Amid criticism, Patagonia works to rid outerwear of PFCs

Amid criticism, Patagonia works to rid outerwear of PFCs

Patagonia, The North Face and other outdoor sportswear makers are responding to a Greenpeace hazardous chemicals report this way: We’re on it. 

However, elite outdoor clothing manufacturers say change doesn’t happen overnight to find replacements of hazardous chemicals in their outerwear. And while they insist they’re working hard at finding safer materials that meet their tough standards, they argue the current ingredients in their products don’t run counter to their eco-friendly image either. 

Patagonia, The North Face and a handful of other outdoor sportswear manufacturers are the target of a recent report by Greenpeace Germany that highlighted a group of these companies for their use of perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) and other hazardous chemicals in some of their products.

Greenpeace’s report, “Chemistry for any weather,” summarizes the findings of two independent laboratories it commissioned to evaluate the chemical content of specific pieces of outdoor weatherproof clothing. Other manufacturers named prominently in the report include Jack Wolfskin, Kaikkialla and Marmot.

The independent laboratories tested weatherproof jackets and pants earlier this year and found PFCs in all 14 samples, according to the report. High concentrations of the well-documented hazardous compound perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) was found in all of them and in high concentrations in five of the samples from the manufacturers listed above.

This group of chemicals is used by outdoor clothing manufacturers to make their gear stain and water-resistant. However, these substances also are known as a persistent pollutant that don’t break down once introduced into the environment. In addition, the chemicals accumulate in humans and other living organisms through tainted food, air and water. That’s dangerous because widely-respected studies revealed a connection between those chemicals and problems with fertility and other immune disorders.

“There are no safe levels for PFCs; they are intrinsically hazardous and should be eliminated completely by the textile industry,” asserts Greenpeace Toxics Campaigner Kirsten Brodde, Ph.D., in Hamburg, Germany. “An outdoor industry that draws a picture of itself as being green should stay out of the use of all hazardous chemicals and not try to monitor them and slow down the process of elimination."

Graphic of jackets (not Patagonia products) via Alex Ciopata/Shutterstock

Patagonia has been addressing this matter for the last decade and has made a commitment to rid all of its products of PFOA chemicals by 2015, according to Jen Rapp, a spokeswoman at the sportswear company’s Ventura, Calif., headquarters.

The company has been working on adopting durable water repellency (DWR) technologies that are free of PFOA, she says, adding that by next spring the company expects to convert 40 percent of its DWR products to a shorter-chain C6 technology from the current widely-used C8 technology considered to be more hazardous.

Both the C6 and C8 technologies won’t break down in the environment, but C6 doesn’t accumulate in the body, she notes.

DWR technology is essential to the weatherproof products’ performance and durability because it enables the clothing to bead water, resist wetting, stay lightweight, dry faster and remain stain resistant, the company says on its website. “The longer a waterproof jacket remains waterproof, the longer it stays out of the landfill, and that’s important to Patagonia,” Rapp adds.

What’s taking so long to make a switchover to other materials/ingredients in the finished product? The two biggest obstacles have been finding a good replacement that measures up to Patagonia’s high performance standards and coordinating with other companies in its supply chain that manufacture the component of the outerwear and other gear containing PFCs, Rapp responded.

“Our customers have an intended end use of these products and we go through extensive testing to make sure it meets our high standards,” she said. “We don’t believe PFC-free technology will meet our customers’ quality and performance standards. We believe if we switch to this technology today, a lot of our customers would either return them or throw them away.”

At Patagonia, supply chain partner Gore actually makes the material that’s used in the jacket that Greenpeace had tested for its report, Rapp said. And while Patagonia says it works hard to influence environmental enhancement in its supply chain, company officials tend to make more noise when they’ve found a better technology that meets their performance standards and is also eco-friendly, she added.

“I don’t believe we’re there yet (with PFCs),” Rapp said. “We’ve learned we have to work collaboratively with our suppliers who make our fabrics and finishes. We’re not a big enough company to change supply chain practices by withdrawing our business from them.”

The North Face, on the Chemical Responsibility section of its website, freely admits it uses PFCs in some of its weatherproof products. Its use of PFCs "is conducted responsibly and exceeds or is compliant with all federal and international regulations governing chemical use," the website reads.

In a prepared email statement, North Face said it’s always identifying new and innovative ways to improve the sustainability of its supply chain. The company did not make a spokesperson available to GreenBiz for comment on its approach to the use of PFCs in its products.

Greenpeace officials say sports outerwear companies aren’t moving quickly enough to change. They point to other manufacturers’ promise of a speedier shift away from PFCs, including H&M and Marks & Spencer, as evidence that some retailers aren’t waiting for laws to get tougher in order for them to act more responsibly toward the environment and human health.

“If H&M and M&S are phasing out all PFCs (in their garments), that means there are viable solutions available on the market. The outdoor industry should follow their steps,” says Brodde.

Patagonia counters and says they hold their garments to higher performance standards than the fashion-focused retailers.

“It’s a different landscape when you compare a technical product to a fashion product,” Rapp says. “Patagonia sells products that keep people safe in really extreme climates. We can’t sell a product that someone is relying on to keep them safe and dry in the Himalayas.”