Listen to “Alden Wicker on Sustainable Fashion and Toxic Clothes: a Craftsmanship Artisan Interview”
Narrated by Ruth Alden Wicker
Alden Wicker, award-winning journalist, sustainable fashion expert, and founder of EcoCult, talks about her disillusionment with the idea of “voting with your dollars;” why the cotton industry is in disarray; and some concerning new research around toxicity and chemicals in fashion.
This episode is part of our series of “Artisan Interviews,” in which we bring you conversations with the artisans behind the stories, and with those who write about them.
Craftsmanship Quarterly is excited to provide this transcript to increase the accessibility of our content. If you are able, however, we strongly encourage you to listen to the audio version of the podcast, which includes nuances and emotion that are not evident on the page. This transcript was created using a combination of automated transcription software and human transcribers. As such, it may contain minor errors or inconsistencies. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.
Chris Egusa: [00:00:00] Hi, I'm Craftsmanship Quarterly audio producer, Chris Egusa.
Today's episode is gonna be a little different. We're continuing our series called Artisan Interviews in which we bring you conversations with the artisans behind the stories and with those who write about them. Today's guest: Alden Wicker. Alden is an award-winning journalist and sustainable fashion expert.
She's written investigative pieces and deep dives on innovation, materials, and consumer trends for publications like the New York times, Vogue, Wired, and many others. She's written several blockbuster articles for Craftsmanship Quarterly, exploring the future of recycled cotton, a little known and underappreciated wool industry in Argentina, and the confusing ethics around vegan fashion.
And she's the founder of the website, Ecocult. It's a leading international information hub on sustainable and ethical fashion. I sat [00:01:00] down with Alden to talk about her disillusionment with the idea of "voting with your dollars," why the cotton industry is in such disarray and some concerning new research into toxicity and chemicals in fashion.
Thanks for joining me, Alden. I wanted to start off by asking what got you into this world of sustainable fashion in the first place.
Alden Wicker: Well, you know, Always been interested in sustainability. Um, I grew up in a household that had subscriptions to Newsweek and Time Magazine. And I, I remember when I was in middle school, I started turning down plastic bags because I had read about peak oil and I knew plastic was made from oil. And so I started doing my part very, very early. So I, I started my blog in 2013, because I wanted to talk about all fashion sustainability, and it was a lifestyle blog. Blogs were big back then. Gradually fashion just took over. Um, and I love [00:02:00] writing about fashion sustainability because it's, it's fun, but also it's super fascinating because it involves almost every topic you could potentially think of. Economics, um, chemistry, agriculture, uh, human rights, like you name it. Um, and I get bored easily so there's always something new to think about and talk about when it comes to fashion.
Chris Egusa: So since you started your blog and started doing work in this area, do you feel like consumers are becoming more aware of how all of these forces that you mentioned kind of interconnect?
Alden Wicker: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean, just to see the rise of the ecosystem of sustainable fashion influencers in that time. I mean, when I started, there were very few of us. You could count them on one hand. And now it's, it's, it's a thing. Um, and consumers, and like I've seen also that reflected in [00:03:00] the traffic that comes to Ecocult with people looking for, um, answers to questions, right, that they have, but also just looking for. You know, They wanna buy a pair of jeans that's more sustainable. Um, and so they're showing up and they're, they're looking for this and it's, it's really incredible to see.
Chris Egusa: Yeah. And it's such a simple question. Like what jeans should I buy? But the answers are so often really complex and difficult to address. And I think you've done a great job, uh, writing about some of these complexities for craftsmanship, but for those of us trying to live sustainably and vote with our dollars. What should we be doing and where should we be putting our time and energy?
Alden Wicker: Yeah. Well, I think one, uh, thing that people need to understand is that, um, I, I don't believe in or agree with the idea that every purchase you make is a vote for the planet that you wanna [00:04:00] see or the world you wanna see. Like there's this neoliberal, um, ideology that has been cracking apart, obviously over the past year, that says that the government's useless. So, you know, corporations and startups and socially conscious companies are gonna step in and they're gonna be the ones to fix it.
So you see a lot of fashion brands that have this marketing around, like, "we're fixing this incredibly complex, giant, worldwide problem one pair of shoes at a time." I started questioning this around 2017, and, um, I think most thinking people and industry people and activists at a point are sort of stepping away from this idea that we can just shop our way outta this problem. Or we can, if we just choose the, the quote unquote correct item to buy, the bad companies will go out of business or the bad companies will lose business or market share. And that's just not true because as you say, it's [00:05:00] incredibly complicated and I think people want everything put into good or bad categories. And you see this a lot, like where people are just so confused where they're like, "oh, I thought Everlane was supposed to be sustainable, but then there was like that thing, like where they were accused of union busting, I guess I'm not supposed to buy from them many anymore. I don't know what to do." And like, that's a lot of stress for something that's supposed to be fun, you know?
And it, yeah, it's supposed to be fun to go shopping, to find something that makes you feel good about yourself and, and like it's just way too much to ask a typical um, overstressed, overwork you know, um, consumer or a person who has a lot of different things going on and is not a chemist and is not an expert in, uh, international development to like, think about all of these things before deciding what to buy.[00:06:00]
Chris Egusa: Yeah. Yeah. And so I think it's really interesting that you bring up, I guess it's a disillusionment. Um, of people thinking about voting with their dollars. And I remember how huge that was, um, you know, over the, the past decade and kind of brands that do good, really gonna save the world. Um, and yeah, you mentioned that there's been a lot of disillusionment around that.
So where do you think that thinking needs to progress to, um, how should people begin to reframe how they look at these issues?
Alden Wicker: You know, there's actually a limited amount that we can do within America's borders at this point. Because every time, uh, every time we fight for higher wages or unionization, now companies can just outsource to another country that doesn't have that.
So moving forward, there's a lot of talk about, um, redoing international trade deals. So that [00:07:00] as part of the trade deal, um, it's saying that, you know, like you can't just exploit workers in Ethiopia, um, because that has an effect on Americans too, which is, you know, Americans have lost all of our, almost all of our manufacturing jobs, because it can be done cheap, more cheaply elsewhere because those people aren't earning a living wage, they're working overtime, unpaid overtime, you know, their rivers are completely polluted and toxic all of these different things.
So that's another idea that's come up that is really exciting. And, and they're actually looking at legislation that's like that in Germany, um, where, uh, it's sort of taking the union concept and putting it across borders and saying, um, you know, "the values of supporting unions and supporting workers that apply in our country also apply to the countries that make goods for us."
Chris Egusa: Yeah. Yeah. So it sounds like. [00:08:00] Applying political pressure and thinking about these things more broadly is incredibly important. It also seems like, I mean, just to push back a little bit that, um, kind of the voting with our dollars idea still maybe holds some weight. Um, you know, if people refuse to support certain labor practices in Ethiopia, for instance, that's, that seems like it may kind of help to further that cause and to help the situation.
Alden Wicker: Well, um, there's two things I would say to that one is how do you know that your clothing is part of this system in Ethiopia? Like maybe it says it was made in Italy, but it was really just assembled in Italy and all, everything was dyed and, and spun and woven and grown in Ethiopia under horrifying conditions, but you would never know. So that's one thing I would say.
The second thing I would say is that there's pretty much no [00:09:00] examples of "buycotts" um, that have been, that have affected sales of a company. Even in the 1990s, the, uh, the very coordinated and, and impressive campaign against Nike and child labor, um, it worked not because it affected their sales, but because it became really hard for Nike to hire good people to work at their company.
Um, it failed the cocktail party test, which is you go to a party, you tell people where they work and they wince. Cuz they're like, " oh no." But , but at this point, the behavior that we abhor is par for the course in the fashion industry. So it doesn't matter which fashion company almost that you work for. Uh, like it's the same almost everywhere.
Now I will say that there's not nothing you can do in your role as a consumer, right? Like I would say that people need to start [00:10:00] thinking about themselves as like 98% citizen and 2% consumer, but for the 2% of your identity that is purchasing things, right. You more than what you buy, but the, for the, for the part of you that likes to purchase things, I think it is great to think about these things and especially to support artisan brands or brands around labor and, um, supporting traditional craftsmanship. Because like, there's a lot of brands who are like carbon neutral or they offset their carbon emissions, or they say they do this or that.
And it's really hard to wrap your mind around, like how much more you should pay for a product that's carbon neutral when you don't even really know what that means. And like that's such clearly a problem that needs legislation. But you know, if you buy, like I just , [00:11:00] I fell down a rabbit hole on this one, um, it's a, it's a Danish Peruvian brand this morning called AYNI, um, and I ended up purchasing a few beautiful things that were like crocheted, or knit items because I know that there's a per I know what the person looks like at the other end of that. And I know that it's supporting these, you know, small holder alpaca farmers, and it's supporting, uh, cotton farmers in Peru and, and then the weavers and all these traditions and all of these things, and that feels really, really good to me. And it's, it's a pleasure to, to shop that way. Versus sort of, you know, shopping at a mass market brand who's like, "We pledge to make 75% of our materials more sustain-." I mean, whatever right? Like, okay, fine. Yeah. Um, so I would say that's a great way to feel like you're making a difference [00:12:00] in somebody's life, um, in a really tangible way. And also just to feel like, to have a very tactile experience with your fashion, that makes you appreciate it even more.
Chris Egusa: Yeah. Uh, I know you've written about some trends going on with kind of recycling, uh, in the cotton industry. You'd mentioned that there were quite a few updates there. Would you want to talk about kind of what's going on in recycled cotton right now? And also other trends that you're seeing that are either interesting or exciting or concerning. In this kind of recycled fashion world.
Alden Wicker: Yeah. So for that story I visited, um, a couple different labs that were, had just started pitching their, um, recycled material to, um, investors and, and fashion brands.
And the none of them were commercialized yet, but basically they were taking waste cotton or waste cellulosics and they were turning it into [00:13:00] new manmade cellulosic fiber. And by that, I mean, rayon, viscose, modal. So it was really exciting because, um, yeah, a lot of cotton goes to waste. You can only physically recycle, chop up and turn cotton into new products once or twice, because every time you chop it up and recycle it degrades further. So you can make fluffy things, but you're not gonna be able to get sheets out of sheets. Right. Um, and so these processes take a proprietary mix of chemicals and they break the cotton down. They make it into, um, this like goop and then they use sort of, it's like a tiny pasta maker, uh, and it spits out this little thread. So that's, that's the fabric.
Since then, um, two of the more exciting innovations have started scaling up and they have pilot plants. They've been in some red carpet dresses and they're not huge yet, but I think in the next couple years you could probably walk [00:14:00] into maybe your local H and M and buy something made with these fibers. One's called Spinnova. The other is called Renewcell. Um, So that's exciting.
But the other half of that story was me visiting some better cotton initiative farms, uh, in Gujarat India. And so better cotton initiative is an initiative that the brands put money into and then they go out and they train farmers on how to use less pesticides and less water. It's not organic. A farmer could go through this program and then maybe go organic later, but it was supposed to improve on a lot of the things that you hear about cotton. Like you hear that cotton is water thirsty and that it uses a ton of pesticides, and it's GMO cotton and the way we grow it kills the soil. Um, since then since then, uh, BCI has been embroiled in-.
Chris Egusa: And BCI is the better [00:15:00] cotton initiative.
Alden Wicker: Better cotton initiative.
Chris Egusa: Okay.
Alden Wicker: Yeah. So they've been embroiled in, uh, controversy regarding China because they included several cotton producers and farms and, um, facilities in Xingjiang, which is the region where the Uighurs have been taken out of their homes and put into forced labor camps. I mean, it's been called a genocide, which I think is- I'm not an expert, but I think that's pretty accurate way to call it.
And so the United States has started, uh, blocking shipments of cotton and tomatoes. Cotton products and tomatoes that come from that region. And BCI just sort of went back and forth and made a hash of the whole thing. Right? I mean, when this first came out, people were like, "How could you possibly certify or partner with these facilities if they're using slave labor?" And then BCI the parent organization sort of pulled back and said that they [00:16:00] weren't going to work with, uh, Xingjiang anymore. But then the Chinese office said they were, which is not surprising given, you know, the heavy hand the Chinese government has in these things.
And, um, so Levi's pulled out of BCI. And, you know, then all these brands came out with statements saying they don't support force labor, and they weren't gonna source from the region. And then H&M, you know, disappeared from Chinese shelves. It was a huge boycot. China's very good at effectuating boycots, um, more than Americans apparently. And so all these brands are sort of caught between two, this cold war between two superpowers and it's being played out in fashion and in cotton specifically.
Chris Egusa: Um, well I wanted to, you know, before we, we finish up, I wanted to also mention [00:17:00] you are currently working on a new book. And, you know, it sounded, sounds really interesting. I, can you tell us a little bit about the book and what you're working on and, and, uh, some of the research that you've been doing for it?
Alden Wicker: Yeah. The book is about the chemistry that's used on our fashion and how it's impacting our health. So I first got interested in this because a radio show called me up a few years ago and they said, "Hey, um, so American airlines attendants are suing american airlines over, uh, toxic uniforms. Can you come on the show and comment?" And I said, no, I can't. I have no idea what you're talking about. I didn't know that fashion could be toxic. And it turns out it can be in a myriad of ways.
And, you know, it's very rare for someone to become acutely sick from fashion. These airline attendants have become acutely sick. You know, they've had, full body rashes, thyroid issues, hair falling out, uneven [00:18:00] heartbeat, trouble breathing, anaphylactic shock. They're all given the uniforms at the same time, they were able to talk to each other, you know, on these long flights about what the symptoms they're experiencing. And then if they took 'em off after a few days of work, the symptoms would subside.
Now there's like long term problems, thyroid issues, um, you know, permanent skin damage, um, organ damage, chemical sensitivity. So now, if they're exposed to just a tiny, tiny bit of certain chemicals, their entire body reacts, right? Uh, they can't think brain fog, blurry, vision, all these things. So I've been researching and it's astounding how many chemicals are used on our clothing. Even a white cotton t-shirt can have all sorts of stuff on it. And there's very little legislation in the United States to keep a fashion brand from using all manner of chemicals that have been banned [00:19:00] for sale and for use in the United States on clothing, and then selling it to you or I.
There's three or four chemicals that the federal government says you can't have them on children's clothing, but nobody's really checking the boxes as they come in. Nobody is. Nobody's keeping watch on this. And so you can have, you know, of course there's dyes, right? Synthetic dyes. There's durable water repellent finishes, which is like Teflon, basically, which we now know is incredibly toxic. Um, that's on your outdoor gear and your boots and everything. There's um, fire retardants aren't as much of a thing, but there is finishes that are that exhale formaldehyde. And then there could be pesticides. Right? They'll spray down pesticides, biocides, fungicides, they'll spray all of that inside the shipping containers and the boats that bring our stuff over here.
And then that's on your clothes when you buy them. So there's, and, and you can't see [00:20:00] it. I mean, sometimes you could smell it, right? You tear open a package that you bought off of Instagram, and you just get hit by this chemical smell. Right? If that happens, you put that right back in that package and you send it back.
Chris Egusa: Cause it is not good for you. No. Wow. That's uh, it's kind of shocking to hear, honestly, it's not something that I'd thought about before. Are, are there things that people can look out for in terms of trying to get clothing that is safer and doesn't have as many chemicals is, is organic certification. One thing that can help or how can people think about.
Alden Wicker: Yeah, so actually surprisingly organic certification, um, really has nothing to do with with how safe your, your clothing is. Right. You can buy an organic cotton thing, and then it can have all sorts of stuff on there. So, um, you could throw that out the window, but there's, there are some things that you can do.
Uh, and of course this will be a chapter in my book that will go into a lot more detail. But some of the things that you think about is, um, buy from brands that are, um, either well known, [00:21:00] brands that care about their reputation. So the Levis, the Nikes, the Adidas of the world, um, especially European brands because Europe has a much more stringent regulations around what you can put on clothing. So, uh, brands that care about their reputation, if, if you buy from a nobody's ever heard of brand. From a Facebook ad or one of those banner ads, and it takes three weeks to get to you, and it smells like chemicals. I Guarantee that brand does not care about, about this. And so brands that care like they're doing testing, they have, they give lists of chemicals to their producers that they don't want them to use. And also that they don't wanna see on their fashion.
Natural textiles tend to be better. It's no guarantee, but they tend to be better. Avoid performance textiles. You know, anything that says, like do all these amazing things like odor fighting and, uh, anti stain and, you know, anti [00:22:00] this or that anti wrinkle, all of these different things. Avoid those.
Chris Egusa: Things that are packed with technology?
Alden Wicker: Right, exactly. Chemical technology. Do not use fragrance laundry products. They are very bad. Very, very bad. So, um, those are a few tips. Um, but I will say that there's gonna be a lot more in the book and, um, that's coming out in a year or so. So, you know, if people are interested in that, I would encourage them to go to ecocult.com or my other journalism website, Aldenwicker.com, and, and on both sides, they can find a way to sign up for my newsletter. And, uh, and they'll then they'll know when it's coming out.
Chris Egusa: That's fantastic. I, I will definitely be, uh, signing up because , I wanna know more about this. Um, and I knew there was a reason I didn't like fragrance detergent, but now I have proof. Yeah. That it is bad.
Um, great. Well, so you mentioned your website, [00:23:00] um, if people just wanna follow your work, where else can they find you? Like on social media?
Alden Wicker: Yeah, so I I'm on Twitter. Um, Alden Wicker Instagram. Um, we have Ecocult. I'm not the one running it, but it has all of our latest articles, um, about sustainable fashion on there as well. So that's another good way to keep up with the work that I and my team is doing.
Chris Egusa: Great. Well, Alden, thank you so much for talking with us and, uh, this has just been super enlightening, so thank you.
Alden Wicker: so much, Chris, it's been, uh, a pleasure.
Chris Egusa: This episode's guest was Alden Wicker, an award-winning journalist and sustainable fashion expert. It was produced by me, Chris Egusa. Check out more of Alden's work in craftsmanship, quarterly, a multimedia online magazine about artisans, innovators, and the architecture of excellence. More stories, videos, [00:24:00] audio recordings, and resources on craftsmanship can be found at craftsmanship.net.