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Choose T-shirts colored with eco-friendly dyes

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Choose T-shirts colored with eco-friendly dyes (or no dye at all). You'll minimize (or completely avoid) the textile dyeing process—a practice detrimental to both the environment and to human health.

Find it! Naturally dyed T-shirts

Below is a sampling of sustainable T-shirts colored with low-impact dyes. Or if you'd prefer, go truly au naturel with dye-free T's. Styles are available for both and women, unless otherwise noted. Tie-dye sets not required.

Before you buy

Generally, T-shirts colored with dyes that pose decreased environmental dangers are made from organic cotton or another eco-friendly fiber, such as hemp. However, not all organic cotton or eco-friendly fiber T-shirts are colored with low-impact dyes. UK-based clothiers howies, for example, is keen on producing garments as environmentally sound as possible even though this does not extend to the dyeing department. Currently, the company is looking into ways to sustainably shade its hip line of sportswear. Keep in mind that T-shirts produced with utmost ecological perfection are somewhat elusive—that is unless you grow your own organic cotton, have the garment itself manufactured locally, and color it with organic, plant-based dyes. From the fiber it's made from, to the way it's colored, to the journey it makes from the retailer to your closet, a T-shirt (or anything article of clothing, for that matter) will leave behind some sort of environmental footprint. It's up to you to decide whether that footprint is sized S or XL.

Choosing T-shirts colored with eco-friendly dyes helps you go green because...

  • Conventional dyes are commonly synthetic and originate from petroleum, a non-renewable resource.
  • Conventional dyes can contain a host of hazardous chemicals, dangerous to both the environment and human health.
  • Eco-friendly dyes frequently require less water and less energy in the textile finishing process compared to conventional dyes.

The textile industry generates and consumes an estimated 1.3 million tons of dyes and other synthetic coloring agents worth around $23 billion—the equivalent weight of 441 average-sized cars, like the Nissan Altima.[1] Due to cotton's natural resistance to dyes, roughly half the chemicals used as dyes or fixers end up as waste in rivers and soil.[2] These dyes are largely petrochemical-based and contain lead, mercury, and cancer-causing heavy metals like chromium VI, arsenic, and cadmium. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) believes a number of dyes are hazardous due to threat of groundwater contamination in the vicinity of manufacturing plants.

In conventional textile production, caustic chemicals and bleaches are also used to remove all color before dyeing. Throughout the manufacturing process, the fiber and fabric is flushed with water, which creates a potential for wastewater contaminated with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and bleach, which produces dioxin—a human carcinogen.[3]

Eco-friendly tinting alternatives

Although the use of synthetic, petrochemical dyes is prevalent in the garment industry, alternatives do exist and are commonly classified as “low-impact.” For instance, cotton can be "color-grown," which means the color is inherent in the fiber. These cotton plants are cultivated in native white, tan, green yellow, red, and brown colors.[4] Other options include fiber-reative and natural dyes which are two of the more common options available to eco-garment manufacturers.

Fiber-reactive dyes, although synthetic and petroleum-based, form a covalent bond with the target fiber, resulting in enduring, vivid, colors. The environmental benefits of fiber-reactive dyes come from a high absorption rate (around 70 percent) that results in less hazardous waste waster, the absence of heavy metals and mordants, and the need for a dramatically decreased (thus less energy-consuming) application temperature in comparison to conventional dyes.[5] On the downside, fiber-reactive dyes are more costly than other dyes and pose some increased health drawbacks.

Natural, plant-based dyes are a rarity in mass garment production, but can be an eco-friendly, nontoxic alternative for home-dyers, especially those who garden or have access to wild-growing plants. Many plants used to produce dyes—indigo, Lady’s Bedstraw, sassafras, and woad, for example—veer towards plant-esoterica yet beets, onion skins, berries, and dandelions can also be used. Coffee grounds and tea are common natural dyes as well. Dyeing fabric with plant-based dyes requires the use of chemical or non-chemical mordants.[6]

Related health issues

Contact with the chemicals used in textile dyeing can lead to various human health issues. To those with chemical sensitivities, garments containing some dyes can lead to dermatological and respiratory allergies. A smaller number of dyes used in textile manufacturing containing the chemical benzidine are believed to be carcinogenic.[7] Although fiber-reactive dyes are believed to be gentler on the environment they contain sodium carbonate, a source of asthma and other lung ailments.[6]

Glossary

  • mordant: In textile dyeing, a mordant is a substance used to permanently attach a dye to the target fiber. Common mordants include metal-based tin, cooper, alum, and iron, as well as plant-based tannic acid.
  • volatile organic compounds (VOCs): Organic solvents that easily evaporate into the air. VOCs are emitted by thousands of products including paints, cleaning supplies, pesticides, building materials, and furnishings and they may cause immediate and long-term health problems.

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