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Greenpeace report slams outdoor apparel manufacturers, singles out companies for PFC use; brands say it’s nothing new

Results of a recent Greenpeace survey found 14 items from different outdoor manufacturers contained perflourinated toxins. A few manufacturers respond to the report, noting that it doesn’t reflect current efforts within the outdoor industry to reduce the number of harmful chemicals in waterproofing technical apparel.

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Greenpeace is placing increased pressure on the outdoor industry to clean up its act with waterproofing materials.

The enviromental watchdog’s recently issued “Chemistry for any weather” report found that more than dozen waterproof apparel pieces it tested, including its own branded gear, contained perflourinated toxins (PFCs), which Greenpeace deems damagining to the enviroment.

The report, which is part of Greenpeace’s Detox Campaign, calls on the outdoor industry to move away from using PFCs and other environmentally detrimental chemicals in the treatment of technical apparel, something a few of the companies within the report have said is already in motion.

Industry officials say they are well aware of the problems.

“This is an issue for the industry and one in which the industry has been working constructively for several years,” said Michael Ratchford, government relations associate, for W.L. Gore & Associates, whose waterproof breathable technology is in five of the products tested in the Greenpeace report.

Sampling and methodology

The 44-page Greenpeace report noted that in the spring of 2012 representatives from Greenpeace purchased 14 garments in Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

The garments purchased were from Zimtstern, Jack Wolfskin, Vaude (two separate items), Fjallraven, Marmot, Northland Seven Summits, Kaikilla, The North Face, Mountain Equipment, Patagonia, Adidas and Mammut, the latter five made with Gore-Tex membranes.

A few manufacturers have issued statements to the report, most noting that it doesn’t reflect current efforts within the outdoor industry to reduce the number of harmful chemicals used in waterproofing technical apparel.

“Marmot appreciates that Greenpeace has flagged the issue of PFCs in our products,” said company spokesman Jordan Campbell. “However, it is important to note that Greenpeace’s report about PFCs does not necessarily introduce new information to Marmot or to the outdoor industry. Marmot, specifically, has been aware of and taken the appropriate steps to address the issue of PFCs over the past several years.”

Only one of each of the items was purchased for the sampling, which, experts point out, can make the results problematic as they only reflect that specific item. The report noted 11 of the 14 products were made in China and the rest were made in Indonesia, Vietnam and Ukraine.

After they were purchased, the pieces were either left in the original plastic packaging or put into an uncontaminated plastic bag immediately after being purchased. Samples were cut from the back of each piece where there was no printing or labeling and sent to two independent laboratories, wrapped tightly in aluminum foil, for testing.

All samples came back testing positive for PFCs. Some PFCs break down to form long-chain per fluorinated chemicals such as PFOA and PFOS. These substances pose a risk both to people and the environment, Greenpeace said. They accumulate in the environment and via the food chain in the human body and are not biodegradable, or only biodegradable to a very limited extent.

PFCs are complex chemical compounds that are so stable they do not easily break down in the environment. Over the years, they have been found in snow, ocean water, and blood of certain beings like polar bears, penguins and humans.

It’s important to note, that the Greenpeace report isn’t claiming that PFCs are leaking directly from the garments into humans and the enviroment. Rather, it suspects the chemicals are escaping from the manufacturing process.

Industry manufacturers have traditionally used the more complex C8 fluorocarbon in its DWR finishes that breaks down into PFOAs or PFOs, but companies are moving toward using C6 fluorocarbon compound, which is less complex and more easily degradable and does not break down to a PFOA.

Greenpeace suggested the industry look into fluorine-free alternatives to PFCs such as Sympatex or Polyurethane for membranes, and waxes and paraffins like Ecorepel, Purtex and Bionic-Finish Eco for washes.

Industry response

Of the companies mentioned, Patagonia, The North Face and Marmot all issued official responses to the study.

“Making very sound environmental decisions along the way in our product path is fundamental to what we do,” said Joe Vernachio, The North Face’s vice president of product.

SNEWS also reached out to Gore-Tex for its take on the issue.

“Gore-Tex products are environmentally sound,” Rtachford said. “We are committed to provide value for our customers, our product and respect the environment.”

Since 2010, Gore-Tex has been a Bluesign partner and Ratchford noted the company’s Windstopper fabrics manufacturing process meet the criteria for the Oeko-Tex 100 standard.

“Both are widely used an accepted standards for textile consumer safety,” Ratchford said.

Patagonia, which strives to be an inudustry leader in environmentally friendly initiatives, responded with a statement that said while it does acknowledge the use of PFCs in certain garments, it is one of the companies moving toward using a less complex version C6 fluorocarbon.

Plus, both Marmot and Patagonia officials said, some the alternatives suggested by Greenpeace would make for inferiror performing products.

“Flourocarbon-free DWRs have very limited oil and stain repellency and do not meet Patagonia’s quality and performance standards,” Patagonia’s statement said.

But, Nikwax, which provides green alternatives for waterproofing, cleaning and conditioning for outdoor gear, said in a statement that it backs the Greenpeace report’s findings and doesn’t believe the move to C6 flourocarbons will be any better.

“Greenpeace’s report highlights a really important issue in our industry,” Nick Brown, founder and CEO of Nikwax, said in a statement. “At Nikwax we recognized the risks early on, and have spent the last decade developing PFC-free alternatives. This report will encourage the wider industry that it’s time to deal with these chemicals once and for all.”

But other manufacturers said that performance and durability are key to environmentally sound products.

“The longer a waterproof jacket remains waterproof,” Patagonia officials said, “the longer it stays out of a landfill.”

–Ana Trujillo