From scrolling through social media to flipping through glossy pages of fashion magazines, our fascination with fashion is inescapable. But, have you ever stopped to ponder the ramifications of your trendy purchases? If not, let’s tune into a compelling podcast episode featuring Alden Wicker – an eminent fashion journalist, author, and sustainability advocate who will transform the way you perceive the fashion industry.

As a seasoned contributor to prestigious publications, including The New York Times, Wired, and Vogue, Alden has continuously pushed the boundaries of journalistic integrity and depth. Yet, her illustrious career extends far beyond the journalistic sphere.

Alden is the mastermind behind EcoCult, a platform revered by millions for its dedication to sustainable and ethical fashion. Be it designers aiming for green manufacturing, consumers looking for conscious choices, or professionals seeking authentic insights, EcoCult has been a beacon of inspiration and enlightenment for all. Alden’s insightful research and razor-sharp critiques have placed EcoCult at the forefront of the sustainability movement in fashion, making her voice a force to be reckoned with.

Alden’s literary contributions also comprise her enlightening book, “To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back.” This book, a testament to her journalistic prowess and fervent commitment to sustainability, not only casts a harsh spotlight on the insidious toxicity plaguing the fashion industry but also empowers readers to take active steps toward change.

In this podcast episode, Alden brings her wealth of knowledge, her investigative acumen, and her unflinching commitment to sustainable fashion to the fore. She invites listeners to challenge their perceptions and provokes introspection about the fashion industry’s unseen side – a world far removed from the glamour and glitz we’re accustomed to.

This conversation is not just about the ugly truths of the fashion industry; it’s also about solutions. It’s about making choices that align with a more conscious, ethical, and sustainable way of living. It’s about the collective power we hold to fight back and incite change in an industry that is overdue for a major overhaul.

If you are ready to step out of the passive consumer’s shoes and step into the role of a mindful fashion enthusiast, if you’re curious about the unseen layers of your favorite clothing brands, or if you’re eager to understand the path to sustainability in fashion, this podcast episode featuring Alden Wicker is a must-listen. This is not just a conversation; it’s a call to action. Let’s listen, learn, and lead the change toward a more sustainable fashion future.


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Transcript of Guy Kawasaki’s Remarkable People podcast with Alden Wicker: Responsible Fashion:

Guy Kawasaki: I'm Guy Kawasaki, and this is Remarkable People. We're on a mission to make you remarkable. I'm pleased to share the stage with Alden Wicker, a distinguished investigative journalist, and Madisun Nuismer from the Remarkable People Team.
Today's episode has a twist. Usually, I'm the one conducting the interview while Madisun ensures that everything runs smoothly. Today, Madisun will be stepping into my slippers and leading the conversation. This is because Madisun is passionate about ethics and sustainability in the fashion industry.
Let me give you a brief introduction to Alden Wicker. She has contributed articles to the New York Times, Wired, and Vogue. In addition to her journalistic endeavors, Alden is also the founder and editor of EcoCult, a platform that focuses on sustainable and ethical fashion. Millions of visitors, including designers, consumers, and professionals regularly seek critical information at the site.
Alden has penned a book called To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back. Dye, in this case, is spelled D-Y-E. I love a clever title. This book not only sheds light on the issues within the fashion industry, it also provides readers with practical steps that they can take to make a difference.
And now let's dive into the conversation with Alden Wicker and Madisun Nuismer. Take it away, Madisun.
Madisun Nuismer: So I just want to start off by saying that I think the work you do is absolutely amazing. When I was sixteen, about ten years ago, I was a sophomore in high school and I came home from school one day and I watched The True Cost and it just shook my world. And ever since then, it was a starting point of asking why in different sectors of life, whether it be like food, clothing, just ethics within everything. So I really look up to you and I'm excited to ask you some questions.
Alden Wicker: Oh, thank you so much, Madisun. That's so wonderful to hear.
Madisun Nuismer: You're welcome. I first want to start off by asking, so you were supposed to tell the world about your book yesterday, but the lawyer shut you down. So what's up with that?
Alden Wicker: Yeah, it was an emotional rollercoaster. I was supposed to go on a news segment for a large news organization. I had my makeup done, I was ready, I had picked out a natural fiber dress to wear, and twenty minutes before I was supposed to leave to go to Manhattan, I was told that the lawyers had gotten really nervous about the content of the book and they were afraid that it could open them up to lawsuits from, this is what I heard, petrochemical companies, fashion manufacturers, and fashion brands.
And it was really disappointing because I paid for a fact-checker to go through the book with a fine-tooth comb, and I empowered her to push back against anything that she thought was a stretch or not warranted or just fix little things that were wrong. And I take the accuracy of my reporting incredibly seriously. I investigate, I'm always trying to figure out what's actually going on. And I talked to a lot of researchers and scientists; I really went out of my way to find primary research about this and it was just really disappointing that they felt that they were so scared of just the idea that they could be sued for having me on a six-minute segment that they would torpedo the whole program.
Madisun Nuismer: Wow, that is crazy. I'm sorry to hear that happened and it's just another testament to how strong you are in speaking up and the work you do, people need to hear it and it just shows maybe some of the guilt that they carry with knowing what they're doing is wrong.
So my next question hits a little close to home too, and it is, how is your copy editor's father-in-law and the tumors that were caused by his Australian bush hat?
Alden Wicker: Oh my God, that's such a good question. The last time I heard, he was fine, but now I'm going to make a little note here to check in with her. She actually emailed me the other day just to say, "I'm very excited for your book coming out, it's changed the way I've shopped," and I feel very negligent that I didn't check in with her about her father-in-law. So I'm going to put it in my notes to do that.
Madisun Nuismer: And was that hat ever tested?
Alden Wicker: No.
Madisun Nuismer: I'm curious.
Alden Wicker: He threw it out. And also, in the book I decided to go through my own testing and it cost me almost $10,000 to have five things tested for a limited number of chemicals. Testing is not available to normal people. A lot of places won't even test things for consumers. They will only work with companies. So this isn't something that normal people can do.
Madisun Nuismer: Yeah, and I think I remember you started off with more items and it was costing you upwards of, what was it, like $42,000 or something?
Alden Wicker: It was wild. I was warned that it would be expensive, but, yeah, and sending over $10,000 and then being told that I had a small budget was very humbling.
Madisun Nuismer: Wow. So there are tens of thousands of different chemicals used to manufacture garments. How can they all be tested and then regulated?
Alden Wicker: Yeah, the Pandora's box has been opened. A lot of these chemicals are just out there and what's really scary is that scientists are just finding these chemicals and when they try to look them up in the literature, they're just not there. Not only have they not been tested, they're not labeled, they're not categorized, especially in the United States. These chemical manufacturers are creating chemicals and releasing them without giving the government or the public the information that we need to know that, first of all, that they exist and, second of all, if they're safe. So we could start moving towards a better system.
The European Union requires chemical companies to provide all of the research available and all the information available and for any chemical that they create, manufacture, use, import at over a ton. And a ton sounds like a lot, but it's not when you're talking about an entire continent. So that's something that I would love to see happen. I would also love to see a tariff and tax system set up to tariff and tax chemicals use in importation of chemicals and products that have suspected toxic chemicals to fund research because we need a lot more research and we need a lot more funding for that research in order for it to happen. And it needs to be sped up. It can take a really long time, so that's something that I would like to see happen as well.
Madisun Nuismer: One thing I'm wondering though is as soon as a chemical is regulated, won't manufacturers just find something else that does the same thing and causes the same harm but just hasn't been regulated yet? What's the span of time between a new chemical being created and it being regulated?
Alden Wicker: Decades.
Madisun Nuismer: Oh my goodness.
Alden Wicker: It can take decades for a chemical to be regulated because like I said, research can take decades. So first there has to be a clue that something's going wrong. And then the researchers have to get the grants to start researching it; it can take a really long time for health effects to show up. For example, research on workers in permanent press factories. So these are factories that were taking cotton, making it wrinkle-proof, the research coming out showing that they had a higher incidence or risk of leukemia after working around formaldehyde every day came out decades later after they were there. So that can take a really, really long time to do that.
So yes, and what you're describing, which is this chemical is regulated, we're going to create a new chemical to use instead. That's called regrettable substitution. That is when, for example, "Everybody's scared about BPA, we're going to take BPA off the market, and then we're going to slide BPS in there." And that's why a lot of advocates are advocating for regulating chemicals as a class.
So if it has a similar structure, if it's any type of PFAS, if it's any type of bisphenol, which is bisphenol A, bisphenol S, if it's any type of thing that we know one of them is really toxic, we should be regulating the entire class the same way because we're never going to test 12,000 types of PFAS and prove that they're all toxic or not toxic. We should just regulate them all.
Madisun Nuismer: Yeah, I agree. And I feel I also see this within the cosmetic and food industry. They take one thing out and then now it's like, "Okay, now we're going to put natural flavors," or a different word for parfum.
And you're like, "Okay, it's pretty much the same thing."
Alden Wicker: Yeah, absolutely. And what you're saying is, that was one of the more difficult things about researching this book is that a lot of chemicals, they have a lot of different names. So I would be trying to triangulate, I'd be like, "Okay, tributyl phosphate, what is that?" And then I would find it with two different other names in the literature and that made it really hard for me to connect the dots. So you're right that it can be really confusing.
Madisun Nuismer: So you mentioned clothing having an ingredients list in your book multiple times. So let's say it happens, clothing now has an ingredients list. Food also has an ingredients list too, but that doesn't necessarily affect what people are ingesting. So is this going to really change anything in the long run?
Alden Wicker: I think so. I do think so. We could look at food, we could also look at beauty products. So the natural organic beauty product market has grown very popular. And maybe it doesn't affect right away what people buy, but it does give watchdogs and advocates the ammunition they need to change things.
For example, I don't know if you remember, but Johnson & Johnson had to pay out a settlement because of the asbestos that was contaminating their talcum powder. And so now, a lot of people are avoiding talcum in their beauty products because of that. Also, you can easily find out if there's talcum in your beauty product. Right now, we don't have that for fashion because advocates don't even, let's take a step back.
So if I'm an advocate and I don't think there should be PFAS in our clothing, I can't go out there and say to brands, "Stop using PFAS in your clothing," if there's no ingredient list. First I have to pay somebody to test the clothing to prove that there's PFAS in the clothing, and then I can go and say, "You have PFAS in your clothing, you need to get it out."
So it really hampers our ability to make change and hold brands accountable when they don't have any ingredient lists whatsoever except for the fiber content. Also, I think that people would be really shocked if they saw the total ingredient list, because right now, they're sort of a like, "Hey, if you don't recognize it, you probably shouldn't buy it," thing. But here, it's like if people saw the ingredient list, they'd be like, "Oh, I know what lead is. I know that lead is bad." I think it would really empower people in that way and especially people with allergies. If people know they're allergic to something, they can avoid it in food, in cleaning products, in beauty products, but they can't avoid it in fashion. So for all those reasons, I'm really excited about this one change I'd like to see.
Madisun Nuismer: Yeah, it's going to give people proof and there's always going to be those individuals who are going to speak up and spread the word to others, those advocates, and it gives them something to go off of, so I feel it's really important as well.
So I'm wondering what is your BS detection method when deciding if a clothing brand is acting responsibly for the environment and its employees or just using greenwashing tactics?
Alden Wicker: I lean on the work of a few different advocacy organizations. Fashion Revolution puts out a transparency index every year. Transparency does not necessarily mean sustainability, but I used it to start my research. And they actually share their data online. And one of the things they looked at, which made my job a lot easier, is they looked at, does a brand even have a restricted substance list? Is this even on their radar? And so that was really helpful because they share that data online.
Also, Remake, which is an organization out of California, they've done a lot of work to track the responsibility of brands. They have an accountability index as well, so I lean on them. There's other organizations that look at whether or not brands are hueing to their emissions promises, they're cutting down their emissions. So there's a lot of really good nonprofits that I use to look at just to see their rankings.
But also, I know enough at this point that when I read a brand's sustainability or about page, some of them just use a lot of words, and some of them actually share details. And I think that's really important. So you go to someone and they say, "We use sustainable materials whenever possible, and we care deeply about the environment and our workers," Okay, prove it.
Others are like, "We care deeply about our workers. Here are the organizations that we work with. We've done an audit of our living conditions. We think the living wage is important, and we've surveyed our factories to see... We're working with these organizations," they can provide a lot of detail, and so the more detail, the better.
Madisun Nuismer: That's really good to go off of. And it's also nice to know that there are resources out there that people that are a little less informed can go to just to get clarification because I do feel that greenwashing in many different forms, whether it's like clothing or cleaning products or anything, it's sometimes hard to tell who's really telling the truth. So if you were going to buy a pair of jeans because you truly needed a pair of jeans, which brand would you buy from?
Alden Wicker: Oh, I have lots of jeans that I love. Before I name a brand, I will say that I am a one hundred percent cotton hard pants girl, when it comes to denim. I love the way it looks, I think it's more flattering, I'm a real denim person, so what's interesting about denim is there's real denim and there's fake denim.
So real denim is almost a hundred percent cotton, it could have a little bit of stretch, when you flip it over, you can see the warp in the weft, so it's like darker blue on one side and then it's lighter blue on the other, and denim can be really safe. There's just really not a lot of risk in buying real denim.
When you get into fake denim, so things that look like jeans but is mostly synthetic and doesn't have that warp and weft, doesn't have that lovely vintage feel, isn't dyed with indigo dye, and doesn't get that fading, that's where you start to get into a little bit of dangerous territory. So it's really more about the product. But Levi's has been working on non-toxicity for a very long time. They're not perfect as a brand, but I think if you're going for affordable denim, they're really good. I also really like Nudie, technically a men's brand, but their stuff looks really good, all bodies, basically all genders as well. So they're really good. Kings of Indigo is a great brand, so I would recommend all of those.
Madisun Nuismer: Okay, awesome. And I want to ask a little bit about vegan leather too. So what technically is vegan leather?
Alden Wicker: So technically, vegan leather is plastic. There is one vegan leather alternative that does not have fossil fuel-based plastic in it, which is Natural Fiber Welding. They make MIRUM. They're around, you can find them. They're really cool, very transparent startup. But all other vegan leathers have a good portion of either polyurethane, which is a synthetic plastic or PVC, which is a very toxic, synthetic plastic.
So there's a lot of hype. There's a lot of vegan leather startups that emphasize the plants in the plant-based without sharing that, the binder, the thing that keeps it together and functioning is polyurethane. So don't fall for the hype.
Madisun Nuismer: Okay. So then is it better to buy regular leather or vegan leather? Do we put animal ethics first or toxic exposure and just... together?
Alden Wicker: Oh, I can't answer that question for you. That is everybody's moral compass. People get very upset about this. I personally buy real leather. I think it lasts longer. At this point, it's definitely a byproduct, waste product, of meat production. If that changes, if suddenly people start eating less meat all over the world, that could change. But right now, I feel comfortable with that. But if somebody's very focused on not interacting with animal products, then I could see them choosing vegan leather. But personally, I go for real leather.
Madisun Nuismer: I want to ask a couple questions about privilege now. So what do people do if they can't afford to buy more ethical brands?
Alden Wicker: Well, we have an overabundance of secondhand fashion. I know there's been some Internet conversations happening, discussion about people ruining secondhand fashion, I don't think that's true or I don't think that's happening for the reason people think it's happening. I think that's coming from a couple different places.
One is that there's less high-quality fashion coming through the front end anyway. So as we're moving into a new decade, people are now calling vintage fashion nineties fashion. We were already well into the synthetic, low-quality era of fashion when we get there, so there's that.
I think, also, people are starting to compare secondhand fashion unfavorably to new fashion that you can get from Shein, from Missguided, at Walmart, at Target, because they're like, "Why should I pay more or the same amount for secondhand fashion as what I can get at the Walmart?"
The reason why it costs more is because it is a lot of work for somebody to find one piece of secondhand fashion at a time, repair it, wash it, hang it, take a picture of it, merchandise it, all of those different things rather than Walmart, which can put in an order for a 100,000 pairs of jeans all at once and optimize that for efficiency.
So it's still really affordable. Even if it's slightly more than the new fashion from Walmart, going to be safer in terms of toxicity because it's been washed a bunch of times, it's affordable, it's sustainable, we have an overabundance of it, we can't even sell all of it here, so that's a really good way to get into sustainable fashion.
There's also some, what I would call, fast fashion brands. So I would warn people away from ultra-fast fashion brands like Shein, like Missguided, whatever weird gibberish brand that you see advertising on social media. But there are fast fashion brands that are affordable and care about toxicity. One of them is H&M that I mentioned before. So they've been working on this for a really long time. And then Levi's, Nike, there are those that care about their reputation and you can see them in those reports from Remake and Fashion Revolution that I talked about earlier.
Madisun Nuismer: I feel like secondhand fashion has definitely become more popular. I remember when I was in high school and kind of started doing a little bit of it, like people were like, "What?" And nowadays, it's definitely more accepted and there's stores all over that sell it. So that's a really good option for anyone.
Alden Wicker: Absolutely.
Madisun Nuismer: So I am interested to hear your take on how environmental racism occurs within the clothing industry.
Alden Wicker: Yes. So one way that environmental racism raises its head in the clothing industry is that garment workers are more impacted by the toxins in our clothes than consumers. This is absolutely true. It's why I traveled to India in order to speak to garment workers for the book. And they're impacted because it's not just in the clothing that they're touching all day. It could be in their drinking water, it can be in the air inside the factory, it could be even in the food because these root vegetables are grown in the contaminated soil. So they're absolutely impacted by this.
In the United States, the connection's a little bit fuzzier. There is some research from the team in environmental toxicity at Duke, and they were looking at, "Okay, how much of these sensitizing azo disperse dyes are present in house dust?" And they found no difference between houses of different socioeconomic levels and households with different races.
So I think, especially because this has been such a well-hidden secret, right now, everybody is probably almost equally affected by this issue. There are luxury brands that aren't doing safe chemistry, there are very expensive outdoor brands that are not doing safe chemistry, children's brands, this is an issue that affects all types of brands. So right now, in the United States, this isn't something that's confined to one race or socioeconomic status.
I will say that one of the difficulties of reporting this book was finding people whose health issues could be attributed directly to fashion. And it's a little bit harder to find people who are marginalized, who can attribute their health issues to fashion because they have so many different exposures. They might live near a highway, people of color are more likely to live near manufacturing plants in the United States, so in order to attribute it to your clothing, you either need to work in the industry or you need to be the kind of person who has access to a good doctor and has control over their environment and all the other products that they're bringing into their home so they can eliminate everything and finally get to the point where they're like, "I've done everything, so it must be the fashion." That's how it manifested in the book in my reporting.
Madisun Nuismer: And what about when it comes to waste in middle and low-income countries? Can you talk a little bit about what happens when Goodwill no longer wants clothing? Where does that go and what goes on?
Alden Wicker: So, I mentioned earlier that there's an overabundance of secondhand fashion in the United States. Numbers are a little bit fuzzy, but it seems like we can only sell about twenty percent of what we donate here and the rest gets shipped abroad. What happens to that clothing when it gets shipped abroad is, for example, a lot of it goes to Ghana. Ghana has a huge resale market. You might have heard about it, and whatever they can't sell, which is a lot of it, they're not going to sell something with damage. They're just not. It's not worth it to them. So it might get picked up and put in one of these not-great landfills, but a lot of it actually ends up in their waterways, on their beaches. And there, they leach... The landfills too, the landfills aren't lined. All those chemicals leach out and into the water, and the water is incredibly toxic and dangerous there.
And then on top of that, a lot of these landfills will light on fire. Many of the people don't know this, but polyester is very flammable, so they'll light on fire and they'll smolder, and so all the chemicals that are in the clothing end up in the air where people can breathe it in.
Madisun Nuismer: So are we not phased because we don't see the extent of this, or do we truly not care?
Alden Wicker: I think people don't understand. Yes, there's definitely an element of, "I don't see it." People have a lot of competing priorities, especially in the United States, right? We're looking for healthcare, we're trying to pay rent, we're trying to take care of our kids, and it's really hard to convince somebody to pay five dollars more for something that's organic when they can't see the effect of paying more and they're not even totally sure that money is going to the farmer, to the garment worker.
That's the reason why I wrote this book is because I wanted to find a way to connect what happens in factories elsewhere to what happens to us here, and chemicals are that connection. What's happening over there is hitching a ride and ending up on our bodies here, and so we can't say it doesn't matter because it does matter. And if I can get people worked up about this, I think it will greatly benefit garment workers because the best way to ensure that you don't have toxic chemicals on your clothing is to ensure that they're not being used at the factory.
Madisun Nuismer: Your book does a really great job of explaining all of this and obviously knowledge is the most important thing that we can give people. So I'm curious, how do we better connect the buyer to the individuals who are hunched over these sewing machines in bad working conditions? I think it's really important that us as consumers realize that it's not just a robot doing a job, it's an actual, living human.
Alden Wicker: Yeah, that really is one of the reasons I focused on chemicals because it's happening to us as well. What's interesting is that I think the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in 2013 really blew this open for people. At the time, nobody wanted me to write about sustainable fashion. It was impossibly uncool, nobody cared, and then this factory collapsed, more than 1,100 garment workers died, and suddenly people were like, "Oh, we thought it was robots. It's actually people." And that's really what kickstarted the sustainable ethical fashion movement of this past decade.
I think we've potentially reached the limits of that movement being the way it is because of what I just described. It's really hard to keep people focused and to convince them to pay more when, yeah, they're not seeing those people at the other end. They don't see that connection. And I think that's why we're rightly moving into a new era of saying, "Okay, we're not going to shop our way out of this problem," especially a problem that is so complex and involves things like international development, chemistry, trade agreements, all of these different things that are outside the consumer's control.
And so I'm really excited that the sustainable fashion movement has started looking more seriously at what we can do to put in place legislation to hold brands accountable and bring up the floor. So we can't rely on the good brands to do all the good work because that allows the bad brand to continue doing what they're doing and undercut the good brands. So I think it's really interesting.
Madisun Nuismer: Yeah.
Alden Wicker: People always talk about H&M as being an example of terrible fast fashion, and then I was reading a news story and somebody in there said, "Oh, I would love to buy H&M, but they're too expensive." And that's what happens when we try to rely on brands to do the right thing. There's always a cheaper, less scrupulous brand coming in underneath to scoop up people and who want cheap clothing or who need cheap clothing, who can't afford more expensive clothing.
So that's what I would like to see. I think it's wonderful that people are connecting more and they want to know where their clothing has come from. But yeah, again, I think we've hit the limits of that and what really drove this home for me was I was reading about the history of dye manufacturing and when we manufactured dye in the United States, we spent a few decades, like there's whole towns that are poisoned by dye manufacturers in the United States who dump their dye right into the ground and the groundwater. And if you think about it, it's hilarious to think about us in the eighties going, "Don't buy clothing that is dyed with the dye from these manufacturers."
No, what happened is the EPA stepped in and said, "You just can't do this anymore." So I'd like to see more of that.
Madisun Nuismer: Yeah, we need a lot more of that. So take me from the field to the mall. What are some things that happen in each stage?
Alden Wicker: You got your cotton, you said field to the mall, so I'm going to not even do synthetic. So the cotton comes into the gin, the gin cleans up the cotton, gets all the seeds out, and then they start applying things so that they can spin the cotton. So they might use surfactants to clean the cotton, and then they put oils on, synthetic oils to bake it so they can process it, and then they're weaving it, and they put more chemicals on to aid in that process, and then they use other chemicals to strip those chemicals off. And then they put it together in a fabric, they ship it to the dye house, the dye house starts dyeing it, and then the dye house puts finishes on it or they print it with PVC prints, plastic-y prints, that's where I got to see the process.
And I'm telling you, when they were printing this roll of fabric with this Disney character, it smelled like a budget nail salon in there. Have you ever walked into a budget nail salon and you're like, "Woo! Smell the cancer"? That is what it smelled like in there. And they were just wearing these little paper masks, just straight-up COVID masks. And I was like, "This can't be good for the workers," but they haven't figured out another way to do it yet.
So they put all the stuff on there, and then they put it in a warehouse, they put it in a shipping container. "Oh no, the shipping container, the warehouse, it's got rats or it's got bugs," they're going to spray a bunch of pesticides all over, could contaminate it. Okay, then they're going to apply fungicides because they don't want it to get mold while it's getting shipped across this hot global south ocean up to us, so fungicides go on there too. They might also add at the factory some things that are temporary just to make it feel nice so that when you pick it up and look at it at the store, you really like it.
And then if it's in a shipping container, it might get checked at customs, it probably will not. Customs usually only checks for counterfeit brands because those are really risky for toxic finishes. But if it's a legitimate brand, they'll wave it through after doing a quick, "Okay, no bombs. Great, in you go."
If they're shipping it... If it's going straight from the factory to the consumer, it's going to be in a little DHL bag or a little shipping bag, and again, nobody's going to check it. It's just going to go right through all the way to the consumer. I like to say that if you ordered a top straight from one of these dropship factory gibberish brands, they could fill it with razor blades instead and nobody would figure it out until you opened it.
Madisun Nuismer: So you just named so many times where different chemicals were getting put on clothing. So this is just blowing my mind. It's no wonder that people are having issues, right? So what's the first step an individual can take if they're being affected by chemicals in their clothing or they think that they are?
Alden Wicker: Yes, so I would say the first thing that you can do is switch out your laundry detergent. If you're using scented laundry detergent, that stuff is so toxic, as well as fabric softeners, dryer sheets, all those different things. Switch to a non-toxic, unscented laundry detergent, thing one. That's what actually your doctor, your dermatologist would probably tell you to do if you went in and you said, "Hey, I'm having skin issues."
They'd be like, "Okay, what detergent are you using?" So step number one, super easy.
Step number two, always wash your clothing before you wear them when you buy them. Oh, actually, rewind. Before you do that, when you order something, open it. Or you buy something, even if it's secondhand, smell it. Does it smell bad? Does it smell like synthetic springtime in the field scent? Don't buy it. If somebody told me recently that they opened a package and it smelled like gasoline, hard no on that. Send it back.
Okay, then you wash it, and then as you move forward and you're shopping, avoid performance and promises. So if it promises to be anti-wrinkle, anti-odor, stain-repellent, water-repellent, all these different things, definitely avoid it. If it's got a trademark, if it's like, "Our proprietary, high-performance...," no way. Most of those things are provided with chemical finishes. We do not like them. So avoid those. Go for natural products or natural fibers whenever you can. They are less risky than synthetics. I wear almost one hundred percent, I wear like ninety-five cotton workout gear, and I think it's more comfortable and less itchy, it doesn't break me out, all of these different things.
Oh, also look for labels. Bluesign, Oeko-Tex, that's O-E-K-O-T-E-X, and GOTS. Bluesign and Oeko-Tex are the best ones to look for. Avoid ultra-fast fashion brands, like I said, danger, and shop from brands that you trust.
Madisun Nuismer: And these things can be applied too to people that aren't necessarily being heavily impacted by chemicals but want to reduce their personal toxic load and also the impact on the world, so that advice is great.
One thing that just came to mind for me, and this can really apply to parents is, can you talk a little bit about the children's clothing and the issues with chemicals within that? Because that's just on a whole nother level of wrong to me.
Alden Wicker: In the United States, the only federal regulations for what chemicals can be put on clothing are for children's brands. So that's good. They say you can't put lead, you can't put cadmium, and you can't put certain phthalates in children's clothing. But like I said, they are not checking every shipment of children's clothing and it comes through, far from it. They're usually checking for knockoff children's pieces of clothing that are coming through. The Consumer Product Safety Commission is more likely to recall children's clothing that doesn't conform to a flammability standard than something that is causing skin burns. There have been times in the past where Carter's, for example, had thousands of reports from parents that the tags inside their infant clothing were giving the babies skin burns, like they were taking their kids to the ER, some of these parents - and the CPSC did not initiate a recall. So that's really alarming.
There have been tests of children's products. So there was a test of Shein children's clothing, Zaful, and another ultra-fast fashion brand that was sold in Canada by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and a researcher that I interviewed for the book. And they found lead and phthalates and I think they found cadmium as well at very high levels, so that was super alarming. And then there was a test by Dr. Graham Peasley and Miriam Diamond of children's or kids' school uniforms, and they promised to be stainproof and that was achieved through the addition of PFAS, which is the carcinogenic, very toxic, forever chemicals that have been in the news lately. And they showed that, I think, every single day if kids wore these uniforms, they'd be exposed to over one part per billion of PFAS per kilogram of weight, every day. And PFAS is considered toxic at one parts per billion when it's in your blood at that level. So it was really alarming.
Madisun Nuismer: Wow, and this is similar to the Alaskan Airlines flight attendants' uniforms, and it's like what do people do when they aren't really given an alternative choice? That's just a really tricky situation.
Alden Wicker: Yeah, and especially for children. They have smaller bodies, they're developing, this is really dangerous for them. They're also crawling around and putting their hands in their mouth. Babies literally put their clothing in their mouth and they gnaw on it. So this whole thing about, "Oh, it doesn't matter if clothing has toxic chemicals because you don't eat it," does not apply to babies.
Madisun Nuismer: So what's the best thing parents can do?
Alden Wicker: Yeah, I would say natural fibers whenever you can, go for pale, try to avoid neon-saturated colors, any things with prints on it, those can be really toxic. Actually, I had a college T-shirt tested that had a foil print on it, and that foil print was really toxic, especially bad for kids because again, they can like gnaw on things and put things in their mouth.
And also we do have a guide to non-toxic kids' wear and maternity wear on, so I would refer people to there.
Madisun Nuismer: Perfect. Okay, I just want to give you a second to pitch your book, but first I want to say that your title is absolutely excellent. To Dye For, what a great title. So yeah, tell us about your book. It's your book.
Alden Wicker: So To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion is Making Us Sick - And How We Can Fight Back, it took me a year and a half of deep reporting. It includes a lot of research that never before put together a seen research around fashion toxicity. A lot of people believe that what happens over there stays over there, but in fact, it is on our clothing, it's on your clothing, it's on my clothing, and these chemicals are known toxins. They are linked to cancer, they're linked to reproductive toxicity, they're allergens. This is a problem, it's been very under-reported, but there's a lot of information in the book, and it's not just about fashion.
I started into this because of fashion, but it became about chemical sensitivity, it became about autoimmune disease, it became about eczema, it became about how employees and women are gaslit so often by people who have an interest in putting profits over people and over people's health. So it's about chemicals in the United States and how we're not being protected. So it's about more than just fashion, but it's through the lens of fashion and I think everybody will find something in there that can help them live a cleaner, safer, healthier life.
Madisun Nuismer: And that's a wrap on today's episode of Remarkable People with the incredible Alden Wicker. We hope you enjoyed this deep dive into the world of sustainable fashion and gained valuable insights from Alden's expertise. Remember to check out Alden's work, including her internationally respected platform, EcoCult, E-C-O-C-U-L-T, where you can find reliable information and fact-checked resources on sustainable and ethical fashion.
I'm Madisun Nuismer and this is Remarkable People. My thanks to Jeff Sieh, Peg Fitzpatrick, Shannon Hernandez, Alexis Nishimura, and Luis Magana, all part of the Remarkable team. And last but not least, my boss, Guy Kawasaki, who continues to push me to do hard things such as conducting this interview. As he usually says, until next week, Mahalo and Aloha.