Braving the elements: which brands are acting to get the toxic forever chemicals off your raincoat?

Earlier this year, META reported on how outdoor gear has become a major source of PFAS – also known as ‘forever chemicals’ – in the environment. But what exactly are PFAS chemicals (or PFCs as they are often called in the garment sector) and are they really needed?

From outdoor gear to anti-stick cookware, ski wax, grease-proof food wrapping, ball bearings, and lubricants, PFASs – shorthand for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances – mostly end up getting into the environment one way or another, and bits of them stay there forever.

But the PFAS used on your raincoat are actually very different from those in your frying pan and some brands play fast and loose with the wording to make essentially meaningless green claims.

It’s important to separate real achievements from greenwashing.

For example, claims made on outdoor-wear products such as ‘No PFOA’ or ‘PFOS-free’ are as meaningful as labelling a banana ‘vegetarian’. PFOA and PFOS are not actually likely to be present in outdoor wear products as they are two types of soap-like PFAS which are not able to repel any rain. At most, they could be present at trace levels.

A decade ago, brands started to feel the pressure when it came to the environmental and health impacts of their PFAS treatments. Some took a shortcut and only made some tweaks to the molecules; others were more ambitious and asked: how do you make clothes water-repellent without PFASs at all?

Brands leading the way?

Chemical companies took inspiration from a duck’s feathers and introduced PFAS-free treatments. Many leading outdoor brands took on the challenge and made commitments to get rid of PFAS, or PFCs, by 2020!  And with us not far off the end of 2020, META has checked their commitments and what they actually achieved – the overall picture is mixed, but uplifting. Several companies have delivered on their commitments and have progressed since 2017, when Greenpeace published a much more detailed scorecard.

The overview below shows brands’ commitments to phase out PFASs, and how diligently they have walked the talk; the commitment, rating and justification for our score are available from our SharePoint site.

Laggards like Arc’teryx, Bergans, or Helly Hansen are still where they were in 2017 – that is: nowhere. They blame their inaction on unsatisfactory performance of the fluorine-free treatments: this excuse, however, is debunked by their competitors’ achievement and by independent performance testing. Danish consumer protection association Tænk tested fluorine-free and fluorine-containing outdoor wear. Christel Søgaard Kirkeby from Tænk confirms: “Our data are clear. Whether new or after a few washing cycles, the jackets with a PFC-free coating keep you just as dry as the other ones”.

Jack Wolfskin, Fjällräven, and Vaude just did it, and several other ones are on their way to their goal.

Rainproof jackets are not the only source of PFASs from outdoor activities: fluorinated skiing wax makes you go a tiny bit faster, but at a cost. The international skiing federation FIS has understood that it is time to act: PFAS-containing wax will be banned in all of their competitions – although with a year’s delay to their original decision.

There is more good news: the EU is working on a ban of the so-called “C6 technology”, typically used by the outdoor laggards and in many other applications.

While our investigation shows that in many ways parts of the clothing industry are leading the way when it comes to tackling PFAS, it should be noted that the brands we’ve looked at represent only the most well-known parts of the industry and those who even bother to make green claims – credible or otherwise.

The EU Commission is currently also looking into new legislation to substantiate these types of green claims made on products sold in the EU. An EU Textile Strategy to tackle the sector’s mammoth environmental and social impact is expected in 2021.

Earlier this year the EEB launched the Wardrobe Change campaign to call on EU policymakers to make the textile industry accountable, and ensure pollution, waste and climate chaos are designed out.

For more information read EEB’s 10-page primer on the topic.