Listen to “Chemicals in our Clothes: A Conversation with Sustainable Fashion Expert Alden Wicker”
Narrated by Ruth Alden Wicker
Have you ever opened a brand-new package of clothing and been hit with a strong whiff of petroleum? Journalist Alden Wicker took a deep dive into the chemicals commonly used by the fashion industry in her new book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick—and How We Can Fight Back.”
Craftsmanship Magazine interviewed Wicker about the prevalence of chemicals in clothing, and about the regulatory efforts and personal choices that can make our clothes safer—for consumers, textile workers, and the planet.
Editor’s Note: This is a computer-generated transcript that has been lightly edited. It may contain errors.
Pauline Bartolone: You’re listening to the Craftsmanship podcast. I’m Pauline Bartolone.
Alden Wicker: “A lot of people are, are in, uh, just are completely ignorant of, of the hazards in the risk that they're being subjected to every time they buy a perfectly legal piece of clothing.”
Pauline Bartolone: Today, we’re bringing you a conversation… about something that might make us a little uncomfortable… Clothes…Not clothes that don’t fit right, but what’s in and on our clothes.
We talked with journalist Alden Wicker, who took a deep dive into chemicals in fashion for her new book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick and hOw we can fight back.” Wicker has also been a regular contributor to Craftsmanship over the years, writing about argentinian textiles, eco fashion and animal rights, and the human cost of recycled cotton. Thanks for talking with us, Alden.
Pauline Bartolone: So you just came out with this book. Can you tell us a story of why you decided to write it?
Alden Wicker: In 2019, I had been writing about sustainable fashion for almost a decade, and I got a call from a radio show and they wanted me to comment on a lawsuit from Delta Airline attendance against the maker of their uniforms Land's End, because they said the uniforms were giving them health problems and reactions, and when I looked further into it, This wasn't just a Delta problem, it had also happened at Alaska Airlines, Southwest and American Airlines.
And some of the reactions that they were talking about were really horrific. There were rashes that became so bad that they bled some of them became pretty much disabled by just being around the uniforms - even if they were allowed to wear lookalike uniform - anxiety and racing heart, extreme fatigue, brain fog, blurry vision, eyes that got crusty and losing their hair.
And , some of them were unable to work after some time. So I started looking into this more because I thought, okay, clearly these uniforms are a problem, but what's happening to the rest of us?
Pauline Bartolone: Wow. So can you give us a little overview of what chemicals are, are in our clothes and why?
Alden Wicker: There are over 40,000 chemicals used commercially in commerce throughout the world today, and ' we're unsure of how many of those are used to produce clothing. The last good estimate was by Nike many years ago, and they said 3000. But there's a lot of evidence that it's many, many more than that. For example, we know now that there are probably more than 12,000 types of PFAS [like perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) or perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS) you might recognize that as the waterproofing and stain proofing class of forever chemicals that have been in the news lately.
And, so just 12,000 of one very toxic chemical. And then there is research out of Duke showing that there might be more, there might be 5,000 different types of disperse dyes that are used in clothing . And disperse dyes are known skin sensitizers, if you go to the dermatologist with a problem, they're gonna say, okay, we'll give you a patch test.
And a couple of those patches are gonna contain disperse dyes. There's also a lot of different heavy metals that have been found when clothing is tested. Things like lead, cadmium, and then there are hormone disrupting chemicals and plasticizers that are used in synthetic and faux leather fashion.
So things like phthalates and BPA. PVC off-gases, uh, toxic fumes, uh throughout its lifetime, but especially when it's new. I mean, I could, I could keep going. There's just so many things that have turned up.
Pauline Bartolone: Can you tell us a little bit more about the functional purpose of some of these chemicals? Are they used in the manufacturing or are they applied after the fact? Like why are they needed?
Alden Wicker: Yeah, all of the above. Chemicals are used throughout processing fashion, even if it's a natural fiber. Chemicals are used to clean and process fibers to actually create fibers, especially if it's a synthetic polymer. Um, there are plasticizers, uh, like Phalates and BPA that are used to create polyester. And then there are chemicals that are used in the factory for lubricants that can contaminate these fabrics. There are chemicals that are used to strip away other earlier chemicals. There are, uh, dyes, which are made of petrochemicals.
Then there are performance finishes, which are deliberately applied to the fabric, and many of them are applied in a way so that they'll last a really long time. So, Formaldehyde based anti-wrinkle finishes. PFAS, which I uh explained before is provides water and stain repellency and quick dry, uh, properties.
There's also, um, anti odor finishes that are applied. Um, as well as some temporary finishes that are just meant to make it look and feel good when it's in the store. Uh, there are also contaminating chemicals. Very toxic pesticides have been found as well as antifungals because the clothing needs to stay "okay" - free of fungus and free of critters, while it's being shipped for a month at a time across the ocean from southeast Asia where it's very humid. So, these synthetic chemicals and, uh, hazardous substances are used throughout the supply chain for hundreds of different reasons.
Pauline Bartolone: So how well studied are these chemicals and what do we know about the health impacts of them? Like is, is it? Well established that these chemicals have harm to human health?
Alden Wicker: Some of the chemicals we know are very harmful. Something like lead, I mean, everybody knows that lead is not good for your health. What's less well known is how much of these chemicals, if we wear clothing, end up in our bodies and at what levels they can have health effects.
And also what happens when many different chemicals are combined together on one garment? Do they create new chemicals? Do they have synergistic effects? All of those things deserve a lot more study. But unfortunately, fashion is not a very popular area of research for people who consider themselves serious scientists.
There's definitely an element of sexism in there, right? Fashion is seen as a woman's issue. A lot of the researchers, there's a handful of researchers around the world that have started looking into this in the past decade, and the majority of them happen to be women and mothers because this really hits home for them.
But a lot of fashion brands avoid accountability for what they put on their products because. There's a lack of research and where there's a lack of research, they can say, well, we're not gonna do anything about it. Or if there's a lawsuit, they say, well, prove, figure out first what chemical it was that caused your symptoms, and then prove that those symptoms came from that chemical at the level that we put it at in the product.And that's an almost impossible task.
Pauline Bartolone: Why are these chemicals allowed to be applied to our clothing? Why are they not regulated more tightly?
Alden Wicker: That's a really good question. At the federal level in the United States, there are no regulations that prevent a fashion company from putting a known hazardous chemical on a piece of fashion and selling it to adult consumers. The federal government only regulates. Three chemicals and only for children's products.
So for example, in one airline uniform that was tested, they found chlorine. Chlorine is so toxic and bioaccumulative that the EPA, it was one of the few chemicals that was banned by the EPA in the 1980s for all uses, no exceptions, but there is nothing illegal by about putting it on a piece of clothing and selling it to a consumer or forcing an employee to wear it.
The reason why we don't have these regulations, I think there's a few reasons why I think most people don't even realize that this is a problem, because fashion doesn't come with an in a complete ingredient list. If you buy food products, personal care products, cleaning products, they have a full and complete list of ingredients.
Fashion only tells you the overall fiber content, but tests of clothing show that a piece of textile can be up to 8% of its weight just in finishes and dies. That's a huge amount of exposure to whatever is in that garment, and I think people would be really shocked if they saw a true ingredient list of what's in clothing.
Even just the purposefully added things, even just the known hazardous chemicals, you would look at that and you'd say, I don't recognize most of this, it looks really scary. The things I do recognize, I know are toxic, things like formaldehyde, things like PFAS, but right now we don't have that information.
So I think a lot of people are just are completely ignorant of the hazards in the risk that they're being subjected to every time they buy a perfectly legal piece of clothing.
That one chemical you're talking about that was banned in the eighties, but is allowed to be applied to clothing. So what is it banned for? Like food. Or, or how is it allowed to be applied?
Um, so it's a pesticide, so you're not allowed to use it as a pesticide or sell it in the United States, but if it's on clothing, that's, that's okay, because theoretically it could be applied in another country. That's, yeah. So if it's on clothing, how it probably got there, uh, there's a few different ways.
One is that perhaps if the clothing was made in developing country, they might have, uh, applied it in the warehouse, uh, to, you know, kill pests in the W storage warehouse. It might have been applied in the ship where it was shipped, um, where it was put to across the ocean to us. Um, so there's several ways that could have happened.
Pauline Bartolone: This is the Craftsmanship podcast, and you’re listening to an interview with Alden Wicker, author of “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick and how we can fight back.”
You can find more stories about clothing and textile makers on our website, craftsmanship.net… that’s craftsmanship.net. That’s also where you can donate to Craftsmanship Magazine if you like our work. We’re a non-profit, funded by grants and donations and a little bit goes a long way.
Now back to our interview.
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Pauline Bartolone: Are there certain parts of the world where, Clothing consumers or fashion consumers are more exposed to these chemicals, perhaps like western c consumers, um, who are more into the fast fashion trend?
Alden Wicker: Well, actually, I would say if I had to rank the safety of various parts of the world, Europe right now has the best regulations.
The United States has at least some regulations and then, uh, developing countries where our clothing is produced has. Almost no in enforced regulations. And so what I discovered when I traveled to India, uh, and it's similar, it's a similar story in Morocco and Bangladesh and Indonesia, is that there are factories that produce, uh, clothing for European brands.
There are factories or dye houses that produce clothing for American brands. And then there are factories or dye houses that produce clothing for the domestic market. So the factories that tend to produce for European brands. They have all the certifications. They're large, they're professional, they're very proud of the work they do.
It's safe to work there. They have the most, the best equipment, and then you have the. Die houses that produce for American brands and, uh, they're not quite as good. They're still going for a cheap price. But, you know, there's a few regulations in the United States and the American brands, they, you know, they don't want their consumers to, to actively get sick and cause a, you know, cause them.
Reputational risk. So they require these dye houses to do a few, a few tests before they ship things over. And then the factories and dye houses for the domestic market, they do nothing. They do it as cheaply as possible. They don't follow any regulations whatsoever. Um, and so it's really risky to buy, you know, I feel bad for people who live in these domestic markets because they're just getting the bottom of the barrel.
Pauline Bartolone: Wow, that's interesting. So um, how can everyday consumers avoid clothing with chemicals in them?
Alden Wicker: Well, I will say that this isn't a problem we can necessarily shop our way out of. We do need stronger regulations. It's a pretty untenable situation to ask consumers to add this on top of everything else that they're already doing. I mean, we're, we're not all chemistry professionals, but there are some things that you can do to reduce your exposure to, or your family's exposure to some of these hazardous substances.
You can look for labels such as Oeka-Tex GOTS organic (Global Organic Textile Standard) and uh, Blue Sign. You can try to buy natural materials whenever possible. They're not gonna be perfect, but they are, they do tend to be a lower risk, especially when you're talking about skin sensitizers such as dispersed size, which are only found on polyester, and as well as something like BPA, BPA recently was found in only in polyester spandex, uh, clothing.
And athletic gear. It wasn't bound in, in the same types of products that have, that were made of cotton. So that's another way to avoid that. You can definitely avoid ultra fast fashion brands. So if you've never heard of the brand before, if it's popping up in your social media feed, if it has a sort of gibberish name, if you're seeing it on these super cheap global marketplaces that ship straight to you from the factory, that is a huge risk.
So I would avoid those, uh, avoid performance and promises. So if it promises to be anti-wrinkle, anti odor. Stain repellent, water repellent, uh, all of those different things that's usually achieved with a chemical finish that can be really hazardous and always wash your new clothing before you wear it with an un-fragranced detergent.
Fragranced detergent, especially in the United States. Um, it can come with a lot of hazardous chemistry, and especially when all of those different things are combined in your washing machine or dryer, it can even, they can have synergistic effects and. Um, you're, I mean, the, your dryer event, all that, that smell of a drier event, you know, when you walk by a building, that's a lot of volatile organic compounds that are known to be hazardous to our health.
And finally, the best thing you can do is do a sniff test. If it smells like gasoline, which I've heard from a lot of people, or it smells like. You know, some people say this smells like cancer. Yeah, that's a great indication that you should pack it up and ship it back. And if you're shopping secondhand, which is a good way to get more affordable, natural, high quality clothing, you can still do the sniff test to make sure that it doesn't smell like some of those.
More toxic fragranced uh, laundry products. Now, this may be obvious to some, but you mentioned natural fabrics may be safer. What do you mean by natural? Like cotton wool. Exactly. Cotton wool, silk hemp linen. And also, uh, I would include in there rayon, viscose, bamboo, rayon, lyocell tencel, modal. People who have very sensitive skin and multiple chemical sensitivity tend to really like the softness of those fibers and don't have a reaction.
Pauline Bartolone: You mentioned in a previous interview with us, um, about international agreements and that they may be necessary in order to change the use of, uh, chemicals and fabrics, any movement on that recently?
Alden Wicker: The ZDHC (The Roadmap to Zero Programme), which is a voluntary industry group composed of brands and manufacturers. Uh, has done a lot of really good work.
It's still voluntary. It still only contains about 60 large brands from around the world, so it's still in the minority. It probably doesn't cover more than 10% of the total volume of clothing, if that, being produced in the world, even though it has all these large brands. But it's done a lot of work and it has, it continues to strengthen its guidelines.
So for example, earlier this year, the ZDHC came out and said, you know what? We're not gonna tolerate any PFAS, any type of PFAS anymore, um, that's going in our restricted substance list. And the manufacturers who are part of us are gonna phase that out. We need to build on that work with an international agreement that applies to all brands and all countries, not just the brands who think it's good marketing to commit to this.
Pauline Bartolone: And you mentioned that, you know, people may not be able to shop their way out of this problem. What other things can people do, um, to get involved, to try to change things? I mean, whether it be through lobbying or getting in touch with elected officials.
Alden Wicker: So one really cool thing that I learned is there's a political strategy that, instead of going to the federal level and trying to ban a chemical or pass legislation, what you do is you go state by state and in the end it becomes so chaotic and expensive for brands to manage this state by state that they actually end up going to the federal government and saying, can you just make a blanket rule, please?
So that's actually starting to happen. California has Prop 65, which is the reason why you see those labels everywhere that say this. Product has substances known to the state of California to be carcinogenic and reproductive toxic. That's actually done a huge amount to get, uh, hazardous substances out of clothing because a lot of brands don't wanna have to put that label next to their products.
And so there's been settlements, there's been lawsuits around this. So it's actually done a lot of work. New York and California and Maine have. Uh, have legislation around pfas in apparel products. Washington also has legislation on this, and so if you don't live in one of those states, or even if you do contact your state legislators and say, Hey, what are you doing to protect me and my family from consumer products that have these hazardous substances?
And, uh, that can do a lot. You can also get involved through the Toxic Free Future nonprofit or the Center for Environmental Health in California. Those are both doing amazing work to bring more transparency to the fashion industry.
Pauline Bartolone: I wanted to ask you if there are any examples of certain textile or clothing makers who have created a successful business model of, uh, producing clothes without such chemicals and being able to scale up?
Alden Wicker: There are. Uh, so this is a very new topic in general. So most fashion brands that focus on this, they focus more on sort of the organic certification aspect of it. So packed organic, they make underwear and basics. They're a very large company that is doing quite well. Um, they focus on organics and, uh, there's a lot of brands that have Oeka-Tex certification, um, and that's been very helpful.
So you can find those everywhere. I mean, you can find Oeka-Tex certified sheets at Bed, bath and Beyond, so it's not so hard to find. You can also, if you're a sewer or a sewist, as some people call themselves, you can go online and there are, uh, several online stores that sell Oeka-Tex certified non-toxic fabric that you can buy.
And, uh, yeah. And then there's, we have a list of small brands or small to medium sized brands, even a couple big ones on ecocult.com, which is my website, um, that are focusing on non toxicity, natural dyes. Um, Being plastic free, all of these different things.
Pauline Bartolone: I mean, for the makers out there who like to make clothes and gift them, I mean, is it safe to say that if they buy fabric at a store, it may be free of some of these chemicals? Or even if you're making clothes by hand, you may not be liberated from these chemicals?
Alden Wicker: Absolutely. I think if they're just going to their local whatever store, that actually could be much, much riskier because I. Right now it's sort of being left up to the large fashion brands to require the dye houses and the mills to do this testing, to use non-toxic, uh, non-toxic, um, chemical products.
And so if you're just buying one bolt of fabric, that can be really, really risky, and especially if you're sewing and touching this fabric all the time. I met a garment worker in India who was working at a factory for the domestic market and she was sewing synthetic fibers and she ended up with these cauliflower like skin lesions all over her arms and her legs from working in that factory and touching the fabric all day long and breathing in the fumes cuz it was pretty hot in there.
So I would. Caution. People who like to sew on their own to be really careful about the kind of exposure they're getting from especially cheaper fabrics that they're buying from their local big box store.
Pauline Bartolone: Wow. So even the raw materials can have these chemicals. Alden Wicker, thanks so much for your work and for your time talking with us today.
Alden Wicker: Thank you so much, Pauline.
Pauline Bartolone: Today’s interview with Alden Wicker was produced by me, Pauline Bartolone. Our managing editor is Laurie Weed. Todd Oppenheimer is the founding editor and executive director. Our theme music is from blue dot sessions.
You can find out more about Alden Wicker’s work on ecocult.com, including how to get her new book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick and How we Can Fight Back.”
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