Per-and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are everywhere. Since 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have found four PFAS in the blood serum of nearly every person it has tested. The level at which they begin to cause adverse effects in humans has been debated, but scientists have found links between a number of PFAS and health concerns like kidney and testicular cancer, liver damage, pregnancy-induced preeclampsia and hypertension.
PFAS, previously referred to as perfluorochemicals (PFCs) according to the CDC and sometimes described as “forever chemicals” for how long they take to break down, have been prized for their ability to resist heat, oil, stains, grease and water. Seen in furniture, adhesives and food packaging, the material was also historically used to create waterproof and water-resistant apparel and shoes.
One of those brands is now looking to take its fight against PFCs to the outdoor footwear industry at large.
Keen announced Monday that it was challenging the outdoor footwear industry to become PFC-free by 2025. To help its competitors along, the brand released a 10-step guide for any footwear company looking to eliminate the long-lasting substances. The six-page document offers links and contacts to testing labs, preferred suppliers and sustainability experts. It even names the non-PFC alternatives—picked out after four years of research and testing—it now employs.
“We want to share this, so other brands can become PFC-free much faster,” Erik Burbank, vice president of the company’s social and environmental justice platform Keen Effect, said in a statement. “This is a constant battle and time is critical; if we collaborate, we can accelerate the positive impact and our planet will be a better place.”
Keen began the journey to eliminate PFCs in 2014 as part of its Detox the Planet Intiative. It did away with about 65 percent of the PFCs in its supply chain within the first year simply by removing the substances where water repellency was not needed. However, it took four years, including thousands of hours lab and field testing, to cut out the last 35 percent, it said. In 2018, it announced that all its products moving forward would be PFC free—or at least, 97 percent PFC free given “the massive amount of environmental contamination.”
In all, Keen estimated it committed 10,000 hours to reach its goal of becoming PFC-free and invested “well into seven figures.”
“We spent the last seven years researching, developing and refining what is now a proven process to eliminate PFCs from our products without sacrificing performance, and we want to share this for the common good,” Burbank said. “By keeping PFCs and PFASs out of our supply chain and products, we’ve kept 180 tons of fluorinated chemicals out of the environment over the last seven years.
Keen announced plans last week to further expand its Detox the Planet Initiative by upcycling leather scraps from car seat manufacturers. Shoes featuring these repurposed scraps will arrive as early as Spring 2022 and include select styles, such as Keen’s Targhee franchise. According to Burbank, the company will work with a tannery serving the auto industry located near its Thailand Keen factory.
“We are constantly looking for ways to advance our Detox the Planet Initiative,” Himanshu Patel, Keen’s senior materials manager, said in a statement. “Reaping and upcycling waste, tanning leather in the most responsible way and looking for other natural alternatives to toxic chemicals and petrochemical-based synthetics are avenues to advance our journey.”