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Greenpeace is calling into question the sustainability credentials of leading outdoor-apparel brands like The North Face, Patagonia, and Mammut after an investigation confirmed the continued and widespread use of hazardous per- and polyfluorinated chemicals in their products. In its latest report, released today at Europe’s biggest outdoor trade show, the environmental nonprofit affirmed the presence of PFCs not only in clothing and footwear but also camping and hiking equipment such as backpacks, sleeping bags, and tents. The study arrives in the wake of recent revelations that PFCs contaminate some of the world’s most far-flung regions, from Lago di Pilato in the Apennines of central Italy to the Haba Snow Mountains in China.
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THE GREAT (CONTAMINATED) OUTDOORS
”We found traces of PFCs in snow samples from all of the sites that Greenpeace teams visited,” said Mirjam Kopp, Greenpeace Switzerland toxics campaigner in September. “It is deeply concerning to see that these persistent and hazardous chemicals have already reached the most pristine and remote corners of the world.”
For its newest investigation, Greenpeace researchers tested 40 products, voted on by 30,000 members of the public on www.detox-outdoor.org and purchased in 19 different countries and regions.
Despite most of the tested brands claiming to no longer use the most toxic long-chain PFCs, Greenpeace said they found high concentrations of the chemicals in 18 items.
Furthermore, 11 products contained perfluorooctanoic acid, otherwise known as PFOA, in levels higher than the regulatory limit in Norway.
“We found high levels of PFOA, a long-chain PFC that is linked to a number of health effects, including cancer, in some products from The North Face and Mammut. This substance is already restricted in Norway,” Kopp said. “These are disappointing results for outdoor lovers who want their clothes to be as sustainable and clean as the places they explore.”
Only four items, researchers noted, showed no extractable levels of PFCs.
THE PROBLEM WITH PFCs
PFCs are valued by the outdoor-apparel industry for their ability to repel both water and oil, which is why they’re typically found in dirt- and weather-resistant finishes of items like parkas, sleeping bags, and boots.
There are different kinds of PFCs: long and short chain, as well as ionic and volatile forms. Because of their hormone-disrupting properties, PFCs are associated with health concerns such as liver and kidney damage, reproductive abnormalities, or the increased risk of certain cancers.
Another problem that unites them is a reluctance to degrade once released into the environment. Many of them also enter the food chain, finding their way into animals like dolphins, polar bears, and even humans.
And although many outdoor brands, like Patagonia, have started phasing out long-chain PFCs in favor of short-chain ones that supposedly break down faster with less potential toxicity, a consensus of 200 scientists from 38 countries warned in May against the use of either type for the production of consumer products, including textiles.
The growing use of fluorinated alternatives, in fact, could result in increasing levels of stable perfluorinated degradation products in the environment, and “possibly also in biota and humans,” the so-called “Madrid Statement” stated. “This would increase the risks of adverse effects on human health and the environment.”
WALKING THE TALK
Greenpeace is calling for outdoor brands to turn their conservation-oriented messaging into true environmental action. “We are convinced that the outdoor community really has the leverage to be a game-changer in the industry and we are calling on the brands to accept the challenge to detox their customers are asking for,” Kopp said.
Brands like The North Face and Mammut are not “walking their talk” of respect for nature when it comes to the chemicals they use in their supply chains, Kopp said.
The North Face, in a statement to the Financial Times, described its “commitment to cleaner chemistry” as a “journey.”
“We continue to make strides in this space—reducing the potential impact of PFC treatments in all of our products and in some cases, eliminating them entirely where we have identified high-performance, sustainable alternatives,” a spokesman said in September.
Meanwhile, Patagonia has dubbed its use of short-chain PFCs “not good enough, but it’s the best option we have found so far.”
In April, the retailer’s venture-capital arm announced a $1 million investment in Beyond Surface Technologies, a Swiss startup that’s developing plant-based finishes that could one day replace PFC-based chemicals.
Still, not all outdoor brands use PFCs. Fjällräven is one such holdout. “We have worked with phasing out PFCs for many years now and from 2015 we do not use any PFCs in our fabrics,” the Swedish firm said.