"The Race to Waterproof Your Outdoor Gear — Without Toxic Chemicals"

"From Patagonia to Lululemon, brands are only just starting to ditch dangerous “forever chemicals” in outdoor apparel."

"Patagonia, Inc. has spent nearly a decade rejiggering its supply chain, redesigning products and dumping millions of dollars into a high-stakes trial-and-error process that’s nearly complete.

This isn’t about optimizing for fashion. Patagonia, like practically every other outdoor apparel company, has long relied on per- or polyfluorinated chemicals — PFAS for short — to make its products water-resistant. The problem is that these chemicals, also known as fluorochemicals, PFC chemicals or forever chemicals, are toxic. They’ve been linked to cancer and other health problems and they don’t degrade easily: PFAS have been found in drinking water and in the human bloodstream. Despite years of warnings from scientists and environmental activists, many apparel retailers only recently started sussing out how to ditch PFAS in outdoor apparel and gear. But the stragglers may not be able to straggle much longer: Bans on the chemicals are coming.

“We were looking for a magic chemistry that could do it all and get our performance back and keep your jacket waterproof,” says Matt Dwyer, Patagonia’s vice president of product impact and innovation. “And it took a whole lot more work than that.”

The PFAS problem has been decades in the making. In the 1950s, Minnesota-based chemical maker 3M Co. launched Scotchgard that used fluorochemicals to make fabrics water- and stain-repellant. Within a few decades, the chemicals were ubiquitous in outdoor apparel and gear. That’s because “they just blew everything apart in terms of how well they worked,” says Richard Blackburn, a professor of sustainable materials at the University of Leeds. These chemicals can repel water as well as, if not better than, any alternative, he explains. If water is poured on a textile treated with PFAS, it just rolls or beads off. And unlike the alternatives, fluorochemicals also effectively repel oil, dirt and other stains. “From a chemical perspective, they are fantastic,” Blackburn says."

Zahra Hirji and Olivia Rockeman report for Bloomberg Green February 2, 2023.

Source: Bloomberg Green, 02/09/2023