Are outdoor brands ready to break up with “forever chemicals” for good? Yes, according to a new study from Globetrotter. Suston meets with Senior Sustainability Manager Fabian Nendza to learn more.

In February 2023, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) released a document proposing restrictions on per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) that would largely ban these problematic chemicals being used in Europe. PFAS are a family of synthetically manufactured chemicals that are widely used for products that most of us interact with on a daily basis. The durability of PFAS means that they are commonly used in household items such as cookware to create a non-stick surface, as well as being the basis for membranes and weather-proof treatments such as durable water repellent (DWR) coatings in outdoor clothing, shoes, tents and backpacks.

The long-awaited proposal, which has been championed by numerous environmental and human-interest groups, outlines an ambitious pathway for the EU to eliminate the production and import of over 10,000 persistent chemicals and dramatically reduce their subsequent release into the environment. While the proposal is likely to be gradually implemented over a number of years, it has the potential to cause widespread disruption to many industries, not least the outdoor industry.

Globetrotter’s pro-active approach

In response to the proposal, German outdoor retailer Globetrotter conducted an extensive survey of its 26 key suppliers in spring 2023. The goal was to find out just how prepared the top outdoor brands are to end their affair with “forever chemicals” – which brands had already done so, what goals and timelines have been set, and whether any were falling behind in their efforts to ditch these hazardous substances once and for all.

“We feel strongly that Globetrotter has a responsibility to offer ‘best in class’ products, and that ‘best’ also includes the aspect of environmental performance,” explains Fabian Nendza, Senior Sustainability Manager at Fenix Outdoor/Globetrotter.

“With the growing concern surrounding PFAS and a potential ban on the way, there is even more need for substitutions; PFAS are still very present in the outdoor industry, so it is important that all brands we work with transition to PFAS-free alternatives.”

The effects of PFAS on the environment and our health have been known for many years, and a growing number of outdoor brands have already sourced alternatives to PFAS in their clothes, footwear and outdoor accessories, phasing out their use and engineering alternatives in a race against time and the inevitable legislation.

Challenges in the transition

Making the switch has not been an easy road for brands. One of the industry pioneers in eliminating PFAS is Fjällräven, which hasn’t used any PFAS in neither membranes nor impregnations since 2008. As of 2015, Fjällräven had eliminated PFAS from textiles for tents and all other products, but it was not until 2021 that the brand could get hold of high quality zippers without PFAS. In a recent CSR Journal from Fjällräven, the company stated that:

“After investigating this issue, we have learnt that there is a risk that PFCs are used in more ingredients than our suppliers are aware of. Therefore, it is important for us to keep a good and open communication with all of them and work jointly to detect and finally phase out PFCs from all zippers.”

Other brands have been battling against harmful PFAS since 2013, when they discovered that their first choice alternative, a shorter-chain fluorocarbon, was actually just as harmful as the original chemical. Patagonia was one such brand, and following the discovery decided to phase out all fluorocarbons from its products, opting instead to team up with Gore Fabrics to produce a fluorocarbon-free membrane that has since become available on the market.

Globetrotter’s survey found that at present, the majority of brands that participated already have a PFAS phase-out plan in place. However, most have not made a public commitment to a specific timeline for this. The complexities seem to arise from a product’s performance level and purpose. For example, in high-performance apparel products, the phase out is likely to be complete by 2027, whereas most non-waterproof or insulated products are expected to be PFAS-free by 2025.

“It’s good to see that the majority of brands are actively working on the phase-out,” says Fabian Nendza.

“When it comes to waterproof products, the results are no surprise, really just a confirmation of what we already knew. PFAS play a role in many product categories; even products which require no membrane use PFAS for impregnation or treatments, and PFAS are used in product ingredients like zippers for example. These are low hanging fruits so direct action needs to be taken.”

Consumers demand – and should receive – more transparency

Globetrotter’s study also involved a closer look at public messaging around PFAS and what information outdoor brands supply to consumers at the point of sale. It found that while some brands may write about PFAS on their websites, support legal restrictions or provide information on PFAS-containing products in their own e-commerce sites and brand stores, there is an obvious reluctance to publish a concrete commitment to getting rid of them altogether. As consumer awareness of PFAS grows, the demand for products including them is waning. But how can these results help retailers inform their purchasing choices in a way that is sustainable not just environmentally, but also from a business point of view?

“Consumers are already very aware of PFAS and this of course influences their purchasing decisions – wherever possible they would prioritize a product without PFAS and the availability of such products is growing,” explains Fabian Nendza.

“This CSR-initiative from Globetrotter has added extra emphasis and a push in the right direction – both internally and at brand level. Talks during the current order season have intensified already; all these results are helping to guide purchasing for retailers in the planning of future product ranges.”


Lead Photo: Unsplash

Hannah Mitchell
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