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Dyeing, Finishing & Printing Sustainability

Environmental cost of color

After the COVID-19 pause in fashionwear buying, consumers are eagerly filling up their wardrobes with fashionable designer dresses at cheap prices. In this age of social media influence, people shift from garments very quickly with retailers and brands through celebrities push for new fashionwear at an alarming rate. Every passing fashion season – the life of a garment gets shorter.

Environmental-cost-color
Figure: Along with finishing, dyeing is the utmost polluting and energy-intensive processes involved in manufacturing garments. Courtesy: Collected

Cheap fashion slogans by brands remain a shallow call as the fashion apparel industry consumes around 93 billion cubic meters (21 trillion gallons) of water annually, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Along with finishing, dyeing is the utmost polluting and energy-intensive processes involved in manufacturing garments.

Having said that, as the retailers and brands push apparel manufacturing countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, etc. maintaining sustainability comes under serious threat. And rivers in these countries – especially in China – bear witness with pitch-black color by indiscriminate textile chemical waste dumping.

“Every season we know that the fashion industry needs to highlight new colors,” said Ma Jun, one of China’s leading environmentalists.

Maintaining a world-class waste treatment plant is expensive and apparel manufacturers do not get the price leverage from brands. So the easiest way is once used, the inexpensive way for factories to get rid of unusable, chemical-laden wastewater is to dump it into nearby rivers and lakes. Thanks to brands preaching cheap products and a lack of government monitoring to ensure proper monitoring.

Once in waterways, wastes gather to the point where light is barred from penetrating the surface, plummeting plants’ ability to photosynthesize. This lesser oxygen levels in the water, killing marine plants and animals.

Once in the wastewater, dyeing chemicals are difficult to remove, said Sarah Obser, Head of Sustainability at PFI Hong Kong, a company that delivers environmental and factory audits in Asia.

“The materials do not degrade so they remain in the environment,” Sarah added.

Cheap fashion slogans by brands remain a shallow call as the fashion apparel industry consumes around 93 billion cubic meters (21 trillion gallons) of water annually

Among countless types of dyes, azo dyes — synthetic nitrogen-based dyes — have come under specific inspection from the fashion industry and environmentalists. They are generally used in garment manufacturing and produce bold colors like bright reds or yellows.

Water pollution from the textile chemical industry is an enormous challenge across garment-producing countries, the maximum of which are in Asia due to its abundant cheap labor.

Environmentalist Ma founder of Beijing-based Institute of Public and Environmental Affairs (IPE) said, “many rivers and lakes in China — the world’s main RMG manufacturer – were so polluted that they were effectively dead.”

“In regions with concentrations of these dyes, we have seen some of the lakes in China contaminated to (such) a level that they are no longer good for us,” said Ma.

Workers and people living nearby to factories often stand the brunt of the pollution.

“This water causes sores on the body,” said a resident living in Savar, Bangladesh, adding that people wash their hands or faces in the water have experienced fevers and skin irritation.

In countries like Bangladesh – where the world’s most LEED-certified green factories exist is positively turning the tide. But local textile and apparel industry leaders urge brands to step up and help them to remain sustainable.

Other apparel manufacturing countries are also been taking steps. In China, a variety of tough new environmental policies have been enacted in the last few years. In 2018, the Chinese government announced a new environment protection tax intended at cutting polluting discharge, according to state-run news agency Xinhua.

Still, countless glitches remain, however, for instance, China’s centralized treatment plants sometimes can’t cope with the volume of wastewater produced in its new industrial parks. And existing factories, saddled with costly treatment processes, often build secret discharge pipes or release their wastewater at night to avoid detection, Ma said.

Experts believe the drive must come from big brands, which can inspire factories to build water treatment plants or invest in chemical-free technologies by committing to long-term contracts, even if costs rise.

Still, the elimination of the fashion industry’s hazardous chemicals is likely to become even more challenging as our clothing addiction increases. Apparel consumption is set to rise by 63% to 102 million tons a year in 2030, according to a 2017 Pulse of the Fashion report.

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