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Lifestyle

The Michael Pollan Rule Applies to Fashion, Too

Ultraprocessed clothing is bad for the environment and bad for you.

A flask and a dress.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

News broke in early November that the U.S. federal dietary guidelines might soon warn Americans against eating “ultraprocessed food.”

It’s far from a done deal — an advisory committee is merely examining the issue, with no action expected before 2025. But it’s still somewhat of a duh moment for the millions of people who, over the past two decades, have turned away from food that comes in instant packets, boxes, and cans, and toward things that come from the produce aisle or the farmers market. Recent research makes a strong case that — more than individual villains like sugar, corn syrup, trans fats, and salt — it’s the way all these ingredients and more are pounded, mixed, extruded, and stuffed into shelf-stable forms that lead to health problems and weight gain.

Michael Pollan — the author who brought you the mantra “Eat real food, not too much, mostly plants” — is arguably one of the biggest catalysts for the real food movement. In a lesson from his Masterclass on intentional eating, he warns against foods with “very long ingredient lists,” saying that “the simplest way to think about an ultraprocessed food is you can’t imagine making it at home.”

You’ve heard of fast food and its linguistic child: the environmental scourge that is fast fashion. I would like to add a new term to the health and environmental zeitgeist:

Ultraprocessed fashion.

Corn Syrup versus Gore-Tex

In the early 2010s, I saw my own health and happiness vastly improve after overhauling my diet to eat whole, farm-fresh foods. But I wanted to take it further. I figured that if it matters to the environment and our health where we buy our food from, it might matter where we get other things, like beauty products, home goods, and fashion.

Still, for a long, the argument for U.S. shoppers in favor of buying more sustainable fashion — the kind of classic, durable pieces skillfully made of natural fibers by artisans and American factories — was largely an altruistic one. Sustainable fashion purchases were meant to benefit a cotton farmer in India you would never meet, to protect a river in Kenya you would never see, or support a community of craftspeople in Thailand you would never have the privilege of knowing.

Even more nebulous, arguments that purchasing this instead of that would prevent the release of (super rough estimate) a few pounds of invisible climate-polluting gas into the atmosphere have not proven to be a very strong motivator for shoppers. In survey after survey, consumers swear up and down that they care deeply about sustainability … as long as it doesn’t inconvenience them, cost more money, or look too crunchy.

That’s an impossible standard. Sustainable fashion, whether it takes the form of a 100% wool sweater from California, a hand-block-printed cotton sundress, or a naturally dyed button-down, is always going to be more expensive than its synthetic counterpart made in a sweatshop somewhere where the workers are cheap and the laws are loose. Neither does slow fashion keep up with TikTok trends, by definition.

I initially had a hard time connecting sustainable fashion to Western shoppers’ well-being beyond the argument that an overstuffed, chaotic closet full of fast fashion can’t be good for your mental health or time management. After all, we’re not eating our clothing, right?

That all changed in 2019, when I first heard that Delta Air Lines attendants were suing Lands’ End, the maker of their uniforms, saying the new clothes were making them sick.

If you could call any clothing ultraprocessed, it would be these uniforms. While old airline outfits were made of traditional wool suiting and cotton button-downs in staid colors, the uniforms introduced in the past decade or so at Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, and Southwest all were made of synthetic blends. They came in super-saturated colors and were coated in layers of performance chemicals: flame retardants, Teflon for stain resistance, and formaldehyde-based wrinkle-free finishes. They were made fast and cheap by suppliers in countries with lax environmental standards.

As I reported in my book To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick – and How We Can Fight Back, at every single one of those four major airlines, up to a quarter of the attendants reported having health reactions, including rashes and skin burns, breathing problems, hair loss, blurry vision, brain fog, and extreme fatigue. Some attendants had to be taken off their planes and brought to the ER. Though the lawsuit by Delta flight attendants didn’t move forward, in November of this year a jury awarded over $1 million to four American Airlines flight attendants who said their Twin Hill uniforms made them sick.

The next question that arises is: Is this happening to regular folks, too? And the answer is yes, but in more subtle and insidious ways. For example, the kinds of dyes used on synthetic materials like polyester (disperse dyes) are well-known to dermatologists to be common skin sensitizers. But many people may not know it’s clothing exacerbating their toddler’s eczema or setting off their own skin problems.

But the issue is more serious than just rashes, though rashes are often the first sign that something is wrong. Researchers and advocacy groups have tested fashion from well-known brands and counterfeits alike and found heavy metals like lead, chromium, and cadmium; endocrine disruptors like Bisphenol A (BPA), phthalates, and per-and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); biocides, pesticides, and fungicides; and known carcinogens like benzene, certain azo dyes, and formaldehyde. (This is an abbreviated list, by the way.)

We’ve known for a long time these chemicals end up in our water and environment. PFAS, a toxic class of chemicals used for imbuing synthetics with water resistance, has been found all over Mount Everest’s summit, for example. But what we’re increasingly seeing is that our fashion, like our diets, affects our physical health.

Take microfibers, which in Heatmap’s recent survey were deemed to be a problem by 61% of respondents, and an “extremely serious” problem by 25% of respondents. When microfibers come off our clothes in the wash or break off our clothes and become part of our house dust, they bring with them everything that is in and on clothing. Given that we’re ingesting microfibers every day, we are eating our clothes. We’re also breathing in their VOCs, and our sweat is pulling those chemicals out of fibers onto our skin, where they can be absorbed into our bloodstream.

One of the main reasons fashion has turned from a field-to-closet endeavor to a chemistry experiment is the same as for food: It’s more profitable to sell highly processed, branded products made exclusively from petrochemicals and with a lot of marketing promises than it is to sell traditional pieces made from natural materials.

This happens at both ends of the fashion spectrum. At the low end, as Shein has shown, you can grow your company at an unprecedented speed by sourcing huge volumes of $5 polyester minidresses from garment factories with dubious working conditions, according to numerous reports.

At the other end, a company can add proprietary, brand-name chemistry like Gore-Tex to outdoor gear and sell it at a huge markup. Just observe a bit currently going around on TikTok where a spouse or partner requests you wear your most expensive clothing to an event or to meet the parents, so you show up in hiking gear.

Sure, if you’re a professional fisherman plowing through rough seas for your catch, a first responder, or a scientist living in the Arctic, you may well need high-performance gear. But for the rest of us, it’s just aspirational marketing, kind of like drinking Gatorade while you’re on the couch watching football.

Yes, It’s That Bad

Like the food industry before it, the fashion industry’s focus when it comes to safe and non-toxic fashion has been on individual chemicals or classes of chemicals instead of the holistic picture. The (completely voluntary) standards used by some fashion brands and certifications will test a textile for a tiny percentage of the tens of thousands of possible chemical substances in circulation, and if each is under the (often arbitrary) limit, the fashion piece will be declared safe.

This approach, however, doesn’t take into account how chemicals can mix to have synergistic effects on the same organs or cause the same health effects.

For example, it’s completely within the realm of possibility for one clothing item or outfit to have BPA, phthalates, and PFAS, each of which by itself wreaks havoc on our hormonal system, even in tiny, tiny amounts. Some of these chemicals are used to process fibers. Some chemicals such as finishes, dyes, and glues are used deliberately and are meant to stay in and on the fashion. Some chemicals are accidental contaminants, as fabrics and components flow through an opaque, unregulated, and just plain sloppy supply chain.

That then can affect everything from our reproductive system and energy levels to our skin appearance and weight. And all this while you’re trying to take care of your health by taking a hike or hitting the gym. It kind of reminds me of when cereal brands will brag about the vitamins they’ve added to their sugary, processed cereal.

What’s more, unlike food, cleaning products, and beauty products, clothing doesn’t come with a complete ingredient list. Anything under 5% of the weight of the product doesn’t have to be included. So what kind of finishes, dyes, threads, or contaminants are present in any piece of fashion is somewhat of a mystery.

When people ask me what they should buy or what they should clean out of their closets, I usually give them a list of things to look for and things to avoid — yes to natural fibers like cotton, wool, linen, bamboo rayon, and silk; no to toxic “vegan” leather polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and other synthetics, which are more likely to contain hazardous or sensitizing chemicals; avoid neon bright colors and buy naturally dyed or undyed products when you can; don’t dry clean your clothes.

But a simpler way to think about it would be to avoid clothing and accessories that your grandparents would look askance at, just like Pollan has encouraged us to do at the grocery store. Wait, what is Pertex® 20D Diamond Fuse Ripstop nylon? Or a polyester Lycra® elastane blend with anti-odor technology? What does it mean when something has Durable Water Repellant? What is actually in Memory Foam™ or the smelly glue that bonds it to the bottom of a sneaker? Do you really believe that a piece of clothing that smells like gasoline out of the box is okay for your health — or for anyone’s health? Which sounds better to you: chromium-tanned leather or vegetable-tanned leather?

Sure, it may take a bit more time, skill, and investment than buying synthetic clothing that you drop off at the dry cleaner. But then again, so does making a nutritious meal from ingredients you get at the farmer’s market. And, I would argue, both are a core part of cultivating a healthier, more vibrant, community-oriented, and nurturing life.

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Alden Wicker

Alden Wicker is an award-winning investigative journalist, founder of EcoCult.com, and author of To Dye For: How Toxic Fashion Is Making Us Sick — and How We Can Fight Back (Putnam). She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and cat. Read More

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