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Balancing Act: Should Performance Outweigh PFC Concerns in Outerwear?

For today’s consumer, clothes are not merely clothes. They wick away sweat, coddle us from the cold, and navigate us through both calms and tempests. From athletic wear to bedding to even lingerie, “performance” is king, even when some of the measures are more aspirational than practical. All that tactical-grade reinforcement doesn’t come without a cost, however. In the outdoor industry, chemicals are typically applied liberally to weatherproof fabrics, sometimes to the detriment of the environment they’re designed for.

In October 2012, Greenpeace Germany released “Chemistry in Any Weather,” the culmination of an investigation into the ubiquity of per- and polyfluorinated compounds, or PFCs, in major outdoor apparel brands. After commissioning two independent laboratories to test 14 rain jackets and trousers by labels such as Fjällräven, Jack Wolfskin, Mammut, The North Face and Patagonia, the environmental nonprofit discovered that every piece tested positive for perfluorooctanoic acid, a hormone-disrupting chemical once used to manufacture a swath of non-stick and stain-resistant wares, including Teflon pans, microwave-popcorn bags, and Gore-Tex boots.

The disconnect between the “images of pristine nature” that outdoor retailers bank on and the pollutants lurking within their products was striking, Greenpeace said. Similar reports quickly followed. In 2015, the group reported finding traces of PFOA and other PFCs in snow and water samples from some of the world’s most remote locales, such as the High Tatras in Slovakia, the Apennines in Italy, and the Swiss Alps. It uncovered the presence of even more PFOA, also known as C-8 for the number of carbon atoms it contains, in the water- and stain-repellent treatments of popular outdoor apparel and gear, often at levels higher than some countries’ regulatory limits.

Although most of the brands under investigation claimed to no longer use the most toxic “long-chain” PFCs, Greenpeace found high concentrations of the chemicals in nearly half of the 40 items it tested that year. Only four from the batch showed no “extractable levels” of PFCs, researchers said.

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“These are disappointing results for outdoor lovers who want their clothes to be as sustainable and clean as the places they explore,” Mirjam Kopp, a toxics campaigner at Greenpeace Switzerland, said at the time.

To understand why the outdoor industry can’t seem to shake off PFCs, we must first grapple with the compound’s double-edged nature. Known for being chemically stable, PFCs have a talent for fending off both water and oil, which is why brands frequently use them in Durable Water Repellent coatings that shield parkas, boots and the like from the elements.

Gray areas

As you might expect, not all PFCs are created equal. There are the aforementioned long-chain PFCs, like PFOA, as well as shorter-chain ones with seven or fewer carbon atoms. Certain labels, like Patagonia, have started phasing out long-chain PFCs in favor of their truncated counterparts, which are believed to degrade faster in the environment with less potential toxicity.

It’s the chemical’s general persistence that rattles environmentalists. Associated with a host of health concerns, including liver and kidney damage, reproductive abnormalities and a higher risk of certain cancers, PFCs can accumulate in humans and wildlife, travel through soil and groundwater, and concentrate in indoor air if they’re volatile.

It’s a matter of debate if all PFCs deserve to be tarred with the same brush, or if some can be deemed “better” than others.

“[PFC is] a very broad term that includes thousands of substances with very different properties,” said Bernhard Kiehl, sustainability leader at W.L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex fabrics. “It’s important to be specific about the particular PFC being discussed. Some PFCs, for example, do not give any reason for concern.”

Gore even hashed things out with Greenpeace, and the two have reached a consensus about the distinct properties that flag a PFC as an “environmental concern.” This led Gore to pledge in February to eliminate PFCs of environmental concern from its general outdoor weatherproofing laminates by the end of 2020, as well as from its specialized weatherproofing laminates by the end of 2023.

Among the PFCs that Gore doesn’t consider environmentally harmful is polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, a fluoropolymer that Gore says it has rigorously vetted through multi-year life-cycle assessments.

“PTFE, the material we are using for our membranes would be considered as a PFC,” Kiehl said. “PTFE, however, behaves totally differently. It’s not water-soluble, it’s a big molecule that doesn’t break down in the environment, it’s biocompatible, and it’s not mobile in the environment. So this is an example of a PFC that we will continue to use because it provides a high stability that allows us to make a very long-lasting product.”

Not everyone is in agreement, however. Germany’s Vaude, the first major outdoor brand to align itself with Greenpeace’s goal for zero discharge of hazardous chemicals by 2020, stopped using PTFE membranes seven years ago. (By next year, all of Vaude’s product line, the company said, will be PFC-free.) And a handful of smaller labels have managed to forgo PFCs of any stripe entirely. These include Dannah, Páramo and Rotauf, as well as Fjällräven, which Greenpeace dinged in its first report on the industry all those years ago.

“Since 2015, all Fjällräven products are impregnated entirely without the use of fluorocarbons,” said Philipp Kloeters, head of public relations for the Swedish firm. “Spectacular nature is what Fjällräven is all about so it feels only natural for us to protect it in any way we can.”

For an industry that has conducted itself the same way for decades, change can be harrowing. And the bigger the supply chain, the greater the number of pain points.

Performance plus

“Many brands and retailers are working to address various chemicals and materials that have negative impacts on our environment, including people, air, water, animals and soil,” said LaRhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange, a global nonprofit that works with responsible fibers. “When talking about chemicals like PFCs, there are always obstacles for the adoption of more preferred strategies. These obstacles often include the availability of an alternative that meets the technical needs and, more times than not, the price associated with healthier solutions.”

One of the ways brands can make do without PFCs is by waterproofing their garments through mechanical rather than chemical means. Páramo, which hails from the United Kingdom, models some of its textiles on mammalian fur so they actively push water away from the body. Other fabrics mimic the capillary action of transpiring plants: Elastic openings, left between the fibers by the company’s patented elastomer treatment, behave like the pore-like stomata found on foliage, opening and closing to release water vapor into the air.

“Biomimicry underpins all of our technology and it’s about having a system that hands off moisture from one layer to the next to keep it moving away from the body,” said Gareth Mottram, commercial director at Páramo. “You design a fabric that recovers faster than it can get wet, so you have something that is functionally waterproof but doesn’t need a very lab-derived industrial performance [coating] to function.”

The difference in between its older PFC treatments and its current PFC-free treatments has been negligible, Mottram said, echoing the sentiments of other brands.

But although water repellency can be executed—and executed well—without PFCs, stain and oil resistance is a less surmountable hurdle, according to Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable business innovation at the Outdoor Industry Association, the Colorado-based trade association for outdoor manufacturers, suppliers, and brands.

“The biggest challenge has been in finding a non-fluorinated solution that upholds the same stain resistance properties as fluorinated chemistry does,” Jensen said. “And of course our member brands can’t use a chemistry that isn’t going to protect their customer, particularly with some of the more technical products.”

The OIA, which launched its chemicals management working group about six months before Greenpeace published its first report, regards Durable Water Repellency as a “priority issue,” Jensen said. The working group is planning to reconvene shortly after a hiatus to “take stock of what solutions have come out in the last couple of years and see if there are solutions that will achieve the same performance requirements,” she added.

Smaller, nimbler brands, especially those that are more lifestyle-oriented, may be more adept at stripping their products of PFCs, but larger brands have to accomplish the same feat—and then some—at a larger scale, Jensen said.

As for the current dearth of effective PFC-free stain repellents, Jensen suggests adopting a different mindset, at least in the interim.

“That’s the other thing we’re trying to understand: is there a way that we can train product designers and developers to only be applying the more robust chemistries to perhaps only a certain number of products instead of across the whole line, which is often what happens,” she said. “And then on the flip side of the consumer, do you really need that highest high-end jacket that’s designed to go up Everest to walk around the streets of New York City, or can you buy this other jacket that maybe has a less robust water and stain repellent coating applied to it but it’s a coating that’s not fluorinated and perhaps less impactful?”

Mottram from Páramo agrees that the industry can get ahead of itself when it comes to product attributes. Customers, who are now used to hearing about these robust benefits, are willing to shell out for top-of-the-line performance, warranted or not.

“Most people aren’t cooking in their waterproofs,” Mottram said. “I can see industrial firefighters, yeah absolutely, they’re going to need oil repellency. Does an average outdoor consumer need oil repellency? If you’re wearing a jacket for walking Hadrian’s Wall or going climbing in North Wales or hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, do you actually need oil repellency or do you just need a product that keeps working?”