Daily Management Review

Natural vs Synthetic dyes – the paradox of sustainability


Although natural dyes have a smaller pollution footprint, they are expensive to grow and are not economical for large scale manufacturing, Synthetic dyes on the other hand make more economical sense but have a larger pollution footprint. With the world gone “consumption-mad”, untreated chemicals discharges in local water bodies are increasing their pollution levels. Where lies the answer in such a scenario?

Discovered by William Henry Perkins, an English chemist mauveine, is the first artificial, man-made synthetic dye which transformed textile manufacturing. Synthetic dyes allowed manufacturers and dye houses to not only offer a variety of rich colours but it made economic sense as well since it allowed them to scale up their operations. As for the consumers, it was the way to go as well since these colours would not lose their pigmentation, and the options offered by colour palette was almost limitless.
Natural dyes on the other hand, have a more romantic heritage. Indigo is the common natural dye, and its roots can be traced back to one of the oldest civilisation’s of the world – the Indus river valley civilization.

Although synthetic dyes are a boon to textile and dye manufacturers, they are a bane on the environment, since they are extremely polluting. While much of India’s mills have made progress towards reducing their chemical footprint, however a lot more progress is required in order to reduce chemicals from the rinse water, in the dying process. Many rivers in India remain polluted for this very reason.

Sonal Baid, CEO and founder of Aura Herbal Wear, squarely puts the blame on local dye factories for polluting local water sources.
“I have workers in my factory who spend two to four hours everyday going to collect water, with no guarantees they’ll even find it,” says Sonal Baid.

Baid and her husband Arun, have figured out how to make use of natural dyes at a scale that can be used for manufacturing for their factory at Ahmedabad, India. They want to go back to using natural dyes on natural fabrics, since it is less polluting. The problem is that natural dyes lack the vibrancy of colours that synthetic equivalents have, and they also heavily rely on arable land to produce cotton – their base material. Cotton is the easiest fabric that natural dyes can adhere to. However, conventional cotton is a heavy user of water.

Organic cotton though uses much less water and the Baids turned to growing just that. Before starting their factory, Arun, used to work at an industrial waste recycling firm and he was witness to large textile mills openly discharging their chemical wastes in the form of chlorine, mercury, formaldehyde and lead, thus polluting local water bodies.

The Centre for Science and Environment, a Delhi-based organization, did a study of the chemicals found in a river called Noyyal in Southern India. Tirupur, is a textile city in Southern India, and most dye houses and manufacturing plants in Tirupur have been found to have discharge significant quantities of untreated chemicals into local water bodies.

According to Sonal, the water that their factory discharges, is drinkable. “The water that comes out of our process is purer than the underground water we start our production with. That’s our trophy,” she says.
Although, natural dyes are less polluting, they do not make economic sense. Natural dyes come from plants and in order to grow them in sufficiently large quantities can be expensive. Moreover, they need mordants, which include salts in the form of heavy metals, in order that they stick to the fabric. Also, in time the colour from natural dyes washes off which raises the question of the fabric’s sustainability. Phil Patterson, director and consultant of the UK based Colour Connections, believes that natural dyes are not the solution.

This is so because as per Patterson, in order to dye a single acre of cotton, you will need to grow dye in 13 acres of land, this ratio of 13:1 does not make the usage of natural dye a viable option.
“You can see that the global consumption of textiles and land use is the biggest issue to address. … Given the complexities of creating natural dyes and the resources required, such as water and land against the vast commercial markets across the globe, it’s not possible to use only natural dyes.”

The answer, as per Patterson, lies perhaps in a hybrid solution, in between natural and synthetic dyes.
“We have to find ways of using and enhancing nature, which could mean natural-synthetic hybrids, GM natural dyes. That’s one to ponder. Or synthetic dyes from natural starting materials,” says Patterson.
“The world has gone consumption-mad, [and] as a result there are enormous amounts of textiles produced.”

Patterson argues that a way to tackle this problem so as to have a beneficial long term impact is to reduce our consumption pattern.