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Materials

Industry High Five: Polartec eliminates toxic chemicals from its fabrics

Polartec announced today that it has eliminated PFAS—some of the most harmful chemicals used in gear production—across its line of products.


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The achievement

The performance-fabric company Polartec announced today some big sustainability news. According to company leaders, the brand has completely eliminated the toxic chemicals known as PFAS (per- and polyfluoralkyl substances) in its durable water repellent treatments across its line of products.

What makes it special

If you’re not familiar with PFAS, a little history lesson: Since the 1940s, this class of more than 5,000 chemical substances has been used to waterproof and grease-proof everything from rain jackets and tents to non-stick pans and food packaging. As you can probably guess, they’re terrible for human health and the environment. They can stick around for thousands of years without breaking down, contaminating water supplies and building up in the human body, causing cancer, endocrine disruption, kidney disease, low birth rates, and a host of other health problems.

Plenty of outdoor brands (especially those manufacturing waterproof gear) have been trying to phase out PFAS for years. Wolverine Worldwide got into trouble a few years ago when a group of Michigan residents brought a class-action lawsuit against the company, accusing it of contaminating local water with PFAS leached from former dump sites. REI recently released a new set of product standards for all its vendors, explicitly banning PFAS in footwear, packs, sleeping bags, tents, and more.

It’s particularly encouraging, then, given the scope of the problem, that Polartec—one of the industry’s largest manufacturers of performance fabrics—has committed to focusing on the issue in its own practices.

Read more: Behind Icebreaker’s ambitious goal to be plastic-free by 2023

“Achieving non-PFAS treatments within our product line is an important milestone in our commitment to sustainably made performance fabrics,” Polartec president Steve Layton said in a release announcing the news. “It’s the latest step on our journey to an even more sustainable Polartec.”

The company claims the elimination of the chemicals does not affect the performance of its products at all, resulting in “zero loss of durability or water repellency.” Mike Rose, Polartec’s VP of product development, said the performance results of the new fabric formula have “exceeded” company expectations, and for that reason will be implemented widely across the brand’s line—in all Hardface, Power Shield, Power Shield Pro, NeoShell, and Windbloc products. “The technology will also extend to fleece and insulation treatments for greater moisture management on products like Thermal Pro and Alpha,” the company said.

Michael Cattanach, Polartec’s global product director, told Outside Business Journal that although there have been certain PFAS-free fabric manufacturing options on the market for years, none of them met his company’s broad range of performance needs—which is why the brand pursued its own proprietary formula. Cattanach wouldn’t disclose any specifics about Polartec’s innovations in PFAS-free technology, but he did say that the brand has been fine-tuning the chemistry of the new process for the last two years.

Despite the importance of this breakthrough, though, the development doesn’t representing any kind of finish line for the company, Cattanach added. “There’s really no limit to what we call eco-engineering,” he said. “We’re not just about recycling anymore. We’re constantly trying to do whatever we can do to make out products as clean as they can be.”