To Dye For
by Alden WickerFashion is a dirty business. Often, we think of the pollution and harm caused by our clothing consumption as something that affects mostly far-away countries, and it only comes to our attention when chemical pollution is highlighted in the news, or when a garment factory collapses, as it did in Bangladesh at Rana Plaza in 2013. In other words, most of the harms seem to be externalised to the people who make garments and deal with the chemicals, dyes and treatments used in their manufacture on a daily basis.
To Dye For brings the dangers much closer to home, by featuring a number of cautionary tales of clothes that have poisoned their wearers. These horror stories begin with the airline uniforms were suspected of causing a range of skin reactions, breathlessness, and other adverse effects in the staff who were obliged to wear them on flights, including problems with American Airlines and Delta Airline's uniforms. The book outlines the health struggles of the flight attendants, which went from initial rashes to more serious long-term conditions.
Most of us don't wear uniforms for long stretches in an enclosed cabin with other people who are also all wearing the same uniform, so it can be hard for most people to isolate whether or how our clothing is affecting our health. Certain clothing can contain myriad chemicals added at different stages of production, and the cumulative effect of these may be significant. So regulating chemicals may not be enough.
However, people tend to assume that there is some active regulation of chemicals in clothing. Yet clothing rarely if ever comes with a list of ingredients, aside from the fabric composition. So many of the chemicals used are unknown, and are treated as trade secrets, which makes identifying them, testing for levels of contamination, and withdrawing harmful clothing a big challenge.
This is depressing, so the author segues into the way things used to be with a chapter on fashion history. As well as mad hatters and poisonous colours, this is also a sorry and gory tale of horrific labour abuses and both ignorance and wilful harm: the factory owners sometimes knew exactly what they were doing, and did it anyway. The story of mercury in hats is particularly infuriating.
Another chapter explains more about chemical processes and mechanisms behind chronic illnesses such as allergies and autoimmune disorders. We still know too little about the processes involved.
The author takes a look at manufacturing at one of the better-run dyehouses in India, and what it is doing to improve conditions. However, there is also a lot of detail about what can go wrong, and how it can affect the environment both in America and in other countries, if toxins are released into the water and the soil.
America is the main focus of this book when it comes to consumer regulation, and as might be expected, the author demonstrates how disappointing the lack of regulation is there. Customs checks and the legal framework there come under a harsh spotlight. The EU is somewhat better. However, this book is a wake-up call to legislators everywhere who care about the health of their people, places, and of the planet.
When you buy clothes online you can't feel them, and you can't smell them. This is going to matter more and more in future, as people shop more online. The author is particularly scathing about the ultra-fast-fashion brands and their approach to making safe clothing, focusing especially on the way they can avoid customs and how their cheap, disposable economic model doesn't lend itself to clean production. There is a useful list of actions you can take in order to protect yourself from toxic clothing, both in your own habits and through government regulation.
Often, popular science books end on an optimistic note, so that readers don't wallow in despair at the end of them. Alden Walker hasn't gone down that route, choosing instead to sum up the topic with a really downbeat style. There is a lot of work to do before this topic gives us room for complacency, or the sense of a good news story.
I feel like this is a book that will change things. Throughout it, the book made me think of people I knew with various conditions, and whether the toxicity of clothing had any bearing on them. Ultimately it's impossible to know, but what is clear is that this is relevant to anyone who buys or wears clothes. It's relevant to the climate crisis which affects us all, because not only is plastic clothing made of oil, highly treated clothing has an impact, and fast fashion (which the book explains is more likely to skimp on safer dyes and processes) is horrendous for the climate. Whether or not you have unexplained rashes, asthma, or any other chronic illness that doesn't make sense, this book will make you consider your wardrobe not just as a way to project a certain look or in a functional sense, but also as the end result of complex chemical processes whose safety, or otherwise, can affect your health.
3rd August 2023
Review © Ros Jackson
Source: own copy