Even with a focus on protecting our natural habitat, the outdoor industry is not immune to environmental criticism. First there was BPA, then the ethical sourcing of down, and now the industry is under attack from Greenpeace. The environmental nonprofit claims that leading outdoor apparel brands such as Jack Wolfskin, The North Face, Patagonia, and Marmot are selling apparel that have traces of potentially hazardous fluorine-based chemicals used in the waterproof membranes, coatings, and water repellent finishes.
PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) are a class of chemical substances that belong to the larger family known as fluorinated chemicals. These fluoro-organic compounds are used in the textile finishing of outdoor clothing, sleeping bags, tents, and shoes. With their water, dirt, and oil repellent properties, they guarantee the high performance of outdoor products.
Potentially harmful substances used by the industry, such as these hormone disrupting PFCs, hormonally active softeners (phthalates), and nonylphenol ethoxylates (NPEs), a textile surfactant that’s not only extremely toxic to aquatic organisms but also exhibits estrogenic properties, are now found throughout the environment and in the blood of people all over the world.
To back up their claims, Greenpeace Germany commissioned two independent studies to test a total of 14 pieces of clothing from the leading outdoor brands for traces of PFC and other pollutants. The test results showed that PFCs were found in the coatings and / or waterproof membranes of all the apparel tested. Greenpeace is now calling on the outdoor industry to take more responsibility and find a way to replace hazardous chemicals with environmentally friendly alternatives.
Below is an example of one of the many test results from the Greenpeace study. Supposedly PFOA concentrations of more than 1 μg/m2 should be avoided.
Healthier weatherproof alternatives are supposedly widely available, including membranes made from polyester or polyurethane. Greenpeace claims that products containing PFCs are superior to fluorine-free alternatives only with regard to oil-repellency, which can be crucial for maintaining the waterproof performance.
If you can read German, you can check out the entire Greenpeace Report here. I am hoping they translate this into English soon. Both Marmot and The North Face have responded to the Greenpeace allegations.
Below is an excerpt from the Marmot statement, basically saying they are doing the best they can with the technology that is available today. You can read the whole statement on the Marmot Germany website.
"The substances applied to the surface of the exterior fabrics pose no health risk to consumers when they use the products. Marmot's aim is to guarantee the functionality and performance of its products which need to ensure safety and protection in the most extreme regions and conditions. Based on current research results, the PFC free alternatives for DWR currently available do not offer the same functionality with regard to the repelling of water, oil or dirt.
Marmot is currently replacing its range of water repellent products by using C6 fluorocarbon instead of to C8 fluorocarbon. C6 does not breakdown into PFOA and is the safest alternative for the environment. Until new technology is developed, C6 is the best, most environmentally friendly DWR available without PFOA. For Spring 2013 we will have adopted the C6 DWR finish in over 65% of our styles that need DWR treatment. Our goal is to increase this percentage significantly until 2014."
The North Face Statement basically says the same thing- they are doing what currently meets regulation while looking towards future, more environmentally solutions. You can read the statement in full here.
"The North Face currently uses fluorinated chemistry to deliver high performance characteristics in our products including water, stain and oil repellency as well as durability. Our use of these chemicals is conducted responsibly and exceeds or is compliant with all federal and international regulations governing chemical use.
Through [our participation in Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) Chemical Working Group (CMWG)], we are examining the use of Durable Water Repellency treatments in the outdoor industry, including identifying performance requirements and exploring potential alternatives to traditional chemistries."
Nikwax released the following statement to help reassure their customers:
"We would like to reassure our customers, dealers and industry partners that NONE of the products in the Nikwax aftercare range contain PFCs of any kind. Most PFCs used in the industry until now have been based on so called “C8” chemistry. It is now common to hear the argument that shorter PFCs, such as the “C6” versions are safe. At Nikwax we have not seen any convincing evidence of this, and in line with the recommendations of the Greenpeace report, we will continue to exclude C6 PFCs from our products."
So what do you think- could the outdoor industry be doing more on this issue, even if just in consumer transparency?