Despite the growing furor over so-called “forever chemicals” seeping into the environment, outdoor brands are struggling to ditch per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, better known as PFAS or PFCs, from their stain-resistant and water-repelling gear, according to a scorecard that rates fashion brand pledges.
In fact, the highest-ranking brand in the first-of-its-kind rating by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Fashion FWD and U.S. PIRG Education Fund isn’t an outdoor brand at all. It’s Levi Strauss, which earned an A- for successfully eliminating the hormone and immune-system disrupting substances from its supply chain. Columbia Sportswear (which also owns Prana), REI, Wolverine Worldwide (which also owns Merrell) and others received Fs. Even Patagonia only mustered a B, the sector’s highest score. It’s the only outdoor brand, the report said, to commit to nixing PFAS in all products by 2024.
“PFAS contamination can occur throughout the entire lifecycle of clothing manufacturing,” Emily Rogers, Zero Out Toxics advocate at the U.S. PIRG Education Fund, said in a statement. “It pollutes our waters, can be ingested by children in the home, winds up in landfills or incinerated and passed into the air. To effectively address PFAS contamination, clothing brands must stop using dangerous forever chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives.”
Outdoor brands that rely on PFAS to keep their kit dry risk alienating their customers, who tend to be more conscious about their environmental footprint. More than 110,000 REI members, for instance, have signed petitions or sent emails to the retailer urging action on PFAS, according to Toxic-Free Future, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that previously detected PFAS in multiple REI products, including REI-branded raincoats.
“At REI, we strive to sell high-quality, durable gear while minimizing impacts to the environment and people,” an REI spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. “A durable water repellent (DWR) finish is sometimes necessary to achieve stain and/or water resistance and meet the durability and performance expectations of our customers. Any time we use a chemical treatment in the creation of a product, our goal is to do so in a way that minimizes the impact to people and the planet. ” The retailer will continue to “elevate our expectations where we are able,” the spokesperson added.
REI may have to do so sooner rather than later. Last week, Jay Inslee, governor of REI’s home state of Washington, signed into law a bill that will restrict PFAS in a range of products, including apparel, by 2025, the “fastest timeline in the nation,” per Toxic-Free Future.
“As one of the largest retailers in the outdoor industry and a company renowned for its commitment to sustainability, REI has a responsibility to lead a bold phase-out of all PFAS in the products it sells,” said Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store, a program of Toxic-Free Future. “This new report clearly shows it’s possible since competitors, like Patagonia, are doing much more to phase out toxic PFAS.”
Somewhere between Patagonia and REI et. al. is The North Face owner VF Corp. and L.L. Bean, which each received Ds, though L.L. Bean challenged this, saying that it was “proactively” eliminating PFAS from its products even before its home state of Maine moved in 2021 to outlaw the substances by 2030—the first state to do so.
“Prior to Maine’s law being enacted, we began working with industry partners to develop and utilize alternatives to PFAS treatments that better preserve the health of the environment and still meet L.L.Bean’s quality standards,” a representative told Sourcing Journal. “This work enabled our ongoing transition to a ‘C0(zero)’ chemistry that eliminates all PFAS from our products and we have made great progress towards our goal of achieving a full transition. We have been engaged with the NRDC prior to and throughout the ratings process and anticipate our rating will improve as our work to eliminate PFAS from our products is completed.”
Outdoor brands weren’t the only ones the scorecard found to be wanting, however.
“Indoor” firms that were slapped with Fs included Michael Kors parent Capri Holdings, DKNY operator GIII Apparel, Coach and Kate spade owner Tapestry and Under Armour. Abercrombie & Fitch nabbed a C+ and American Eagle Outfitters, Gap, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein owner PVH Corp hovered between a B- to a B+. There were two victors, however: the aforementioned Levi’s and Victoria’s Secret, which came out swinging with an A-.
Tapestry said that its suppliers are required to comply with and declare that the raw materials, component parts, chemicals, and sundries used and supplied or otherwise delivered to Tapestry comply with the prohibitions, limitations and other provisions described by the Tapestry Product Safety Compliance Manual. PFAS, including PFOS and PFOA are on its Restricted Substances List and are required to be tested for textiles and leathers that contain stain and water repellant finishing, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal.
Big-box stores that flunked out included JCPenney, Kohl’s, Macy’s, Nordstrom and Walmart. Costco and Target, on the other hand, rose to the top of their column with matching Ds.
Walmart said it has a longstanding product safety and compliance program that includes testing for priority chemicals in clothing. “We work closely with our suppliers on reducing priority chemical usage and discharge in the textile manufacturing process,” a spokesperson said. In 2021, the retailer said it expanded its chemical management program in “close consultation” with organizations such as NRDC to help its supply-chain partners take steps to align with the ZDHC Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (ZDHC MRSL), which includes certain PFCs.
Shoes were a mixed bag, with Keen as well as Ugg and Teva owner Deckers performing the best with A- raiting and Skechers the worst with an F. New Balance received a C- because its PFAS elimination policies exclude a PFAS polymer known as polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, the scorecard noted, and Nike a D+ because its commitment to phase out per- and polyfluorinated finishes from their products could leave out membranes that contain PFAS polymers.
Many companies use “outdated definitions and misleading terminology” in their commitments and communications regarding PFAS chemicals, the scorecard said, often ignoring the latest scientific consensus that PFAS chemicals are defined by the existence of at least one fully fluorinated carbon atom or disregarding the further scientific unanimity that all PFAS are of environmental concern.
Nike refuted its score, noting that it has met its target to eliminate PFAS used in water-repellent finishes as of the end of 2021 and no longer allows them in Nike products. “Our continued success and progress toward our goal of 100 percent PFC-free durable water repellants was made possible by close collaboration with material vendors and chemical suppliers,” a representative told Sourcing Journal.
For Sujatha Bergen, director, health campaigns, at NRDC, however, the biggest disappointments were the brands that feature pristine wilderness in their marketing campaigns. She said the purpose of the scorecard was to empower consumers to “use their shopping power for good.”
“Commitments from major apparel brands and retailers, alongside comprehensive policy changes, can significantly help combat PFAS pollution,” Bergen said. ‘It is especially unacceptable and ironic for the outdoor apparel space to have scored as poorly as they did. We need to hold multibillion-dollar outdoor brands like Columbia accountable for exacerbating the PFAS crisis.”