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toxic colours - how sustainable are our clothes?

Blue jeans are inconceivable without blue, white is worn for weddings and the "little black dress" is considered a classic - it is impossible to imagine fashion without colours. The only problem is that countless chemicals are used to achieve the strong colours. Often to the detriment of people and the environment.

Dye yarn

Synthetic dyes have been used in textile dyeing since the 19th century. Since then, it has been possible to reliably achieve the same colour result with every fabric bale, regardless of the fibre used.
With vegetable dyes, on the other hand, colour variations or spotty results can occur - this also involves a great risk for the manufacturer and is therefore less attractive.

Health risks of synthetic dyeing

However, synthetic colours are not without risk:

Of the approximately 2,000 azo dyes listed in the dye catalogue, about 500 are considered carcinogenic. They have therefore been banned in the European Union since 1996 - but not in many other countries. Since they are cheap and provide a strong colour result, they are often used in Asia, among other places.
Although they are also not allowed to be sold in the EU, controls are only carried out on a random basis. Prohibited azo dyes can be detected in about 5% of all cases examined. On average, every German owns 95 items of clothing; those who buy conventional products therefore probably have 4 to 5 textiles in their wardrobe that are contaminated with toxic chemicals.

Dyed yarn
Dyed yarn

Some emulsion paints are also hazardous to health: they can trigger allergies.

In addition to the chemicals used for dyeing, other substances are very often used: around 7,000 of them are defined as "auxiliaries and finishing agents for textiles", of which around 700 are used regularly: for example, they ensure that clothes do not mould during transport, shirts and blouses remain crease-resistant and colours do not fade.

The EU has also defined bans and limit values here, but these are repeatedly undermined. In addition to the carcinogenic effect, chemicals are sometimes used that have a hormonal effect. Possible health consequences can be infertility, nerve damage or diabetes.

Cancer and environmental damage from synthetic colours

As consumers, conventionally dyed clothes pose a certain risk to us - but much more serious are the effects in the countries where our clothes are made.

Colourful yarn
Colourful yarn

Textile workers who are involved in dyeing, cutting or sewing our clothes experience much greater contact with the hazardous substances. Their risk of contracting cancer, among other things, is significantly increased. Studies have already found a connection with deaths from leukaemia and breast cancer, but also with an increased risk of miscarriages.

At the same time, the environment suffers: yarn is usually dyed by bathing it in the dye - which is prepared with a lot of water. The process requires up to 30 litres of water per kilogram of fabric. A good water management system is crucial to prevent the toxic chemicals from entering surrounding rivers, lakes and the sea - and this is precisely what is often lacking in Asia.

If the sludge, which is harmful to the environment and health, gets into clean water, it contaminates even larger quantities of water and harms the animals and plants living there. This also affects the people who use the water as drinking water or live from fishing.

Black is particularly harmful

Cotton fibres are naturally white/light grey. Therefore, relatively few synthetic dyes are needed for light colours; clothes in strong red or blue tones, on the other hand, need a high concentration of dyes.
The most difficult thing to achieve is a deep black. For this, various colour pigments are mixed, which can only be bound to the fibres at all through the large use of halogen compounds or heavy metals. Black clothing thus entails the greatest environmental impact.

If you don't want to support the use of environmentally harmful chemicals and dyes, you should pay particular attention to the relevant seals: GOTS, IVN Best and Bluesign have strict guidelines that prohibit the use of toxins throughout the process.

Ökotex 100, on the other hand, only checks the end product: chemicals that are harmful to health can be used in production, but must no longer be detectable in the finished product. This is certainly good for us as consumers - but not for people and the environment in the Global South.

Checklist - what can I do?