CALLS TO ACTION
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.
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-outdoor.org/en, which also includes links to brands’ sustainability reports.