You splurged for a brightly colored t-shirt made from organically grown cotton. You excitedly put it on for the first time and notice it has an odd smell. So what’s the deal? The cotton may be “clean” but what exactly makes your new t-shirt so vivid?

While there seems to be a lot of good information available today about organic clothing and Eco-fashions in general, there’s still a lot of confusion about clothing dyes. So let’s clear that up a little and discuss the Eco-friendliness of different dyes.

There are an enormous variety of dyes, but they generally fall into just a few major categories of dye types.

1. Conventional Dyes – synthetic, chemical-based dyes used in most conventional clothing today.

2. Low-Impact Dyes – synthetic, chemical-based dyes designed to give the same color palette as conventional dyes without the use of certain chemical and metal compounds.

3. Natural Dyes – dyes made from herbs, fruits, teas, clay or other natural materials.

Most organic clothing manufacturers these days use low-impact dyes, which can also be referred to as azo-free or fiber-reactive dyes. This is a category of synthetic, chemical-based dyes that are substantially better for you and for the environment than conventional dyes. Here’s why:

• They have higher absorption rates into the clothing (greater than 70%), which means less chemical and grey water runoff into the environment.

• They don’t include azo-dyes, a family of dye groups that contain toxic compounds ranging from chlorine bleach to known carcinogens such as aryl amine.

• They don’t contain heavy metals.

Still, while low-impact dyes are better for the environment than conventional dyes, they aren’t specifically good for the environment. Many people with multiple chemical sensitivities have reactions to low-impact dyes albeit less severe than to conventional dyes.

Going one small step further, some textiles are Oeko-Tek or Global Organic Textile Standards (GOTS) certified. These certifications don’t focus solely on the dye, but are end-to-end process and final textile safety certifications. -The dyes used in the final fabric must be at least as good as low-impact dyes and are specifically tested for skin-safety. GOTS in particular is becoming more and more widely used here in the USA.

Getting away from synthetic dyes altogether, low-impact or otherwise, there is a class of natural dyes that are higher up on the Eco-scale. Clay-dyes are literally made from natural earth mud and clay. They are mixed with water and often little else. The colors are softer, but the dye stays put and they tend to work for people with chemical sensitivities. Similarly, there are herbal and tea dyes created from plants. The range of colors is limited, but lovely. Again, these dyes tend to work well for chemically sensitive folks. While clay dying is fairly common and relatively inexpensive, herbal dyeing is on the pricey side and therefore less common.

Of course, the least impact to the environment is to not dye clothing at all. So undyed is at the top of our Eco-friendly list.

For those tired of “natural” colored items, there is an alternative. Several strains of cotton are actually grown in colors. The colors are somewhat muted, but there’s a lovely camel brown and soft green generally referred to as Colorgrown cottons.

This image of 3 socks – all undyed – displays the depth of color in the brown cotton sock to the left and the muted green cotton sock at the bottom compared to the traditional “natural” cotton shown on the top right.

In summary, the best way to get truly vibrant purples and reds is to use low-impact dyes. We all like a few fashion pieces that really make a statement. But if we fill in the closet with clay-dyed, herbal dyed, Color-grown and undyed items, we’ll have a lighter impact on the planet and a healthier wardrobe all around.

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