MA Project GDE750 20/21

MA Project Week 1: Idea generation, preliminary and developmental work, iterative design solutions

There are several different ways in which I could begin looking at the subject of sustainable colour so here are a few possible angles:

Developing a system of colour forecasting that is focused on the sort of colours customers anyway prefer (reduce waste) – Designers come up with a product and then make it in % different colours, maybe 3 colours will be the colours they know the consumers will buy e.g. navy blue, black and white. Then they make two fashion colours. These might be colours like lime green, florescent pink, polka dot florescent blue and yellow or whatever are the colours in ‘trend’ that season. The problem with this is that only a few people will buy these fashion colours and the rest end up going to waste. This is a very linear method of thinking; however, if we want to start thinking about how we can improve fast fashion in the long term, we need to think about how we can curve this line into a circular production model, making just the colours that people will buy.

Developing a range of colours based on pigments that can be created using sustainable, non-toxic processes. (One designer who has begun to use colours like this is Stella McCartney). I would come up with a colour wheel that only features colours that can be produced using colours from natural pigments, chemical free. 

Following on from this, I can then create reports as a colour forecaster which show only natural colours. I could advise on how these colours could be produced and how they can be implemented into the brand’s collection (fashion and textiles).

These are a few starting ideas. So now I want to look into colour production methods whilst bearing these project ideas in mind.

Colour Dye Production Methods

As we know, China is largely responsible for production of our fast fashion and textile multi-billion-pound industry. Before 2017, factories churned out vast quantities of chemically dyed, brightly coloured fashion and textiles that would be shipped to Europe and sold under many different brand labels from high street to high end textiles and fashion. However, in the year 2017, things started to shift, and actions started to be taken. In one of many acts taken to give China’s textile dying industry an overhaul, government authorities in the Jiangsu province shut down massive factories that were responsible for producing synthetic dyes used by the textiles industry, imposing poor conditions on workers, with terrible consequences for their health. Since then:

Overall 60% of China’s denim dying chemical capacity has been stopped which is equal to around 30% of global capacity.

Intech based in Hong Kong is a company that specialises in digital printing on textiles such as cottons and man-made fabrics such as rayon. This method uses pigments instead of dyes and uses only a very small amount of water. It produces much less waste that chemical methods. 

This just one example of a growing list of sustainable fabric colouring technologies starting to be used by companies big and small. 

One of the main problems with chemical dying apart from the fumes is the water waste. Huge quantities of water pour into rivers imbuing them with strange polluted hues as chemical colours drift downstream. 

Other problems with Chemical dying

The textile industry is a $3 trillion-per-year business that employs 60 million workers worldwide according to economic research firm Euler Hermes and FashionUnited, an industry information resource. Any process carried out on this level can have catastrophic effects on our world. 

Water – as we all know, water is an absolutely essential resource for life on this planet and for human development. “The textile industries is one of the anthropogenic activities that most consume water and pollute water bodies”. “The textile dyes significantly compromise the aesthetic quality of water bodies, increase biochemical and chemical oxygen demand (BOD and COD), impair photosynthesis, inhibit plant growth, enter the food chain, provide recalcitrance and bioaccumulation, and may promote toxicity, mutagenicity and carcinogenicity.” Looking at this in more detail and getting the facts straight I thought this piece of text was interesting as it sums up how the textile industry contributes to global environmental pollution: 

“The textile industry is responsible for an extensive list of environmental impacts (Muthu, 2017). The air pollution produced involves, for example, the release of particulate matter and dust, oxides of nitrogen and sulfur and volatile organic compounds. The scraps of textile fabrics and yarns and discarded packaging constitute the primary solid waste. The textile sludge, on the other hand, reveals problems related to surplus volumes and unwanted composition, often presenting high loads of organic matter, micronutrients, heavy metal cations and pathogenic microorganisms (Bhatia, 2017).

The main damage caused by the textile industry to the environment, however, is that resulting from the discharge of untreated effluents into the water bodies (Bhatia, 2017), which normally constitute 80% of the total emissions produced by this industry (Wang, 2016). In the composition of most of the residual waters of the textile industry there are relatively high levels of biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) and chemical oxygen demand (COD) (Setiadi, Andriani, & Erlania, 2006). The greater emphasis should be attributed to the large amount of non-biodegradable organic compounds, especially textile dyes (Orts, del Río, Molina, Bonastre, & Cases, 2018).”


Dyes. Usually the dyes used are soluble organic compounds and fall into a variety of different categories: reactive, direct, basic and acid dyes. They must be immersed in water in order to dissolve and can be very resistant and difficult to break down. They can also be difficult to bind to certain materials so special process must be put into place in order to do this depending on the material. The colours associated with textile dyes not only cause damage to water bodies, but they also prevent the penetration of light through water which prevents the rate of photosynthesis and drastically reduces oxygen levels, making impossible for many species to survive in these bodies of water.

The dyes can also be incredibly toxic, mutagenic and carcinogenic. They can act as environmental pollutants and cross entire food chains which can all be contaminated.

Between 15-50% of textile dyes do not bind to the fabric and are pushed into water bodies as waste. In developing countries, this wastewater then goes on to be used in irrigation and agriculture. This then affects the growth of plants and the food that is grown from those plants. 

There are some treatment strategies available aiming to ensure sustainability of the environment to future generations, but they are extremely costly.

Horrible thick, multicoloured sludge drifts down the river polluting the only water source that many people have, and they end up drinking and bathing in the toxic, carcinogenic dyes. The sludge can also carry diseases in animals and humans. Some dyes once released into an aquatic environment can be extremely poisonous for humans or aquatic wildlife to consume. 

When did this start?

It was not until the 19th century that toxic synthetic dyes started to be manufactured. Around this time, those people living in proximity to or working in dyeing factories started to see an increase in bowel cancer, dermatitis, conjunctivitis, rhinitis, occupational asthma, allergic reactions and disorders of the central nervous system. These could be caused by ingesting the water in any way but especially an exposure to the dye dust which would trigger irritations to the eyes and skin.  

GreenPeace Campaign: Detox My Fashion

Useful Links to this campaign

Seeing this video broke my heart. How could we have gone so wrong and why do we feel that it is ok to continue in this way? What is so wrong with buying clothes made by our community or within our country? Why have we created this monstrous industry that brings such pain  to people who are desperately trying to keep up with consumer demands in the western world?   

To sum up this section

When we shop, a consumer might be tempted to buy a lime green coat or florescent pink cushion for our sofa, not knowing that dyeing textiles requires massive amounts of water, energy and chemicals, that might be toxic and, in some cases, carcinogenic. Water waste from dye factories based in China, India and Bangladesh, still containing 15-50% of the chemical dyes used, are washed into large water bodies which many people use as their primary source of water (for drinking and bathing). The unnatural colour hues on the surface of the water cannot be penetrated by light meaning photosynthesis cannot be carried out, which leads to very low levels of oxygen within the water. Wildlife cannot survive in these toxic conditions. The water is then used for irrigation and agriculture so is channelled into food. All so that we can have whatever colour t-shirt we want, whenever we want it. Thanks to the Greenpeace movement for ‘Detox Fashion’ that began in 2017, new regulations are gradually being brought in within these factories. The biggest challenge is how do we persuade fashion and textile brands to choose colours that can be produced with natural dyes instead of chemical? 

Synthetic vs Plant-based dyes

The textiles industry is at a pivot point at the moment. Consumers are waking up to the fact that we must take care of our planet in order to keep enjoying all the natural resources that it provides. Some consumers now want to know where products are coming from and what they are made of before they purchase; and often they will choose a more expensive product, if it is ethically made.

With large thanks to the Detox Fashion movement started by Greenpeace, people are now starting to question colour and dye. I see and feel a movement towards more natural tones as opposed to bright florencent hues that were so on trend in the 90s. 

Unfortunately, many of the clothes that we buy from high-street giants such as H&M, Zara and Primark, are dyed using synthetic dyes, which are often made using petroleum or coal, two of our key and highly controversial natural resources. As well as being incredibly damaging to the environment, some dyes are suspected to be carcinogenic. 

There is, however, some hope as there is starting to be a significant shift towards plant dying which is an eco-friendly alternative. 

Having said this, while this movement is beginning to build momentum as consumers and brands are educated about the problem and take steps to act on it, at the current time less than 1% of clothes are produced using natural dyes.

Some large brands such as Patagonia are beginning to experiment with natural dyes and how they can replace these methods with the toxic synthetics that they have used in the past. 

Good on You

Good on You is a festival dedicated to growing awareness around the dye industry and how fashion and textiles can move forward. Celebrities such as supermodel Gisel Bundchen are all supporters of the movement. 

Plant dyes: How can we use them within textiles

After researching I have found that there are many natural products that can be used to produce different colour palettes.


Cochineal – a small insect found on nopales or paddle cactus

Lac – insects

Hibiscus   – flowers

Madder    – roots

Red Elderberry – berries

Sumac – berries

Beetroot – root vegetable

Brazilwood – wood

St John’s Wort – whole plant

Sycamore – bark

Cadmium – mineral

Avocados – fruit


Avocados – fruit

Roses – flower

Lichens – whole plant

Cherries – fruit

White Bedstraw – roots


Bayleaves – leaves

Saffron – stamens

Marigold – flowers

Queen Anne’s Lace – flowers

St John’s Wort – plant

Golden Rod – flowers

Tumeric – roots or powder

Osage Orange – inner bark or shavings

Tea – leaves

Brown Onion – skins

Larkspur – plant

Chromium – mineral

Lead – mineral

Titanium – mineral

Annato – seeds


Brown Onion – skins

Tumeric – roots

Giant Coreopsis – any part of the plant

Bloodroot – roots

Barberry – any part of the plant

Eucalyptus – leaves


Oak Bark – bark

Walnut – Hulls

Dandelion – roots

Coffee – grinds

Yellow dock – plant

Ivy – woody stems

Golden Rod – shoots

Tea – leaves

Sumac – leaves, powder

Birch – bark

Brown Clay – clay soil

Limonite – clay

Octopus/cuttlefish – ink


Dogwood – fruit

Hyacinth – flowers

Indigo – foliage

Red Maple Tree – inner bark

Woad – leaves

Mulberries – fruit

Elderberries – fruit

Blueberries – fruit

Cornflower – flowers

Blackbeans – dried bean

Cobalt – mineral

Copper – mineral

Murex Snail – trunculus


Tea Tree – flowers

Spinach – leaves

Larkspur – plant

Red Onion – skins

Yarrow – flowers

Chamomile – leaves

Black-eyed Susans – flowers

Nettle – leaves

Dyer’s Broom – plant

Chromium – mineral


Oak Galls – Galls

Sumac – leaves

Walnut – hulls

Iris – roots

Black Beans – dried bean

Titanium – mineral

Carbon – mineral

Which Dyes are Acceptable for the Environment? How are they extracted?

‘’the extraction of dyes from ten plant materials such as leaves, tubers and flower plants, namely Beta vulgaris, capsicum annum, Clitoria ternate, Ixora coccinea, Impatiens baisomia, Tageta erecta (Yellow and Orange), Lawsonia inermis, Rosa rubiginosa, Pletophorum pterocarpum. The obtained dyes yield a variety of colors and are processed with different types of mordants such as potassium dichromate, vinegar and sodium chloride. The cotton and jute yarns treated with sodium chloride provided best results and showed less wash fastness. Natural dyes worldwide should be increased to prevent us from pollution and other harmful effects.” (quote:

The history of dying textiles goes back to accent civilisations around the globe. Until the 19th century, we can see a variety of primitive dying methods used. These included sticking plants to fabric or rubbing crushed pigment into the cloth. The dyes came from plants, animals, minerals and microbial origins. Nature has given us around 500 dye-yielding plant species that we can use to create natural dyes. 

Where is the largest country for dying textiles?

In many Asian countries, dyeing makes up a large part of their economy. India and China have the largest dyeing factories and this process accounts for a large part of their economy.  There are many benefits in terms of the environment, human rights for workers and community, non-toxic or non-allergic textiles being produced.  

Which Dyes are most effective? 

Natural dyes have a better biodegradability and have generally a higher compatibility with the environment. Natural dyes produce very rare and beautiful soft shades. On the other hand, many commercial brands and dye factories believe that natural dyes are non-viable on grounds of quality and economics.