Let's Talk Earth-Friendly Dyes

Posted on November 05 2018

Eco-friendly Dyes


In the world of fabric dyes there are 2 types – natural and synthetic. Natural dyes use items found in nature, such as minerals, roots, berries, bark, leaves, and wood to alter the color of fabric and yarns. At first blush, it would seem using natural dyes would be a natural extension of using organic cotton, which we use in the vast majority of our products. So why don’t we use natural dyes in our clothing?

Dyed swatches of fabric

As we explored the natural dye option, we learned there are good reasons why they have not been widely adopted, even among brands trying to produce the most earth-friendly clothing they can.

First, natural dyes, on their own, don’t hold their color. As an example, if we used blueberry by-product to achieve a deep purple color, after a couple of washes, the garment’s color would be less deep, less purple. After several washes, it would be purplish-white. Not what most people are looking for.

There is a way around this. For lack of a better term, color ‘adhesives’ could be added during the dying process to help the color stick, even after washing. But these adhesives are extremely caustic and more than negate the benefits of organic cotton.

But there is a “third way.” To achieve colorfastness (the ability to hold color after several washings), while minimizing exposure to harmful chemicals, we use the gold standard for safe dyes – OEKO-TEX Standard 100.

Dyed swatches of fabric

OEKO-TEX Standard 100 insures that the dyes are free from several substances, whether or not they are regulated by the US government (many are not). These include some of the better-known carcinogens and harmful substances:

  • Azo colourants
  • formaldehyde
  • pentachlorophenol
  • cadmium
  • nickel
  • lead

These chemical safety standards are extremely stringent and our dye maker, a company called DyStar, endures rigorous testing on a constant basis. If you want to geek out on specifics, you can have at it here. DyStar is well-known as a company committed to innovating sustainability in an industry that notoriously doesn’t.

A word to those with sensitivities: eliminating the most harmful chemicals from dyes is a good thing for all of us, there are some people who have severe allergies or sensitivities to various chemicals that may or may not be judged as generally safe or harmful. We can’t promise anyone with these sensitivities will have zero problems with our dyes (every body is unique), but we have heard from several such customers who excitedly told us our fabrics have not triggered these reactions.

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  • Fair Indigo: April 17, 2019

    Hello Dee. While our cotton and our fabric mill are GOTS-certified, we can’t yet call our final garment production GOTS-certified. We are looking into how to do this, but it is a tremendous financial expense for smaller businesses like some of the small workshops and cooperatives that we work with. Stay tuned!

  • Dee: April 17, 2019

    Does Fair Indigo have plans to become GOTS certified, for its organic cotton products anyway? OEKO-TEX is much appreciated/definitely better than no certification at all, but GOTS has even stricter safety standards.

  • Susan: April 17, 2019

    Just another reason to love Fair Indigo.

  • JGP: April 17, 2019

    Triple color soak and wash as needed. Organic vegetable dyes were the norm back in the medieval ages, they didn’t have chemical colorants, they used their resources around them to dye. You need to do more research on the old ways that worked and not discard them simply because you aren’t following proper procedure, yes the vegetable dyes do fade but not if you properly embue them onto the clothing by triple soaking and pre-washing as needed. Once you have “stained” the fabrics, the color may fade but it doesn’t go away. This is the pinnacle of garment making, as using any type of dye that is based on chemicals is bad for our health and anything “easier” generally is, as well.

    Also, assuming what your potential customer may think is not a good business practice, as there are probably just as many people who wouldn’t mind some fading for genuine articles of clothing, just as there may be many who would mind some fading (but they also buy cheap walmart shirts made out of toxic GMO cotton simply because the price is low, so they don’t have their own best interest in mind, nor anyone else’s, and thus are not someone who you should follow or cater to!).

    I’d say, try again after more research of the olde-world ways of dying before nasty chemicals came to be and develop a process that can embue the colors of life into our clothing, it would only make your consumers love your brand and clothing even more, knowing that even our favorite color in your style will be safe to the touch.

    Thanks for all you do, keep it up and never back down! The conventional industry doesn’t want you to do what you’re doing? That means you’re doing good! Don’t listen to your enemy who wants to lessen your ability to defeat them when they give you advice such as “sell more non-organic clothing, offer less organic, remove organic from your labels, etc” or any other bad advice that comes from an industry that wants to put a premium price on bad product that uses GMO-toxic materials and sells in bad stores like Walmart that have bad business practices and have harmed the world and ruined many people’s life. Remember what you are fighting for, remember what you are changing with your choices and your actions and NEVER backslide. Backsliding means the end of your loyal customer-base and just isn’t worth it.

    Never give up improving, there is always a Solution.

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