The cover of Alden Parker’s new book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick.”
Courtesy photo
The cover of Alden Parker’s new book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick.”

Writer tackles a fashion culture that’s toxic — literally

In her new book ‘To Dye For,’ author Alden Wicker looks at the dangerous chemicals lurking in nearly every piece of clothing

WINDHAM — Sitting in Alden Wicker's kitchen in the antique home where she and her husband, architect Illich Garcia

WINDHAM — Recipient of the 2021 American Society of Journalists and Authors Award for business reporting for a piece in Wired scrutinizing the reselling website Poshmark, Wicker's investigative reporting - also published in The New York Times, Vogue, Well, and Good, among others - has broken stories from wide-scale organic cotton industry fraud to TerraCycle's shortcomings.

Her 2017 piece "Conscious Consumerism is a Lie" went viral, she recalls. A sustainable-fashion expert, she's been interviewed for the BBC, NPR, Reuters, Fortune, CBC, and other venues. She'll take any opportunity to write and talk about sustainable fashion to stem the insistent demand for fast fashion, defined on as "a relatively new phenomenon in the industry that causes extensive damage to the planet, exploits workers, and harms animals."

Wicker says her quest started when, "as many women in my generation did, I started blogging out of college in 2009 about sustainability." The casual blog caught on, and in spring 2013, she relaunched it as, a full sustainable lifestyle blog of which she is editor in chief.

EcoCult is sustained by banner ads, sponsorships, and affiliate revenues: Wicker works half-time at the helm there and half-time as freelance journalist.

Within a month of EcoCult's relaunch, "Rana Plaza in Bangladesh had collapsed," Wicker recalls.

As described by CNN, "authorities had permitted the building, originally planned for commercial purposes, to be converted to industrial use and additionally occupied by five garment factories. It collapsed because [...] warnings were ignored or dismissed."

"That changed the conversation," Wicker says. "Nobody at the time was writing about sustainable fashion; it was 'uncool' to write about it. The glossies [magazines] didn't want to hear about it. They wanted it all to be fashionable, beautiful."

Since the Rana Plaza disaster, a sacrifice to fast fashion, "sustainable fashion is all anyone will talk about," Wicker says.

If any brands aren't talking about it, she adds, it is because the brand ownership doesn't seem to care about anything beyond profits - much less the environment. Rana Plaza factory safety has improved somewhat in Bangladesh because of work of advocates and labor organizations; worldwide, though, safety remains a troubling issue.

"Brands are willing to pay less and less" so that consumers can keep buying for less, Wicker notes, pointing out that fashion is the one industry that has not succumbed significantly to inflation.

"Think about it," Wicker notes.

* * *

Wicker's book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick has just been released by Penguin Random House, which describes the title as a "Silent Spring for your wardrobe" and "a jolting exposé that reveals the true cost of the toxic, largely unregulated chemicals found on most clothing today."

Wicker, the publisher continues, "breaks open a story hiding in plain sight: the unregulated toxic chemicals that are likely in your wardrobe right now, how they're harming you, and what you can do about it."

Fact-filled, To Dye For interprets data and delivers insight, establishing context in a way a lay person can relate to. Wicker covers the history of chemical use in the fashion industry with anecdotes from the Renaissance to hair-raising cases of deadly arsenic being used to capture a just-right green on faux flowers ornamenting Victorian gowns.

She gives a window to the international manufacturing scene, details the impact of chemicals on our systems, digs into industry testing practices (or lack thereof), and introduces us to real victims of fashion's toxins.

Wicker describes victims from Gloversville, New York - once called the Glove Capital of the World - where entire families were wiped out by toxin-triggered cancer.

She also recounts how Chingy Wong, a flight attendant for Delta, asked for a new standard-issue uniform to replace one that had faded after she'd tried to expunge its offensive smells and sensory triggers. The uniform supplier sent her, in response, one that, she told Wicker, "was worse than my first one. It smelled so bad." The book describes Wong's subsequent symptoms: skin conditions, shaking hands, and failing memory.

On a Facebook group for attendants at four airlines affected by toxins in their uniforms, Wong saw "pictures of rashes so bad the spots were purple and bleeding, and of bald spots on female attendants' heads. There were tales of severe sinus infections, nosebleeds, swollen eyes, fainting spells, and blood in urine. One mother reported that her baby developed a rash on his cheek after he had nursed while she was wearing the skirt. The menace wasn't completely invisible - the Barney-purple Delta uniforms had a tendency to bleed and stain attendants' skin (and sheets, and bras, and bathtubs) purple."

After 250 pages, including a thorough chunk of tips - "What All of Us Can Do for a Cleaner Closet - and World" - Wicker offers endnotes and a 15-page glossary defining all we need to know - from dichloroethane to genotoxic, aniline dyes to plasticizers - to be safe and savvy consumers of modern fashion.

A keen investigator, Wicker shares information gleaned on fashion industry chemicals developed and persistently used. Moreover, she demonstrates that the testing in the industry is weak sauce. She describes how a chemical that was tested, banned, and tossed was quickly followed by a close cousin sporting a different polysyllabic handle and equally as offensive, if not potentially deadly.

* * *

Thus far, Wicker has not received much feedback from clothing manufacturers. Knowing her penchant for digging, PR people are wary, guarded in her presence. In an industry that's less regulated than just about any other, the less said the better.

Will there ever be adequate legislation to protect consumers from chemicals? "I hope so," Wicker says, citing that more attention has been placed on packaging, cleaning products, and personal care products, especially since last February's freight train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.

Twenty of the 50 cars derailed that night "contained hazardous materials, including vinyl chloride, ethylene glycol, ethylhexyl acrylate, butyl acrylate, and isobutylene. The near-catastrophe was a wake up to the many toxins involved in our day-to-day living, according to the EPA," she says.

"Fashion was my way in, but this is not just about fashion," Wicker observes. "It's about all chemicals in all consumer products and how we're being failed. We're not protected."

She's eager, she says, to raise awareness around toxins in cleaning products, homewares, beauty products, and all food - as well as in fashion.

"What you purchase can really have an effect on your life," she says.

She believes "change can come: there was a lot of movement 10 years ago around chemicals in kids' products," but we need more, she insists, to protect not only children, but those who are pregnant, too.

Needed protection is particularly tough with clothing, she explains, "because clothes don't come with an ingredient list."

"I want this book to reach women in rural and suburban areas, [...] women to whom it never occurred [that chemicals in clothing] might be a problem while they're struggling with chronic health issues and not believed by their doctor, family, friends.

She wants the book "to get passed around."

"I don't want this book to end up creating yet another way in which people with resources can protect their health when people without cannot," she writes.

To mothers shopping for their children's clothing she'd add, "if there are no health problems, don't stress"; if a child develops eczema, rashes, allergies, though, be aware.

What can one do here and now on a personal scale? I've jotted down Wicker's Chapter 10 tips, "Cleanup Time" to post on my fridge. In the end, Wicker suggests: "focusing on community is a much richer, more nourishing, honest way to be sustainable - and it just feels great."

About shopping sustainably she cautions: it's a fool's errand." On one hand, "it's hard to get people to pay more for what they can't see" - i.e., an absence of toxins. On the other hand, "It's hard to know, if you're paying more, that you're getting what you were promised and if that extra money paid makes a difference."

Overall, Wicker highly recommends buying second hand, seeking out natural fibers, tapping one's community for hand-me-downs, and looking at more affordable brands like H&M "that really do care about safe chemistry."

She cautions, too, not to overuse scented laundry products given the chemicals therein. A Spanish clothing recycler, Wicker relates, won't take clothes from the U.S. because we use such toxic laundry detergents that our recycled wear would fail testing.

Wicker's book tour is shaping up, targeting sites from Jacksonville to Phoenix, where, she notes, many people have moved to soften chronic health issues' impact.

This fall, she'll be part of an environmental book series at 118 Elliot in Brattleboro sponsored by Everyone's Books. For more information about her writing, visit

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