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Detox for outdoor clothing

Gero Rueter
February 8, 2017

The harmful chemical PFC is often found in raincoats and hiking boots. But a market leader in outdoor gear now wants to do without it. Environmentalists have praised the move and see changes afoot in the industry.

Greenpeace -  PFC -   Outdoorbekleidung
Image: Greenpeace/Vincent Chan

Hazardous chemicals do not belong in outdoor clothing. That's why Gore Fabrics, one of the major textile manufacturers in the outdoor apparel industry, wants to increasingly do away with using per and poly-fluorinated chemicals (PFCs).

PFCs are used for making weatherproof membranes and also in the manufacture of  specialized rainproof fabrics. Gore Fabrics is the maker of the well-known Gore-Tex group of products and supplies major outdoor brands like The North Face and Mammut. According to its own reports, the US company has annual sales of about $3 billion.

The advantage of PFCs: they repel water, grease and dirt - that's why they're so often used in consumer products, especially in outdoor and performance clothing to provide protection and comfort to the wearer. The drawback is that certain PFCs break down only very slowly and can interfere with reproductive and hormone systems.

PFCs have been spread across the world. Environmental organization Greenpeace found PFC contamination to be "historic and ongoing" in the water, air and dust in locations near PFC manufacturing facilities worldwide. In secluded locations such as mountain lakes - the very sorts of places which draw nature lovers, PFC contamination has also been found.

Timeline to detox

That's why Gore Fabrics now wants to stop using a group of PFCs which it has identified as "PFCs of Environmental Concern" in the manufacture of its weatherproof outdoor products such as jackets, shoes and accessories by the end of 2020 (that accounts for about 85 percent of the products it makes using this technology). The remaining 15 percent accounts for specialized products such as uniforms for firefighters and police - Gore Fabrics wants to eliminate PFCs of environmental concern from these products by 2023.

"Our products have always been safe to wear, but Gore recognizes the concerns regarding potential environmental contamination with this group of chemicals and the need for new, more environmentally friendly technologies on the market," said Bernhard Kiehl, Gore Fabrics Sustainability Leader in an announcement coinciding with the ISPO sports trade show being held this week in Munich.

Greenpeace -  PFC -   Outdoorbekleidung
Outdoor enthusiasts who use gear containing PFCs to keep warm and dry have led the campaign for eco-friendly alternativesImage: Greenpeace/Francesco Alesi

"As a product leader in this sector, Gore Fabrics is excited about the opportunity to drive meaningful change in the outdoor industry by making a very significant investment in developing new technologies that are free of PFCs of environmental concern," Kiehl added.

The first Gore products with PFC-free waterproofing technology are expected to arrive on the market in about six months.

Change in the industry?

"This is a significant step in the transition of the outdoor industry to environmentally-friendly production," chemicals expert Manfred Santen from Greenpeace said in reaction to the announcement. "Because of this decision by the market leader, there will be many more products which do not leave poisonous traces behind in the environment anymore. We also welcome the efforts of Sympatex, the manufacturers of a fluor-free membrane. Both projects show the dynamism with which the industry wants to solve the problem."

Greenpeace has been calling for years to rid the textile production industry of substances which are detrimental to the environment and human health, by means of a wide-ranging information campaign. More than 30 global fashion brands including H&M, Adidas and Aldi have in the meantime committed to replace harmful substances with non-hazardous alternatives by 2020.

According to Greenpeace, consumer awareness and protests have also been helpful in exerting pressure on textile companies. "The current success shows that you can quickly transform a whole industry," Santen said.

To protect people and the environment, Germany and Norway want to restrict the use of PFCs in Europe, but a concrete timeline or list of measures has not yet been put in place. Another problem, according to Germany's environmental protection agency the Umweltbundesamt (UBA), is the use of PFCs in wholly different products, such as paper cups and pizza cartons.

Greenpeace doesn't want to wait any longer for politics to take its course - and has taken to the Internet to inform consumers about which outdoor brands are already selling PFC-free products, as well as supporting manufacturers to transition to more environmentally-friendly products and production methods.