To PFC or Not to PFC–That Remains The Question

Greenpeace Leaving Traces

At ISPO last week, Greenpeace exhibited for the first time ever at an outdoor trade show. The non-profit handed out their new Leaving Traces report, trying to further the conversation on the harmful effects of current DWR treatments used in outdoor gear.

The problem rests with per- and polyfluorinated chemicals or PFCs–a family of man-made, fluorine-containing chemicals used to make materials stain- and water-repellent. PFCs don’t break down easily–some have the potential to remain in the environment for hundreds of years after being released–and have been shown to disrupt the endocrine system of animals. After the first Greenpeace report came out, the industry quickly responded by phasing out the more harmful long-chain PFCs in favor of short-chain compounds with similar structures. Most brands concede this is only a temporary solution as it’s not good enough, but so far there lacks a safe and functional alternative when the demand for water repellency is high.

In Leaving Traces, Greenpeace tested 40 outdoor products for PFCs. This is the first time Greenpeace moved beyond apparel and tested footwear, backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, and even climbing ropes. To choose which products to test, Greenpeace turned to the public to vote on both products and brands. More than 30,000 people responded. In October and November 2015, Greenpeace purchased the 40 most popular products in 19 different countries or regions and sent them to an independent lab for testing–brands included Arc’teryx, Columbia, Patagonia, Mammut, The North Face, Salewa, and Vaude among others.

The tests found that 11 of 40 outdoor products tested by the laboratory contained PFCs in excess of levels currently allowed by Norwegian law. In response to the findings, Swedish brand Haglöfs–whose 2014 Grym hiking boots were found to be the most offending product–quickly recalled any that are still in circulation. The company recently moved to short chain PFCs in products where demand for water repellency is high and use fluorocarbon-free alternatives in the rest of their products and have been doing so for many years.

In a recent study conducted by Gore, third-party labs tested Gore-Tex jackets with a variety of DWR treatments and found that for backpacking and high aerobic activities, currently available non-fluorinated DWR offerings do not offer a better environmental profile than Gore’s current fluorocarbon based DWR treatment. The study revealed that the lower performance of non-fluorinated DWR treatments is the single biggest driver for a jacket’s environmental impact. The reason: In an attempt to maintain a satisfactory level of water repellency, consumers would have to wash and re-apply DWR treatments more frequently on garments with non-fluorinated DWR’s compared with Gore’s current short-chain polymer DWR.

The European Outdoor Ground recently completed a consumer survey to try to understand the market requirements for and awareness of water repellency solutions. They found that the majority of consumers don’t know about the harmful effects of current DWR treatments and water repellency is the most important consideration when buying a non-insulated jacket.

So what is the answer? Does the industry need to do a better job of educating the consumer about the environmental impact of PFCs? And do we as consumers need to accept that perhaps we won’t get the high level of performance we have come to expect out of our DWR treated gear and maybe that’s not such a bad thing?  At least for non life threatening situations. For example, Swedish company Klättermusen has long been fluorocarbon-free while guaranteeing a high level of water repellency–but perhaps not at the same level as that Gore-Tex jacket. Hopefully there is a better solution out there still waiting to be discovered.

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