To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick—and How We Can Fight Back

Image of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick--and How We Can Fight Back
Release Date: 
June 27, 2023
G.P. Putnam's Sons
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“It’s about time, Wicker might argue, that the fashion industry owns its part and cleans up its act.”

A sobering and resentful account of atrocious chemical abuse in the garment making industry, To Dye For lays it all out as a vast and deep scandal, but somehow it feels like it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

People are being poisoned by their clothing and yet companies refuse to provide a skull and crossbones warning label on any products. Even fabric labels, such as eco-bamboo or organic cotton, can’t be trusted to be toxin-free. Wicker, an investigative journalist, launches her account with personal stories of flight attendants having debilitating skin and lung reactions to their new uniforms. She tracked down individuals willing to share their circumstances and their plights to win justice, and builds her book around their stories. In a two-pronged writing style, Wicker hops between updates on the personal stories and the investigations she’s made into the industry side of the stories being told.

Sadly, they are the same old stories we’ve heard time and time again about the big bad corporate wolves in bed with the government regulators not giving two hoots about the people they ruin along their sweet road to success, profits, and image branding. We’ve heard this with the meat industry, the seed industry, the dairy industry, the pesticide industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and on and on. Now the fashion industry is being raked through the coals and their dirty laundry, so to speak, is on full display. And, as usual, nothing is being done about it except expansive cover ups and clever semantics. Wicker’s journalism hopes to change that.

What most consumers don’t realize is that fabric has an agonizingly long journey between raw material form and store display merchandise. Shoppers in the US import the majority of their clothing from China and India and a few other countries where chemical usage is not tracked (actually, it’s not really tracked in the US either). Clothing goes through an array of processes to weave, dye, make wrinkle-proof or fire-proof or waterproof, protect, preserve, ship and unpack. None of it is tested, very little is regulated, and disclosure is protected by trade secret rights. What products emerge, emerge from this mysterious international chemical quagmire.

The flight attendant uniform chemical analysis tests found: chromium, nickel, formaldehyde, pentachlorophenol, tetrachlorophenol, trichlorophenol, chlordane, arsenic, cobalt, Disperse Red 60, benzophenone, benzyl benzoate, 4-biphenyl ester benzoic acid, 9,10-Dimethylanthracene, and a host of other endocrine disruptors including NPEO and OPEO. This list is just a drop in the bucket of the thousands of potential chemicals that are used in the industry and impossible to test for. Despite this list of poisons that could obviously kill a person upon contact, the airline refused to admit any liability in the uniforms, and the judicial system also backed up their decision to fire employees who complained about allergic reactions.

To Dye For is organized in five sections. Part One sets the tone for the book, introduces the flight attendants and the illnesses they endure, and explains how scientists measure (or don’t measure) chemicals in clothing. Part Two carries on with a history of chemical usage in clothing fabric and dye from the Renaissance and Victorian eras through modern day demands. Leather tanning, hat making, widow’s wear, polyester and performance fabrics weave into the story here.

Part Three discusses the heavy toll these toxins place on our bodies and the links to the epidemic of autoimmune diseases we see today. Part Four, and the highlight of Wicker’s writing style, is a glimpse into the textile factories overseas. She somehow gains access to a factory in India and describes what could be thought of as a “tourist’s tour,” that is, she’s shown only what the manager wants to show her, presumably, their good side. Also in this section is a chapter on the chemical testing industry. Testing, as one might imagine, is wickedly expensive and complex. It is a contra-indicator to profit which explains why big fashion brands like H&M, Walmart, Land’s End and others don’t want to be forced into providing labels on their clothes. Or the company owns their own testing lab. Why this isn’t red flagged as a conflict of interest is anybody’s guess. 

Wicker wraps up her assessment with a few suggestions for what to do with all of this information. We can’t all just walk around naked, so simply not buying clothing is not a solution. But with even name brands failing the chemical tests, what does one do to clean up their closet? How does one know what to buy? Basically, until there are labels, we will never know; being an informed consumer is half the battle.

The other half of the battle rests in industry regulation. There are some lofty changes being proposed as ways to limit or offset the toxin exposure; bigger picture changes that need to be implemented industry-wide and initiated by government regulations and tax laws. Her biggest, most urgent demand is that clothing contain a list of ingredients. Everything else on the store shelf—from cosmetics to building supplies—has ingredient lists. Clothing, shoes, and accessories are in dire need of full ingredient disclosure as well. 

At the end of the day, there is no question that our world is suffering from an overabundance of chemicals. It’s about time, Wicker might argue, that the fashion industry owns its part and cleans up its act. To Dye For is an accessible and easy to read wakeup call showing us what to pay attention to and why it matters that we pay attention at all.