Last week, the outerwear giant Columbia released news of its first-ever perfluorocarbon-free jacket, coming in early 2017. This is good, because perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, are nasty. One in particular, perfluorootanoic acid (PFOA), is a believed carcinogen. PFCs and PFOA are also associated with complications from osteoarthritis in women to reduced semen quality in men and with asthma and immunosuppression in children.
So you don’t want them near your skin, or in your house, let alone in your drinking water. And yet since the advent of the first durable water repellent (DWR) treatment, PFCs have been all around us. You’ve had them near you, perhaps daily, and they’re certainly in your gear closet right now. A recent Greenpeace study found them in gear from brands such as Patagonia and The North Face, with exceptionally heavy use in footwear.
You can quit solely blaming gear makers, though; you can blame the market instead, because consumers are always pushing for better waterproof-breathables. Face it, we don’t like getting wet. Gear brands are giving us what we want. Besides, until recently there’s been no alternative. Columbia, though, has been a leader. And with their new OutDry Extreme that debuted last year, the company has managed to dispense with typical membrane construction and in so doing, with the need for PFCs used in DWRs (the latter allow water to bead up and roll off other shells). Columbia relies on a different mechanism, rubberizing the membrane to protect it and prevent moisture penetration. To make sure it still breathes the membrane has thousands of tiny pores that allow water vapor on the inside to escape. The design also ditches the glue needed to stick other membranes together, since that can slow down moisture transfer, instead fusing the soft lining to the shell with heat.
Still, Columbia wasn’t first to ditch PFCs, instead following in the footsteps of Fjallraven,which launched its own PFC-free Eco Shell line in 2015. By this fall, Eco Shell will include jackets and trousers in varying weights.
Fjallraven is from Sweden and likely pushed toward ditching PFCs ahead of Columbia because the EU’s regulation structure is far stiffer than the EPA’s. A 2015 rule proposes drastically restricting their use in Germany and Norway, and given the size of its market, once Germany enforces a ban the rest of Europe will have to follow. The EPA, by contrast, is soft-toothed. The Environmental Working Group says the EPA has known about the risks of PFCs since 2000 but has been incredibly slow at pushing PFC reductions. Still, if Europe pushes for a PFC ban North America will surely fall into line as well.
And by the way, this matters not only because PFCs are a danger once they’re in your outerwear, but because they persist in the environment and are a toxin even at remarkably low background levels. They enter not just water but the atmosphere; that same Greenpeace study cited an alarming ubiquity of PFCs, from remote mountain lakes to the livers of polar bears.
As for solutions from outfitters, both the Fjallraven collection and Columbia’s new effort are constructed from recycled materials, and Columbia’s Woody Blackford, who serves as VP of design and innovation, says they also chose to skip using colors, at least to start with. “The dying process for apparel, and especially outerwear, is extremely energy intensive and requires several gallons of water throughout the multi-step process.” Blackford also acknowledged that some dyes are fairly toxic, too, and said the brand is experimenting with natural dye processes for future product. Note that Columbia readily acknowledges they’re not going entirely PFC-free immediately; they have a lot more work to do.
Still, pressure is building on other brands to follow Columbia’s lead. Nau’s nine-garment PFC-Free Collection will launch in early 2017 and will be both Bluesign and OekoTex approved.
Yes, there are still a lot more brands to go. Patagonia and Arc’teryx both refrained from commenting on future plans for this story, but Patagonia’s present stance is that it believes using petrochemicals produces more durable clothing and that adding to the churn of “fast fashion” isn’t an answer, either.
This might just sound like spin, but there’s a valid underlying point, since we’ve prized modern outerwear, footwear, tents, sleeping bags and packs for their longevity. So it’s still on us, as it has been since DWR and other miracle materials were invented, what we’ll willing pay for, and what we’ll happily give up to live in a less toxic world.
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