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A return to the use of natural dyes

Day by day grows the demand for natural products. This tendency is also true for the dyeing industry. In the last decade not only has progress been made in ethical approaches to the sustainable production of natural dyes, but many new enterprises, of different sizes, have began to cultivate, extract and apply natural dyes.

The general belief is that the employment of natural dyes is an activity that is friendly to the environment. However, for these dyes to be really labelled as environmentally friendly, production must respect certain specific standards. Throughout history, large-scale dyeing activities have always produced pollution. There have been times when European dyers used such toxic products as arsenic to render plant dyes fast. However, it is also true that before the introduction of synthetic dyes, wild dye plants were rarely used to meet the enormous demand of the textile industry; otherwise they would have been wiped out. Dye plants were generally cultivated, and it is important to bear this in mind today.

Nowadays, we can and must set up clean production systems. For dye production to be certified as such, it must meet two fundamental conditions:
Wild plants must not be used;
Dye processes must not cause pollution.

The natural dye approach can be seen as a response to two fundamental motivations:
A return to the traditional artisanal techniques of a
certain region or culture;
Industrial production of coloured cloth that is environmentally friendly.

Existing experience on a return to the use of natural dyes has until now mostly concerned artisanal production. Results have been particularly encouraging in Latin America, where the age-old tradition of cloth making is seen as a major art form, but where, since the middle of the 20th century, traditional dyes had been replaced by synthetic products. The target for indigenous textile production is changing: most production, which is not necessarily of inferior quality but often spontaneous and imaginative, is directed at the tourist market, while a smaller part, highly prized and of extraordinary quality, targets private collectors, institutions and ethnographic museums. In the first case, craftsmen find it easier to sell a garment if it coloured with natural dyes, in the second case, customers demand the use of traditional dyes. It is precisely this elite market which may help this great heritage and craft to survive.

As for industrial production, in the last few years more and more enterprises have started to cultivate dye plants and extract natural dyes, using processes that are a model of sustainability. France, Spain, Holland, Mexico, Chile, Peru, El Salvador and United States are some of the countries which produce natural reds, blues and yellows under the sustainability label.

Under the direction of Gonzalo Nieto, the Royal Botanical Gardens of Madrid, which is part of High Scientific Research Council of Spain, gives scientific endorsement to practices involving a return to the use of dye plants.[b]