When considering the ecological impact of a garment, we must take into account all phases of its life cycle. That is, from its cultivation, harvesting or extraction, transportation, transformation and end-of-life. There are several elements to consider in its transformation, and among these, textile coloring is a very important one.
Why does coloration matter?
In fact, the manufacture and use of synthetic or conventional dyes are two major contributors to a garment's environmental impact. Although dyes can produce attractive results, they are two of the world's most polluting industries. They present risks to the health of the workers who handle them on a daily basis, to consumers and to the environment.
Indeed, it seems that these dyes can reach the human body through skin absorption. The possibility of some consumers experiencing skin reactions, nausea and respiratory difficulties is currently being investigated. Synthetic dyes contain, among other things, heavy metals (chromium, copper, chromium, cobalt and zinc), phthalates, formaldehyde and dioxins. These can or are suspected of disrupting the endocrine system (hormones) or causing cancer, particularly in textile workers.
On the environmental front, Richard Blackburn of Leeds University's Centre for Technical Textiles claims that, on average, each kilo of finished fabric needs 80 to 100 liters of water to be dyed. For example, a t-shirt weighing around 200 grams would use between 16 and 20 liters of water just to dye it.
What's more, 80% of the dye is retained by the fabric. The remaining 20% would be evacuated during the rinsing stage. This discharge pollutes the water in which the dye comes into contact. Every year, the global textile industry discharges 40,000-50,000 tonnes of dye into waterways. Some companies, such as Lenzing, have found a way of recovering all the dyes. However, this is not the case for all companies, and some countries are less strict in their environmental discharge regulations. To this we must add the evacuation of dyes by domestic washing water. In fact, when we wash our clothes, it is possible that dye particles are released into our water treatment plants, which are incapable of filtering everything and which in turn release them into our river system.
Finally, synthetic colorants pose a challenge because they are made from non-renewable resources, such as petroleum. Not only are they non-renewable, but fossil fuel use releases C02.
What are the possible solutions?
Although there are regulations in Canada governing clothing labels, they focus primarily on the fiber content of the garment. This means that the type of dye used does not have to be identified. That said, regulations on the identification of dyeing processes on clothing labels should be mandatory to protect citizens and the environment. Without such regulations, it is impossible to prevent the import of garments containing and releasing toxic residues.
However, garments dyed in Canada are subject to a whole range of laws and regulations, both in terms of their toxic content and their discharge into the environment. Canada has adopted the Canadian Environmental Protection Act (1999), which takes textile mill effluents into account. So, since the early 2000s, our textile mills have been regulated both in terms of the materials they use and potential discharges. So it's better to choose garments that are dyed here rather than abroad.
The most sustainable solution would be to wear undyed clothes or clothes dyed with natural substances. However, there are very few solutions in this direction, and it is unlikely that this shift will be envisaged in the short term. There are, however, some good choices, such as OEKO-TEX Standard 100. This is an independent system created in Switzerland in 1992. The process detects a fairly exhaustive list of harmful substances in textiles. Buying an OEKO-TEX®-certified garment is therefore a great eco-responsible solution.
In conclusion, as we've shown on several occasions, it's complex to have a garment that's "perfect" in terms of ecological impact. Textile choice is important, but not the only element to consider. Dyeing is a key element. Unfortunately, even if a garment says "made in Canada", that doesn't mean it's entirely made here. We produce very few textiles and have very few dyeing plants for them. However, it is possible to look for garments dyed here, or those that are OEKO-TEX certified. Finally, it might be worth asking our Canadian designers to have their garments analyzed and certified.