A lot of ap­parel and other gear em­ploys a po­ten­tially harm­ful and en­vi­ron­men­tally dam­ag­ing fam­ily of wa­ter­proof­ing com­pounds called PFCS – now the search is on for more eco-friendly al­ter­na­tives.

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The out­door in­dus­try grap­ples with the harm­ful ef­fects of PFCS, the com­pounds used for wa­ter­proof­ing gear.

MOST OF US TAKE PAINS TO RE­DUCE our en­vi­ron­men­tal foot­print when out­doors: stick to recog­nised trails, carry out all garbage, use eco-friendly wa­ter bot­tles. But what we of­ten don’t re­alise is the dam­age done be­fore we even step into the back­coun­try. Ac­cord­ing to a re­cent Green peace cam­paign, 36 ap­parel brands use per­flu­o­ri­nated com­pounds (PFCS) to make their prod­ucts durable and wa­ter re­pel­lent. They may come in forms of a mem­brane or a less-durable im­preg­na­tion treat­ment. Cul­prits in­clude house­hold names like Patag­o­nia, Columbia, Arc’teryx, The North Face, Haglöfs – the list goes on. Only Vaude, Uk-ex­clu­sive Páramo and Swiss-based Ro­tauf have met stan­dards that Green­peace re­gards as sat­is­fac­tory. Though most com­pa­nies claim they’re on the road to phas­ing out PFCS, Green­peace is ask­ing con­sumers to get in­volved. In­tro­duced to man­u­fac­tur­ers more than half a cen­tury ago, PFCS have been seen as the golden child be­cause they give prod­ucts a longer shelf life and abra­sion-re­sis­tance as well as re­pelling wa­ter, oil and other stains. They are used to treat myr­iad ma­te­ri­als be­sides fabrics, in­clud­ing pa­per, blood­re­pelling hospi­tal gear, au­to­mo­tive tex­tiles, ve­hi­cle in­su­la­tion and – the ap­pli­ca­tion that saw the worst Pfc-re­lated scan­dal to date – kitchen­ware. In the 2000s, PFCS were found in the blood­streams of more than 69,000 peo­ple who shared a neigh­bour­hood in t he mid-ohio val­ley with the Dupont chem­i­cal com­pany that makes Te­flon. The dosage was shown to de­pend on their prox­im­ity to the man­u­fac­turer. As of 2016, the com­pany faced 3,500 law­suits filed in the fed­eral court, ac­cord­ing to the USA Today Net­work. PFCS dura­bil­ity means they are al­most ubiq­ui­tous in the en­vi­ron­ment. Air-and wa­ter-borne, traces of the tox­ins can be found ev­ery­where from breast milk to stream wa­ter in the Swiss Alps. They can stay in the body for at least eight years and are thought to be as­so­ci­ated with a num­ber of can­cers, high choles­terol, ab­nor­mal thy­roid hor­mone lev­els, non-hodgkin lym­phoma, preg­nancy-in­duced hy­per­ten­sion and preeclamp­sia, obe­sity and a low birth rate. Use of the com­pounds is wide­spread in the out­door in­dus­try. Ac­cord­ing to the Green­peace study, the Dan­ish Min­istry of En­vi­ron­ment has stated that about half of the pro­duc­tion of all volatile PFCS is used to im­preg­nate tex­tiles. The study even goes on to say that the con­cen­tra­tion of the com­pounds in ad­ven­ture stores was up to 1,000 times higher than out­door air. Green­peace says brands like The North Face, Jack Wolf­skin and even Gor­tex hide from crit­i­cisms with prom­ises of full or par­tial elim­i­na­tion of long-chained PFCS (also termed ‘C8’ by the in­dus­try) by 2020. Oth­ers, like Patag­o­nia, Columbia and Arc’teryx tackle the prob­lem by re­plac­ing the com­pounds with a lesser evil – what are known as shorter chain, C6 fluoro­car­bon-based treat­ments. These al­legedly break down faster, with less po­ten­tial tox­i­c­ity to hu­mans and the en­vi­ron­ment, though a num­ber of en­vi­ron­men­tal groups re­main scep­ti­cal. Most brands, re­gard­less of their ap­proach, claim that their R&D teams are work­ing on al­ter­na­tives that of­fer the same benef its as PFCS, but so­lu­tions have yet to re­veal them­selves. Daniel Oder­matt, Mar­ket­ing and Sales Man­ager of Pfc-free tex­tile man­u­fac­turer Ven­tile Fabrics – which is not in­cluded in the Green­peace study – deems the feat mis­sion im­pos­si­ble: “you sim­ply can’t do it. The fab­ric will never be as wa­ter-re­sis­tant and stain proof. If you want to be 100% eco­log­i­cal, you can’t have the pro­tec­tion you want. You need that layer at the end.” In terms of wa­ter re­sis­tance alone, he says his gar­ments made from the same fab­ric with PFC im­preg­na­tion with­stand a wa­ter col­umn of 750mm (a com­mon mea­sure of wa­ter­proof­ing); those without only 600mm. Other sac­ri­fices in­clude a shorter life­span and a need for fre­quent re-im­preg­na­tion on the owner’s part.

The search for man­age­able DIY re­place­ment op­tions has been one of the key goals in Haglöfs’ decade-long jour­ney to be­come PFC-free. De­spite be­ing on Green­peace’s watch list, they say that their SS18 leather and syn­thetic foot­ware, packs and bags col­lec­tions and 82.5% of their at­tire is now free of the tox­ins – the ex­cep­tion be­ing gar­ments made from Gore fabrics. “We agree that con­sum­ing less is the ul­ti­mate sus­tain­abil­ity and that the fabrics from Gore for ex­am­ple are very durable. But we also know that a high-qual­ity Pfc-free gar­ment that you care for prop­erly can last for a very long time,” says Haglöfs’ Cor­po­rate & CSR Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Spe­cial­ist Sara Skogs­berg Cuadras, adding that their wa­ter­proof­ing now ex­tends to a 20,000mm wa­ter col­umn. “As in­no­va­tion pro­gresses con­stantly we have found an awe­some so­lu­tion to this – all the de­tails are re­place­able, even the zip­per can be re­placed by your­self, and the jacket is re­ally easy to re­pair in gen­eral without risk­ing its wa­ter­proof­ness.” After over­com­ing the ma­jor hur­dle of find­ing Pfc-free fabrics that live up to the brand’s core prom­ises of breatha­bil­ity and dura­bil­ity, Cuadras says Haglöfs’ Pfc-free col­lec­tion ticks all the per­for­mance boxes that they need. “So no, we can’t say that PFC is re­quired to make a highly per­form­ing out­door gar­ment.” CSR Se­nior Man­ager Hilke Anna Patzwall at Vaude, a brand ap­plauded by the study for in­tro­duc­ing Pfc-free mem­branes in 2011, doesn’t like to use the word“sac­ri­fices ”, though she and Cuadras both ad­mit that sid­ing with Mother Na­ture means giv­ing up on oil re­pel­lence. “But it’s not some­thing con­sumers miss,” Patzwall says. Though Vaude strug­gled with wa­ter re­sis­tance and the need for fre­quent im­preg­na­tion a few years back, Patzwall says new Pfc-free wa­ter-re­sis­tant tech­nol­ogy is “at least as good as C8, and for the most part bet­ter than C 6”. A shorter life­span has also never been a con­cern of hers but she still ad­vises cus­tomers to obey after-care in­struc­tions. “To my knowl­edge, there is no spe­cific proof for [a shorter life­span] yet; rather [the claim] is stated by a large com­pany whose core busi­ness is PFC. For Vaude prod­ucts, we have no such ev­i­dence,” she says. “There is no doubt that phas­ing out PFC has been very stren­u­ous for Vaude as well! It’s al­ways a mat­ter of how much re­sources you are will­ing to put into some­thing like this.” An­other brand that started Pfc-free was Fjäll­räven, also not men­tioned in the study, which of­fers DIY im­preg­na­tion op­tions in an Eco spray or a paraf­fin and beeswax cube. Both rep­re­sen­ta­tives from Fjäll­räven and Vaude, how­ever, ad­mit Pfc-free wa­ter-re­sis­tant zips are non-ex­is­tent. Cur­rently, wa­ter­proof zips are pop­u­lar in cot­ton-wadded jack­ets, ski suits, and even lug­gage and bags, their differentiation be­ing their hid­den teeth. Chris­tiane Dolva, Fjäll­räven’s Sus­tain­abil­ity Man­ager, says they’re work­ing on this next step. “We want to con­vince other big sup­pli­ers to change their minds about zips. But we’re not quite there yet…when we first looked into PFC im­preg­na­tion there wasn’t much choice there ei­ther. So we hope if we and other brands can put pres­sure on the in­dus­try to take an­other look at their zips we can ini­ti­ate a change.” Per­fect so­lu­tions are a ways off, but some brands are get­ting close. With en­cour­age­ment (or sham­ing) from con­sumers, the process may be hur­ried along. Find the Green­peace cam­paign here detox-out­, which also in­cludes links to brands’ sus­tain­abil­ity re­ports.

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