The New York Assembly on Tuesday approved a bill that would ban the intentional inclusion of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, otherwise known as PFAS, from common apparel. It will now head to the State Senate for a vote.
Backed by Assemblywoman Patricia Fahy and State Senator Brad Hoylman, the measure known as S.6291 and A.7063-A follows a similar—and successful—effort by Albany’s lawmakers to eliminate the so-called “forever chemicals” from food packaging in 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked PFAS, which is found in products that repel oil, stains, grease and liquids, to hormone and immune-system disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm and certain cancers.
Common apparel, according to the bill, refers to clothing meant for regular wear or formal occasions, including but not limited to undergarments, tops, shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, overalls, bodysuits, dancewear, leggings, leisurewear, scarves, saris, onesies and diapers. The term does not include professional uniforms or outerwear intended for extreme conditions.
“PFAS do not break down naturally and are found to accumulate in our bodies,” Fahy told the Assembly before voting in the affirmative. “We have repeatedly been told that there are no safe levels of PFAS, yet the vast majority of Americans that have been tested do have some level of these toxic chemicals in their system.”
“The more troubling piece of what we find in apparel is the fact that clothes get washed, so [PFAS] end up in our water systems, including in our drinking water,” she added. ”And we have had example after example of problems with our drinking water, most recently in Rockland County.”
The American Apparel & Footwear Association, a trade group that represents brands such as Adidas, Gap Inc. and J.Crew, has balked at S.6291 and A.7063-A’s proposed effective date of Dec. 31, 2023, which it said provides companies with insufficient time to prepare. In a letter to the New York legislature last week, president and CEO Stephen Lamar suggested an implementation date of Jan. 1, 2027, instead.
“Collectively we support responsible regulatory requirements that are protective of human health and the environment,” Lamar wrote. “Our members are leading efforts to aggressively phase out the use of intentionally added perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals with a goal of a complete phase-out by 2027 of intentionally added PFAS chemicals in our products.”
A December 2023 start is “simply not enough time for manufacturers, retailers and others to research and develop potential alternative materials, evaluate performance characteristics and consumer acceptance, commercialize new products and transition product portfolios,” he said. “We request…adequate time for research, development and implementation of alternative chemicals, as well as suitable time to transition our supply chains.”
“We look forward to continuing to work with the New York legislature on the regulation of substances in consumer products for the benefit of consumer product safety and public health,” Lamar added. “In the meantime, our members continue to design and execute the quality and compliance programs that emphasize product safety for every individual who steps into our apparel and footwear products.”
How a potential law ends up legislating “extreme” conditions remains to be seen. Because of their protective properties, PFAS are ubiquitous in outdoor apparel, even though the people who purchase such items tend to be more conscientious about their impact on the environment and public health.
According to a Natural Resources Defense Council, Fashion FWD and U.S. PIRG Education Fund report last month, Patagonia is the only outdoor brand to commit to nixing the substances in all products by 2024. Even then, the company only mustered a B—the highest grade in its category—on the organizations’ scorecard.
Most outdoor companies the organizations surveyed, including Columbia, L.L. Bean, REI and The North Face owner VF Corp., received a D or F for incomplete commitments that excluded some PFAS or for stretching out their phaseout periods beyond a reasonable timeframe. Many companies also employ “outdated definitions and misleading terminology” in their commitments and communications regarding PFAS chemicals, often ignoring the latest scientific consensus that PFAS chemicals are defined by the existence of at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom or the fact that all PFAS are of environmental concern, the report said.
The organizations also noted that European outdoor apparel companies such as Jack Wolfskin, Houdini, and Vaude, and outdoor textile supplier Polartec have managed to root out PFAS from their supply chains, “demonstrating that it can be done and that U.S. brands are delaying unnecessarily.”
But even “eco”-labeled products, including children’s and baby clothing, can harbor PFAS, according to research published earlier this month by the Silent Spring Institute, Alpha Analytical Laboratories and Galbraith Laboratories. Among the offending garments were children’s pants from The Children’s Place and Columbia Sportswear, baby jeggings from Gap, toddler polos from Lands’ End and girls’ shirts from Old Navy.
New York isn’t the only state that is looking to outlaw PFAS from clothing. California passed a law banning the use of PFAS in some infant and children’s products and is now considering banning them across all textiles. Washington state approved a bill that will phase out PFAS in products ranging from apparel to cosmetics by 2025, while Maine will bar the sale of products with intentionally added PFAS, except where their use is unavoidable, beginning in 2030. Massachusetts has introduced a bill that would reject the use of PFAS in common household products like carpeting and cookware.
The Empire State has also birthed other fashion-targeting legislation, most notably the Fashion Sustainability and Social Accountability Act, also known as A8352, which seeks to hold the industry’s biggest names legally liable for their social and environmental impacts.
On Friday, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand stood in New York City’s Garment District to kick off the Fashioning Accountability and Building Real Institutional Change (FABRIC) Act, which seeks to eradicate the piece-rate system for all garment employees in the United States, bring in new transparency measures, incentivize reshoring and create a domestic garment manufacturing grant program.