Time for toxic “forever” chemicals might be running out as more major brands clock out of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, which confer many types of outdoor gear and activewear with stain and water resistance but are known to pose a threat to people and wildlife because they don’t break down in the environment.
Patagonia said it’s converting “noncritical” products with a durable water repellent finish, including items such as insulation pieces, mid-layers and some outerwear that make up the overwhelming majority of its weather-proof inventory, “to become PFC-free” by fall 2022. “For critical DWR applications, like a rain jacket you’d wear for 24 hours, we do not yet have a DWR solution that meets the functional needs of these garments,” it said. “The brightest chemists are helping us to find a solution for this remaining 10 percent of our products.”
By the end of 2022, Ralph Lauren will complete a PFAS elimination strategy that began two years ago. According to its latest sustainable chemical policy, the all-American brand has established a standardized chemical management procedure that requires all suppliers, licensees and facilities to use traceable PFAS-free-certified chemicals and processes to manufacture water-repellent materials. The final products must also clear PFAS testing to ensure they’re free of “any traces” of the chemicals.
All the brands have acknowledged the harmful effects of PFAS, which have been linked to hormone and immune-system disruption, liver and kidney damage, developmental and reproductive harm and certain cancers. Both the Biden administration and Congress have acted to better regulate PFAS, which can contaminate drinking water through the expulsion of industrial waste or when PFAS-coated apparel is washed or dry cleaned. PFAS can also slough off from treated clothing as it’s worn or absorbed through the skin, the Natural Resources Defense Fund wrote in a blog post this week.
While many European brands including Jack Wolfskin, H&M and Zara owner Inditex have already given PFAS the kiss-off, the U.S. apparel industry has lagged behind, the environmental nonprofit said, adding that the “continued use of PFAS in the apparel sector is egregious given that it is not necessary to achieve water and stain resistance and threatens public safety and wellbeing.”
“Clear, public commitments” made by Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, Ralph Lauren, Patagonia and PVH, however, offer a glimmer of hope by sending a “strong message” to policymakers and the rest of the fashion industry that PFAS “has no place on our store shelves,” while demonstrating that “quality apparel can still be made without harming human and environmental health,” it said.
Martin Mulvihill, co-founder and managing partner at Safer Made, a San Francisco-based venture capital fund that invests in companies that reduce human exposure to toxic chemicals, said setting goals for eliminating PFAS is “critical” for protecting both workers and the environment because the chemicals persist in the environment for a very long time.
“The more that we learn about this group of chemicals, the more clear it is that we should avoid their use when possible,” he told Sourcing Journal. “The good news for textiles is that there are an increasing number of PFAS-free solutions available and in recent years they have been catching up in terms of cost and performance to be competitive or better than many of the PFAS chemistries.”
Brands need to be looking for solutions now to “get ahead of the increased scrutiny on PFAS chemicals,” Mulvihill said. In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laid out a “roadmap” with time-bound plans to monitor, restrict and remediate PFAS. Beginning July 2023, California will outlaw the chemicals in juvenile products that are intentionally added or present at or above 100 parts per million, requiring companies to replace them with less toxic alternatives.
But the “single-largest problem” with PFAS today is that they are, with relatively few exceptions, completely legal to use, said Jonatan Kleimark, senior chemicals and business advisor at the International Chemical Secretariat, a Swedish think tank whose Corporate PFAS Movement lobbies legislators to tighten hazardous chemical laws.
When consumer health blog Mamavation recently sent 32 pairs of leggings and yoga pants from a raft of brands to an EPA-certified laboratory for testing, for instance, one-quarter of them returned with detectable levels of organic fluorine—a marker for PFAS—in the crotch area. The worst offender was a number from LulaRoe, which came in at 284 parts per million of organic fluorine. Runner-ups included Lululemon (32 ppm), Vuori (23 ppm), Knix (19 ppm) and Athleta and Old Navy (both 17 ppm).
Vuori said it regularly tests its products for substances on Apparel and Footwear International’s Restricted Substances List, including PFAS. An additional test of the leggings style that Mamavation singled out revealed no presence of PFAS, a spokesperson told Sourcing Journal. The other brands did not respond to requests for comment.
“We believe that initiatives like our PFAS Movement can be of great help to companies that want to phase out PFAS chemicals from their products, as well as to engage both suppliers and consumers in the problem with the aim to achieve regulation of PFAS as a group of substances,” Kleimark told Sourcing Journal, noting that current members include H&M, Lacoste, New Balance and Inditex. “Hopefully, we will see many other companies joining the growing family of companies who are willing to step up and phase out these hazardous substances.”
Thomas Schaefer, head of Bluesign Academy, the education and training arm of the materials certification standard, said that the organization’s search engine for approved chemistry offers more than 150 PFAS-free chemical alternatives. But PFAS is only one class of chemicals that are proving problematic. An analysis of items from AliExpress, Shein and Zaful last year, for example, uncovered elevated levels of lead and phthalates. Bisphenol-A proliferates in baby and children’s socks, another study determined in November.
“The pledges brands are making to eliminate the use of PFAS is a step in the right direction to provide safer working environments at the manufacturing level and safer goods for consumers,” Schaefer said. “However, many other toxic chemicals should also be eliminated, and we welcome any brand that is on a hazardous chemical-free journey to partner with Bluesign to make this transition.”