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Why using toxic chemicals in high-performance outdoor clothing isn’t going away

By - Miori
05/09/2022 3:25 PM

Recent public interest group article highlights the use of PFAS in outdoor apparel, but falls short on developing real solutions

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Lives may depend on having high-performance outdoor clothing, but most consumers are unaware of potentially harmful coatings used in manufacturing processes.

PFAS are a class of chemicals used to make durable water repellent (DWR) clothing.

PFAS (perfluoroalkyl substances and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of chemicals often found in outdoor clothing that are waterproof, oil-proof, dirt-proof, yet still breathable. PFAS are used in high-performance coatings that have been used for decades, yet only recently have been identified or acknowledged as a risk to human and environmental health.

There are thousands of types of PFAS, but only two have been proven to cause negative effects: perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) and perfluorooctane sulfonic acid (PFOS). PFOA and PFOS are currently banned in the US textile industry.

Many other PFAS are likely risks as well.


A recent United States Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) article simultaneously praises and disparages manufacturers over arbitrary factors rather than toxic chemical content.

Given these negative associations between PFAS and the environment, the PIRG posted an opinion piececalling for the elimination of PFAS from apparel manufacturing supply chains. This article was well-intentioned, as some PFAS chemicals bioaccumulate (never leaving our bodies) and have a proven and surmised risk to human and environmental health. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is gearing up (no pun intended) to label some PFAS constituents as hazardous.

The reader of the PIRG article would probably assume that the company rating system is directly correlated with the amount of PFAS in the clothing. Unfortunately, this assumption is incorrect.  

The amount of PFAS is hardly a factor in the rating system described in this article. Instead, the clothing manufacturer companies are awarded points largely based on their anti-PFAS posturing (“commitment” to reducing/removing PFAS from their products), not actual PFAS content. For example, companies that returned surveys, used third parties to evaluate their policies, and those making empty commitments on their website were awarded extra points. 

The PIRG study concedes it did not take into account the volume or type of PFAS use into their scoring rubric.

The study’s authors stated there is little change in the industry and ignored the fact that despite the manufacturers desperately looking and conducting new research, not one has found an alternative that performs as well as the current PFAS-laden performance layers. 

If you follow the websites linked in the study suggesting green alternatives, you’ll find that the study’s real argument is in convincing consumers they do not need high-performance clothing rather than finding market alternatives.

TL;DR:  The authors imply sacrificing technical performance is worth it because PFAS is that bad.

Maybe we should be doing less to encourage grandstanding and shaming, and more to help find solutions to PFAS products.

So what are the PFAS alternatives for apparel?

In short, there are no alternatives that exhibit all performance properties that are found in the original treatments (e.g., Gore-Tex).

However, almost all clothing manufacturers have transitioned from using long-chain PFAS to short-chain PFAS that have similar performance qualities but more easily break down in the environment. Like almost all manufacturers, REI (which earned an “F” from the PIRG study) banned all long-chain PFAS from its REI Co-Op product lines.

The good news is that the industry has indeed taken a huge step in moving from long-chain PFAS to more easily decomposed, short-chain PFAS, albeit forced by external regulation.

Another manufacturer, Osprey, claims to use “nonfluorinated finishes” for water and stain repellency, but they do not offer specifics. (Osprey was not graded in the PIRG study because they aren’t a large enough company.) And while specific alternatives are not mentioned by any brand claiming to have found alternatives, it is known that polyurethane and polyester are competent alternatives to PFAS; they’re just not as breathable.

Other outdoor companies, like Mammut and Black Diamond, have also started using alternative finishes to waterproof their clothes, but they have not disclosed their chemical formulas. It’s not clear if these alternatives hold up as well yet.

Supporting the transition to a different type of PFAS is a better solution than making empty demands to move to an alternative that doesn’t exist (yet) or shaming manufacturers with few options.

As consumers, it may be more productive to take a proactive approach to finding alternatives to PFAS, such as crowdsourcing for research funding, or helping to find researchers willing to take on the task. “Demanding change,” as the PIRG article suggests, doesn’t go very far when so many customers need and expect clothing that will perform in inclement weather for long stretches; after all, their lives may depend on it. For now, outdoor clothing manufacturers are left to their own devices in finding solutions independently, which is to say that because they’re not cohesively tackling this issue, things are unlikely to change even when regulators throw down the next hammer and ban all types of PFAS, as is beginning to happen

And when that time comes, retailers will just have to pull those PFAS-laden products from the shelves and offer lower-performance materials. 
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