Fair Trade vs Colourful Fashion

 woman in red gown on rock - fair trade vs colourful fashion

Colour is the very first factor consumers assess when shopping for clothes. Not fibre content, not fabric feel, but colour. Do I like this colour? Will it look good on me? Failing to select the shades and hues that most flatter us is a highly visible fashion mistake and speaks to our overall ability to function successfully in this somewhat superficial world. We are aware of a colour’s impact on ourselves, but what about its impact on others?

Colourful History

Humankind has been colouring fabric since 3500 BCE. Natural dye sources such as plants and shells produced tints and shades that lacked vibrancy and faded easily.

It wasn’t until 1856 that colourfast dyes were created quite by accident when teenaged chemist William Perkin discovered a new purple dye while attempting to manufacture quinine. His mauveine launched the synthetic dye industry because the new colourants could be made cheaply from coal tar. When Empress Eugénie and Queen Victoria wore mauveine dresses, they began a purple craze among well-dressed ladies from Scandinavia to North America.

Colour forecasting thus began by the late 1800s. French textile mills first issued colour cards for the industries that supplied the ready-to-wear market, milliners, and shoe factories. These dye charts were invaluable tools to ensure consistent colour across all manufacturers’ end products that season, from gloves to shoes to hats. Consumers could ask for and get ensemble pieces from different retailers in a guaranteed hue.

Accurately predicting trends well before they materialize is colour forecasting’s biggest concern because of the requisite lead time for dye makers to access source materials and secure suppliers. Cutting edge palettes have been determined years before eager fashionistas see them on the racks.

The Devil Wears Prada offers this delicious rant by Meryl Streep’s villainous lead, discussing the complex process of determining the colour of the season: 

“…in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets? And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic 'casual corner' where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs...” (The Devil Wears Prada).

And so it goes today. Fashion influencers follow the industry’s capricious lead.

Colour At What Cost?

Any fabric made today must be colourfast if it is to be a commercial success.

Textile dyeing, however, has at least 72 toxic substances associated solely with its processes, according to the World Bank: chemicals; heavy metals that can increase cancer risks, serious illnesses, and skin ailments; toxins that alarmingly increase in deadliness as they enter our food chain.

When this chemical-laden water is used to irrigate crops, as it is in many parts of the world where people farm in proximity to textile manufacturing plants, textile dye toxins are present in vegetables and fruit harvested from these fields.

These poisonous materials can turn rivers black and red and block the sunlight from penetrating, thus preventing life-giving photosynthesis. This interference with oxygen transfer thwarts the river’s self-purification process, as well as harms marine life.

“Fashion is responsible for up to one-fifth of industrial water pollution, thanks in part to weak regulation and enforcement in producer countries like Bangladesh, where wastewater is commonly dumped directly into rivers and streams. The discharge is often a cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals, dyes, salts and heavy metals that not only hurt the environment, but pollute essential drinking water sources.”Helen Regan

Not so fun fact: the fashion industry annually consumes around 93 billion cubic meters (21 trillion gallons) of water. It’s an amount equivalent to 37 million Olympic swimming pools, says Helen Regan of CNN Style.

Fabric dyeing and finishing are the most polluting and energy-intensive processes of garment manufacturing. Chemicals or treatments are applied to fabric to achieve the desired finish and include bleaching, softening or adding water resistant or anti-wrinkle qualities.

What's Being Done

multi-coloured fabrics - fair trade vs colourful fashion
In Bangladesh, says Regan, textile producers are “taking environmental responsibility more seriously” by committing to initiatives like the Partnership for Cleaner Textile (PaCT), that tackle water, energy, and chemical use within the industry.

According to Regan, the European Union, China, Japan, India and Vietnam have all banned the use and import of azo dyes which can release aromatic amines, a chemical compound linked to increased risk of cancer.

And China means business. NPR’s Rob Schmitz says that in 2017, a “pollution crackdown” left whole industries reeling as environmental inspectors ventured into factories across the country, charging officials “in more than 80,000 factories with criminal offenses” and temporarily shutting down about “40 percent of China’s factories,” according to his sources.

Schmitz argues that this crackdown was more than a flash in the pan—that it represents a real movement on the part of the Chinese government to address its environmental issues, in which the textile industry plays no small part.

We might also look to technological developments to help make the practice of dyeing clothes less toxic to humans and ecosystems. Airflow dyeing, for example, is an application process that uses atomized dyeing liquor in a high-pressure spray to transfer colour onto textiles using very little water and energy.

Textile scholars Iqbal Mahmud and Shantanu Kaiser argue, however, that “waterless dyeing technology has been around for over twenty years, and it still has not been accepted by the textile industry.” The switch over would eschew traditional culture-defining ways and necessitate a large initial investment for the machine installation, so without external pressure, the industry is reluctant to change.

What We Can Do

The first thing we might do is get informed about what’s in our wardrobes. According to Michael Braungart and William McDonough, on average, “only 5% of the raw materials involved in the process of making and delivering” a product is contained within the product. Fashion writer Beth Ranson explains that it “is therefore important that we also pay attention to the 95% of the material process that we do not see; a vast component of which is hidden water.”

Reducing the volume of our consumption and stringently checking for Fair Trade labels are two immediate ways everyday people can make a difference. Buying from planet-friendly clothing brands is another.

But beware. At a recent Australian Open, the ball retrievers purportedly wore “sustainable” clothes made of recycled plastic bottles and manufactured in Tiruppur, India. A closer look at the supply chain, “recycled yarn…imported from Taiwan, knitted and dyed in Surat and finally tailored in Tiruppur,” disqualifies these garments from sustainable status, as Neeta Deshpande tells The Wire. The first step in this chain, however, is a good one.

Shop local manufacturers whenever possible to keep the environmental impact of your consumption lower. That’s the ultimate goal.  

By Jane Thornton

Feature image: Joseph LiuImage 1Mike van Schoonderwalt