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Industry Reacts to REI’s PFAS Ban

REI Co-op on Tuesday announced new and modified standards for itself and its more than 1,000 brand partners as part of its Product Impact Standards, Version 3.0.

Changes to the updates last made in 2020 with Version 2.0 and the first in 2018 include elevated expectations for greenhouse gas emissions, price equity across size ranges, more offerings for diverse hair types and a major announcement regarding its position on the use of PFAS.

Per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS) are used to make textiles including clothing and home goods waterproof, a particularly important trait for outdoors wear products, but in its announcement Tuesday, the Seattle-based company promised the use of PFAS will be extinguished in the fall of 2024, ahead of California’s ban on the substances set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2025.

California Assembly Bill 1817 is specifically mentioned by REI, which is prohibiting PFAS use in apparel, accessories, footwear and bags as well as cookware, as the “forever chemicals” are also responsible for the power of non-stick pots and pans.

“REI’s commitment is a strong step for public health,” Sujatha Bergen, health campaigns director for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), told Sourcing Journal. “Their ban on textiles in line with new legislation passed in California and New York shows a recognition that these chemicals are on the way out in the apparel industry.”

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Bergen specifically called out REI’s ban on cookware, something she believes may be a first of its kind.

“We’ve seen a lot of momentum around apparel this past year, but I’m trying to think of any company that I know of that is a major mainstream company that has banned PFAS in cookware and none comes to mind,” she said. “So taking a lead on cookware is worth noting and we really hope that other manufacturers follow suit.”

Last September, REI declared support for AB 1817, but in November, a class-action lawsuit accused the co-op of greenwashing after inspections found the company’s garments to have levels of PFAS above what industry standards consider an “intentional use” of these “forever chemicals” that are linked to adverse health outcomes in humans.

Last April, the NRDC’s report card scoring major brands and retailers on their record handling PFAS gave REI an ‘F.’

Bergen co-authored the 2022 report and on Wednesday she told Sourcing Journal that REI will no longer have an ‘F’ when the next scorecard comes out, though she’s not sure when that would be.

“REI’s commitment to ban all PFAS use—and its supply chain—will definitely improve its score,” Bergen said. “It will no longer be a failing grade.”

REI was far from the only company that flunked the NRDC test among outdoor apparel brands. Columbia, Wolverine and Academy Sports all have the opportunity to crawl out of the hole REI just did, Bergen said.

“I should say you can’t call yourself a company that cares about the environment and cares about sustainability and still use PFAS in a widespread way—and your supply chain—and I think they finally understood that,” Bergen said.

Steve Lamar, president and CEO of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, was supportive of REI’s move.

AAFA members are committed to product safety and integrity for the clothes and shoes our customers put on, the home textiles they sleep on and dry off with, and the accessories they carry,” Lamar said. “That’s why AAFA develops tools like the Restricted Substance List [RSL] – which now includes specific restrictions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) as a class of chemicals. Additionally, AAFA is continuing to ensure that policy proposals, such as those around PFAS, reflect science-based testing thresholds that facilitate compliance and harmonize phase-out timelines with existing requirements.” 

REI’s modified greenhouse emission expectation calls for each brand partner to set a reduction target of its annual greenhouse gas emissions and implement an action plan of its own to meet the target. Brand partners representing at least 55 percent of REI’s total sales volume will be assigned a reduction target that REI will support with “our strategic and high-volume partners to set science-aligned reduction targets.”

The greenhouse gas expectation goes into effect at the end of 2024.

On social issues, REI 3.0 has modified its brand expectation on cultural appropriation to require each brand partner to have controls in place to prevent plagiarism, theft or inappropriate use of designs, wording, etc. that are “culturally meaningful to and/or originated from underrepresented communities.”

The cultural appropriation modification also calls for brand partners to ensure cultural events like Pride and Black History Month, are shaped by members of representative communities.

When it comes to models used in marketing, REI is taking the new step of requiring that each brand partner provide the co-op “at least one sample size outside of the standard size range for marketing photography.”

Also new, REI declares that by the spring of 2025 it will no longer charge more for products that are for a larger size, and that its headwear, including helmets and hoods, include options for “higher-volume and textured hair.”

Environmental and public health activists praised REI’s decision roundly on Wednesday.

“REI’s action sends a clear signal to all apparel companies that PFAS are just too dangerous to be used on our clothing,” said Laurie Valeriano, executive director of Toxic-Free Future. “With this decision, this sustainability-minded company is getting out ahead of regulation. REI should make sure these persistent, toxic chemicals are replaced with safer solutions by requiring full ingredient disclosure and assessment for hazards. We are proud that our hometown co-op is leading the way, and look forward to working with REI to set a new bar for safety.”

“Living well outdoors should never come with a dose of toxic chemicals, or at the expense of someone else,“ said Emily Donovan, co-founder of Clean Cape Fear, a grassroots organization in North Carolina. “Communities like mine deserve protection from continued PFAS exposures. Thank you, REI, for living up to your values, listening to your customers, and demanding a market shift.”

The industry has been hard at work cooking up environmentally friendly alternatives for brands looking to ditch PFAS. Modern Meadow is working with a Taiwan-based company to develop a sustainably produced, high-performance, waterproof membrane-based material for outdoor apparel. Green Theme last year raised more than $5 million to expand a suite of textile technologies including a waterproofing finishing treatment free of PFAS. Polartec, itself an outdoor expert, stopped using PFAS to finish its performance fabrics back in 2021.

Additional reporting by Jessica Binns.