There is another area of concern in the yarn and textile industry, aside from synthetic fibers. Namely, the pollution which results from the dyeing process. The biggest issue is that the compounds used in the dyeing process are often toxic and carcinogenic.
Until the 1850's, all yarns and fabrics were dyed naturally, using naturally occurring dyes from plants. However, in the modern industrial world it is no longer easy to produce enough natural dyes to supply the world's large textile industry. It has been estimated that even if 67% of the world's agricultural land were used to grow natural dyes, there would still only barely be enough to dye the current number of textiles being produced.
Dyes produced from animals are even harder to procure and such a source would never be commercially possible. There is also the question of mordants, which are heavy metal salts needed to “set” the dye. Though there are some natural dyes, such as turmeric, which can produce bright colors without the need for mordants, the range of colors possible is very limited.
The majority of synthetic dyes are sourced from petroleum, which poses major health concerns, as we have mentioned in reference to petroleum based synthetic yarns. The best of the modern synthetic dyes are not as toxic as they once were. But there are still manufacturers, who despite the risk to the environment, their employees and their customers, still continue to produce cheap, highly toxic dyes.
No single color can be said to have the best or worst effect on the environment, though certain shades of blue, green and turquoise are difficult to create without using copper, which is a heavy metal.
Recent developments in semi-synthetic dyeing gives us reason to hope that near-natural dyes will become more easily accessible in the near future. Unfortunately, in most cases there is no way to know what dye was used in a particular yarn.
Happily for the natural yarn and textile industry, there has been a rising demand for more natural dyes in recent years.
DyStar* was amongst the first companies to have it's dyes approved by GOTS** for use in organic textiles. DyStar offers an extensive range of dyes, which have been approved to GOTS Version 2.0.
We believe that using only natural fibers is already a huge step in our modern synthetic laden world and while the dyes used in manufacturing the natural yarns may have some negative effects, the effects of the dyes are not nearly so great as the effects of the synthetic fibers themselves. Getting rid of the synthetic fibers is the biggest step. There are also many undyed natural yarns available, although the variety is limited, which can be used to avoid the dyes altogether.
*See this page for details
** GOTS, the Global Organic Textile Standard is the world's leading processing standard for textiles made using organic fibers. It defines environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and requires compliance with social criteria. Only textiles that contain a minimum of 70% organic fibers can become GOTS certified. All chemicals, such as dyestuffs and auxiliaries used in making the textiles must meet certain environmental and toxicological standards. For more information, see this page.
What About Natural Dyes?