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Performance or PFAS: Can Home Textiles Have One Without the Other?

Over the past decade, “performance” has become a major buzzword in the home textiles industry. Referring to everything from durability to stain resistance, performance has become a selling point not only to furniture makers and interior designers, but also the end consumer who wants furnishings that resist wear and stains.

Many of those performance characteristics come from the use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as PFAS chemicals. Thousands of PFAS chemicals exist, used in everything from firefighting foams to water-repellant clothing to stain-resistant rugs and upholstery.

But that performance comes at a price. Of the thousands of PFAS chemicals in existence, some have been linked to harmful health effects in people and animals. PFAS are also commonly referred to as “forever chemicals” since it takes them so long to break down, if at all. PFAS chemicals can leech into the soil and water during production, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), PFAS are found in the blood of people and animals all over the world and are present at low levels in a variety of food products.

Because of these issues, several states are enacting bans on the use of PFAS chemicals in products such as home textiles and apparel. Last year, Maine passed a law that will ban the sale of any product containing PFAS effective Jan. 1, 2030, and as of Jan. 1, 2023, manufacturers of products with intentionally added PFAS are required to report those products to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.

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California also enacted a ban on manufacturing or selling products containing PFAS, which goes into effect Jan. 1, 2025. And this year, Washington state passed a ban on PFAS that goes into effect Jan. 1, 2025 for carpets, rugs, and after-market stain- and water-resistance treatments. The ban applies to leather and textile furnishings designed for indoor use as of Jan. 1, 2026.

“In more progressive-leaning states, you see a more aggressive approach,” said Augustine Tantillo, consultant to National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO), during a seminar on PFAS in home textiles at the recent Interwoven fabric market in High Point, N.C. “Environmental activists often have more success at the state level because they are viewed as a key constituency. States are moving much more rapidly than the federal government on these regulations.”

At the federal level, the Biden administration announced in August a plan to designate PFAS as hazardous substances and would require companies to report leaks of two of the most widely used PFAS and pay for cleanups. The proposal would also provide public funds for cleanups when the culprits cannot be found.

In Congress, Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell of Michigan sponsored the PFAS Action Act, which mandates designation of certain PFAS under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) and establishes a national drinking water PFAS standard, among other stipulations. The legislation passed in the House but hasn’t reached the Senate.

Critics of these measures say they go too far, outlawing all PFAS chemicals rather than just the ones that have been identified as harmful.

“The policy is outpacing the science,” Tantillo said. “When you ban something, you need the resources to ensure the people who don’t comply are being held accountable because the people who do comply will be at a disadvantage.”

Tantillo warned that home textiles companies and furniture manufacturers and retailers will see a negative impact from these bans, because they will no longer be able to offer the same level of performance that PFAS provides.

“You’re going to undercut the performance characteristics we’ve become accustomed to,” he said. “We don’t have a solution for some of these performance characteristics without PFAS.”

But some in the home textiles industry would beg to differ with that sentiment. Take faux leather, vinyl and performance fabric maker Nassimi. The company’s Supreen performance upholstery line offers an impermeable liquid barrier and durability without using PFAS.

Supreen is made with solution-dyed polyester yarns, woven and then purified in a proprietary process that removes more than 99 percent of contaminants. The fabric then goes through a novel silicone solution that permanently embeds a thin layer into the fibers without altering the appearance or texture. Then a polyurethane backing is thermo-bonded to the fabric.

Nassimi vice president of design Debbye Lustig said the company knew it could offer performance fabrics with durability and a soft hand without harmful chemical additives.

“This is what we saw coming and where we thought the market needed to be because we try to do things as environmentally friendly as possible,” she said.

Ultrafabrics also produces a variety of faux leather and vinyl performance textiles for the home furnishings industry without using PFAS chemicals. The company is in the process of converting the final few patterns in its line to PFAS-free, and according to Roslyn Muney, technical product manager at Ultrafabrics, eliminating the chemicals from their products hasn’t been an issue.

“It’s just changing the chemicals,” she said. “It’s finding a way for the fabric to perform and still be cleanable without having [PFAS]. We look at the testing and product development—it’s trial and error, doing all the testing and finding what works. It’s the right thing to do, and everybody should be doing it.”

Milliken also is in the process of totally phasing PFAS out of its home textiles, as well as apparel fabrics such as Polartec. And according to Milliken decor fabrics vice president of sales and marketing Benji Bagwell, the move from PFAS stain repellants just requires a shift in how consumers approach cleaning stains.

“Water-based stains are still going to bead up on the fabric—it’s the oil-based stains that won’t,” said Benji Bagwell, vice president of sales and marketing, decor fabrics, Milliken. “But if you think about it, a lot of times if your kid spills salad dressing, if you’re not there to clean it up immediately, it soaks in anyway. Once it absorbs into the fabric, how cleanable is it? We don’t really feel like we’re giving up the cleanability part of it—we’re just giving up some of that initial resistance on oil based stains. And for us, it’s the right thing to do.”

And for fabric makers, educating the consumer is the key to successfully eliminating PFAS from their products while still managing performance expectations.

“Performance is another word that has never been defined in the industry, especially at the consumer level,” said Scott Kahan, brand manager, Kindred by Regal Fabrics. “The beading up is a good marketing tool, but there are also fabrics with PFAS solutions that didn’t bead up. It’s just a re-education of something that wasn’t educated so well in the first place.”

Kahan said his company’s Kindred sustainable line, which is PFAS-free, has been a big seller. And he sees the move to eliminating potentially harmful chemicals from home textiles—even if it’s at the expense of some performance aspects—as less of a reluctant response to regulation and more of a positive shift forward.

“We don’t want to have something that’s bad for the environment, so we just won’t,” he said. “And now we have this new understanding of what performance is now, and that’s what the trend is going to be.”