A recent review of the world's 3,000 known poly-fluorinated chemicals indicates the outdoor industry's use of the chemicals did not contributed significantly to their presence in snow and water at 10 remote locations tested by Greenpeace earlier this year.
In its heavily footnoted report “Footprints
in The Snow – Hazardous PFCs in Remote Locations Around The Globe” released in early September, Greenpeace
said it found traces of PFCs in snow and
water sampled at remote mountain ranges and lakes in Chile, China, Italy, three
Nordic countries, Russia, Slovakia, Switzerland, and Turkey. Greenpeace said the
highest concentrations were found in samples from the Alps (Switzerland), the
High Tatras (Slovakia) and the Apennines (Italy).
Greenpeace also detected levels of short-chain PFCs that many outdoor brands have turned to as an
alternative because they are less persistent and to fulfill their pledge to
phase out long-chain PFCs by 2016.
“As this report demonstrates, volatile PFCs such as the
ones currently used by outdoor brands are being transported and deposited even
in remote mountainous regions around the world,” Greenpeace said in a September 8 blog post on the report.
It’s unlikely, however, that performance apparel and
footwear were a significant cause of the contamination, according to Stefan
Posner, an analyst at the Swedish research Swerea who recently reviewed about
3,000 PFAs for a report commissioned by the Swedish Chemicals Agency for policy
“As a reader you get a strong impression that outdoor products
are a main contributor to the diﬀuse emissions of PFAs into the rural environment,” Posner wrote of the Greenpeace report
in a September 8 letter to the European Outdoor Group (EOG), which represents
outdoor brands and retailers in Europe. “Our ﬁndings: there are no scientific evidence for that.”
The Swedish review found no information was available on how about
1,500, or half of the PFAs, known to be in use. But among the 1,500 remaining substances, less than
5 percent could be connected to textile and leather applications.
“Of course outdoor is one contributor but not likely a major one,” Posner wrote in his letter to the EOG. “We need to remember that short chain
PFAS have at least been produced more than a decade so this very persistent
chemistry had the time to set their “footprint” in the rural environment most
likely from various production sites of these chemicals and to a very low
extent from articles.”
The outdoor industry has used PFCs because they provide some of
the strongest molecular bonds available in chemistry for attaching durable waterproof
resistant (DWR) and dirt-repelling compounds to fabrics and others surfaces. They
play a key role in protecting performance coatings from abrasion and
detergents. For this reason, however, PFCs remain in the environment for many
years and are dispersed across the entire planet.
Some PFCs cause harm to reproduction, promote the growth of
tumors and affect the hormone system, although researchers have yet to identify
their effects on humans. However, some governments have begun restricting the
manufacture of long-chain PFCs and their precursors to forestall further bioaccumulation
that may prove hazardous to humans.
This has prompted many brands to move toward PFC-free substitutes. The Swiss brand Mammut, for instance, increased the volume (square meters) of PFC-free materials used in its clothing from 71 percent to 77 percent in the last year, according to Silvia Brüllhardt, a spokesperson at the company’s
headquarters in Switzerland.
“We are still using short-chain PFCs to treat our technical clothing, as we are a producer of alpine mountain sports equipment and as such, our customers have to be able to rely on the water- and dirt-repellent properties of our clothing, even in extreme conditions,” said Brüllhardt. “Otherwise, they may risk their health or even lives through
hypothermia. There is currently no PFC-free treatment available on the
market which could guarantee a level of performance comparable to that
Brüllhard adds that from an environmental point of view, a particular problem of
many alternative DWR treatments is their reduced durability. They wear out faster, are far less able to be reactivated, and allow
the outer material to become saturated with water in less time than when
impregnated with PFC. Furthermore, PFC-free DWRs often offer unsatisfactory
protection – or no protection at all – from contamination of the material with
dirt, grease, oils, and salts, which quickly reduces the breathability of the
“As a result, clothing that uses alternative DWR treatments
frequently has to be retreated or more regularly replaced, both of which in
turn contribute to the environmental impact of a product,” Brüllhard noted.
In other words, moving too quickly to less effective
chemicals could result in customers freezing to death or washing their apparel more frequently,
which could end up worsening the long-term environmental impact of products.
The Patagonia burden
Though PFCs are used in many industrial processes and consumer
products, Greenpeace has targeted outdoor clothing brands in its Detox campaign
since 2011 because they tie their brands so closely to protecting the
environment. As in two earlier Detox reports, Greenpeace specifically
criticized The North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, Salewa, and Mammut for showing,
“little sense of responsibility when it comes to eliminating hazardous
chemicals such as PFCs.”
”It is ironic to think that companies who depend on nature for
their business willingly release dangerous chemicals into the environment,”
said Greenpeace’s Mirjam Kopp in press release announcing its report. “Outdoor
companies must take leadership for a better environment by making a genuine and
credible commitment to stop using hazardous chemicals. They need to set
short-term deadlines for completely eliminating the entire group of PFCs in
In fact, outdoor companies have taken a leadership position in
seeking alternatives to both long- and short-chain PFAs. In the U.S.,
the industry has been actively collaborating to address the issue of PFC’s/Durable Water Repellency since August 2012 via the Chemicals
Management Working Group of the Outdoor Industry
Association Sustainability Working Group, which now has 150 participants.
Smaller brands take the lead
In Europe, a number of smaller outdoor brands have already eliminated PFCs from their product lines. Paramo, an apparel company created by U.K.-based Nikwax, which
swore off PFCs years ago, is already selling a completely PFC-free line of
technical apparel. European brands Fjällräven, Pyua, Rotauf, and R'adyy’s also
offer collections of functional weatherproof clothing that are PFC-free,
according to Greenpeace.
“We are pleased this topic is in the spotlight and we have already noticed a big interest in the launch of our top collection Keb Eco-Shell that also uses fluorocarbon-free impregnation” said Martin Axelhed, Fjällräven CEO. “We are doing our best to stay at the forefront of developing textiles that have a lower impact on the environment without compromising functionality and durability.”
The Swedish company, which launched its first entirely PFC-free line this spring, is now launching its new three-layer Keb Eco-Shell garments with an outer fabric of recycled polyester with PFC impregnation. Next spring it will launch rain gear for lighter trekking using the technology.
Patagonia will launch its first PFC-free collection at retail
next spring. W.L. Gore & Associates dropped long chain PFCs from its
product line in 2013 and Sympatex now offers a C8-free line of textiles. Puma
and Adidas have already adopted ambitious elimination targets for PFCs and
Greenpeace notes that staff who led its expedition this summer used PFC-free
performance apparel exclusively.
Regardless of any flaws in its arguments, Greenpeace is likely
to continue influencing the pace of research into PFC-free DWR and other
technologies at places like W.L. Gore, Nikwax, Sympatex and other companies.
On August 25, just days before the release of Greenpeace’s latest
report, W.L. Gore announced it plans to invest more than $15
million over the next five years, to explore alternative solutions for today’s
durable water repellent (DWR) treatments.
“The goal is to deliver new solutions with an improved
environmental profile while still providing durable comfort at or above the
performance level of today’s best DWR,” the company said.