeraid Part 2." I know you have been on the edge of your seat all week long waiting for this, thank goodness the wait is over. As stated in our last entry, Part 2 will compare and contrast Natural vs. Synthetic Dye and answer the three fundamental questions: Why is synthetic dye not sustainable? Is natural dye actually better for the environment? Is Natural Dye actually going to help us create a brighter, more sustainable future? Juicy stuff, I know.

First off, I feel I should define sustainability as a reference point I can use throughout this entry so we aren't all confused. Oxford Languages defines sustainability as,

"avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance."

Second off, let's also establish that color is important. Color plays an extremely fundamental role in our purchasing decisions. I mean the great "gold & white vs. blue & black" dress debacle of 2015 preaches that. (It was blue & black.) Not only that, but color is also a fundamental component of fashion production. Because colorful textiles are so important, how this color is achieved should be carefully thought out and analyzed; so, that is what we are going to do here.

Compare & Contrast: Natural vs. Synthetic Dye

To avoid boring you with the many novels of notes I have on this topic, I created a sort of aesthetically pleasing chart summarizing key elements of both Synthetic & Natural Dyes.

Download your own copy to keep!

Download PDF • 403KB

Why Synthetic Dye is Not Sustainable:

In a recent article by Fashion Revolution I read that, "only 5% of the raw materials involved in the production and processes of a garment are contained within the garment (Ranson, 2020)." So what about the other 95% that we don't see? Most of it is called "runoff" and ends up in waterways surrounding garment factories. For example, have you heard of the Citarum River? No? Well it is the World's Most Polluted River. Don't believe me, here are some photos.

From left to right.

Photo 1: (Tarahita and Rakhmat, 2018); Photo 2: (The Jakarta Post);

Photo 3: (Soeriaatmadja, 2018); Photo 4: (Hasibuan, 2018)

There are over 2,000 factories situated on the banks of the Citarum River all of which use as much as 200 tonnes of water per tonne of fabric. Many of which use synthetic dye. Once synthetic dyes enter the wastewater being dispersed from manufacturers they heat it, increase its pH and saturate it with chemicals, such as lead, aluminum, mercury, chromium, copper & benzene. Having no where to go but back into nature it then seeps into fish or farmland (Brannigan, 2017). For example, the water of the Citarum River irrigates 400,000 hectares of rice fields. This toxic soup also provides 80% of the water supply for the capital of Indonesia (Tarahita and Rakhmat, 2018). This is happening in the waterways of China, India and Bangladesh and these chemicals don't just break down when they enter rivers and oceans; they take full circumnavigation like good old Ferdinand Magellan just making their way around the world.

So even with this one example, let's circle back to the definition of sustainability and look at how Synthetic dye directly contrasts to its standards. Synthetic Dyes are:

  • polluting water sources with toxic chemicals killing biodiversity within the water (animals, plants etc.)

  • polluting the soil through irrigation

  • contaminating food coming from said soil

  • causing severe effects in/on the human body threatening the population

  • depleting existence of clean/ replenish-able fresh water for said population

If sustainability means, "the avoidance of depletion of natural resources in order to maintain ecological balance," synthetic dye definitely falls short of being able to do so even with its few pro's.

Why Natural Dye is Better for the Environment:

When I began looking into natural dyes in a textiles class in college there were so many things about it I found super fascinating that had nothing to do with aesthetic alone. Natural Dye is a more holistic approach on dyeing textiles, and while yes it does have its cons of expense, color variation and color fastness, I personally think these many benefits outweigh those surface level cons. Natural Dye is better for the environment because:

  • Plants bypass the entire production process it takes to create synthetic dyes

  • Natural dyes, without metallic mordants, neither contain harmful chemicals nor carcinogenic components, common to artificial or synthetic dyes. (Campbell, 2020)

Wait, let's pause here. This means the wastewater from natural dye will not pollute water sources leaving biodiversity a higher chance to thrive. It will not pollute soil through irrigation, it will not contaminate food coming from the soil, it is safer to wear and handle and does not pose a threat to the human population. Wow, the ripple effect of non toxic dye in waterways is exponential when it comes to maintaining healthy biodiversity.

  • It has higher UV absorption protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays (Pargai, Gahlot, and Rani, 2015)

  • It has excellent antibacterial activity, making it safer for kids (Mirjalili and Abbasipou, 2013)

  • It is biodegradable, meaning when it is flushed back into nature it can be decomposed by bacteria or other living things without harm (Handayani, Widhi, Augustinus Ignatius Kristijanto, and Arianti Ina Restiani Hunga, 2018)

  • Mostly non-toxic, with the exception of logwood and bloodroot that can be toxic (KeyColour, 2015)

How Natural Dyes Help Create a Sustainable Future:

Altogether natural dye, when not mixed with certain mordants, works to help preserve the environment and lowers human dependence on harmful products which is the ultimate goal. There is one thing that I personally think is important to helping natural dye stay more holistically sustainable and that is making sure it is sourced from workers that are paid fairly and use sustainable practice in their harvesting. To me, sustainability also includes people having the opportunity to thrive and their communities developing into net positive environments.

It is frustrating because nothing can be 100% perfect when it comes to sustainable production. Natural Dye does still use a lot of land and water, but there are ways to go about use of those resources properly that can even produce a net benefit at the end of the production cycle (more about this in part 3 😉). All in all, what I gather from this analysis is that synthetic dyes solve more surface level issues about what fashion "should" look like, but I agree with Audrey Stanton from The Good Trade when she says,

"hopping on board this sustainable fashion train requires you to let go of what you think fashion can or should look like, and embrace what naturally occurring materials can produce."

There is a lot more about what all of this means for Dyeraid moving forward and our impact plan so don't forget to tune in next week for the last part, part three, where we get personal. Until then, thanks for reading. Keep working to make the world a brighter, more sustainable place.✨


Kara Jo



Brannigan, Maura. "Why Is Fashion Still Sleeping on All-Natural Dyes?" Fashionista. Fashionista, 27 Apr. 2017. Web. 11 May 2021.

Campbell, Uma. "The Importance of Natural Dyes - Biofriendly Planet: For a Cooler Environment." Biofriendly Planet | For a Cooler Environment. 23 Nov. 2020. Web. 11 May 2021.

Handayani, Widhi, Augustinus Ignatius Kristijanto, and Arianti Ina Restiani Hunga. "Are Natural Dyes Eco-friendly? A Case Study on Water Usage and Wastewater Characteristics of Batik Production by Natural Dyes Application." Sustainable Water Resources Management. Springer International Publishing, 01 Feb. 2018. Web. 11 May 2021.

Hasibuan, Syarina. "Can Indonesia Clean up Its Dirtiest River?" Indonesia | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, 22 Mar. 2018. Web.

The Jakarta Post. "West Java Court Declares Textile Company Guilty of Polluting Citarum River." The Jakarta Post. Web.

KeyColour, and KeyColour. "Natural vs. Synthetic Dyes: Which Is Better?: KeyColour Blog." KeyColour. 24 Nov. 2015. Web. 11 May 2021.

Mirjalili, Mohammad, and Mina Abbasipour. "Comparison between Antibacterial Activity of Some Natural Dyes and Silver Nanoparticles." Journal of Nanostructure in Chemistry. Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 30 May 2013. Web. 11 May 2021.

Pargai, Deepti, Manisha Gahlot, and Anita Rani. PDF. India: Department of Clothing and Textiles, G. B. Pant University Agriculture and Technology, India, 24 Feb. 2015.

Ranson, Beth. "The True Cost of Colour: The Impact of Textile Dyes on Water Systems." Fashion Revolution. 14 Feb. 2020. Web. 11 May 2021.

Soeriaatmadja, Wahyudi. "Military Sent in to Clean up Indonesia's Citarum River." The Straits Times. 09 Jan. 2018. Web.

Stanton, Audrey. "Let's Talk Natural Dyes: What They Are, Why We Need Them, And How They Compare To Synthetics." The Good Trade. The Good Trade, 23 Sept. 2020. Web. 11 May 2021.

"Sustainability." Googles English Dictionary, Oxford University Press, n.d., Accessed 11 May 2021.

Tarahita, Dikanaya, and Muhammad Zulfikar Rakhmat. "Indonesia's Citarum: The World's Most Polluted River." – The Diplomat. For The Diplomat, 28 Apr. 2018. Web.

Webber, Kathleen. "How Fast Fashion Is Killing Rivers Worldwide." EcoWatch. EcoWatch, 31 Jan. 2019. Web.