While many European brands began voluntarily phasing out PFAS in outdoor equipment years ago, US brands have been dragging their feet and are now claiming they’ve been progressive all along. Will incoming legislation finally level the playing field? ‘Don’t count on it’ says podcast host and producer Meg Carney.

Industry discourse around using per and poly-fluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) chemicals in production has spanned over a decade. Despite knowledge of the widespread harm this class of tens of thousands of chemicals poses, much of the North American outdoor industry dragged its feet to make necessary changes to protect people and the planet. Innovations away from PFAS have been arduous and sometimes would be called “regretful” substitutes soon after their implementation due to their continued negative impacts.

The other side of the Atlantic, however, witnessed the voluntary phase-out of PFAS of European brands like Jack Wolfskin, Fjällräven, and Houdini Sportswear. In fact, some European brands began removing PFAS as early as 2009, shedding light on the fact that the removal of PFAS in highly technical outdoor apparel and gear was possible without losing too much in terms of performance.

Yet, many otherwise reputable large brands and retailers based in the United States chose to stick to the status quo, citing that the performance of emerging “cleaner chemistry” did not meet consumer expectations. Following the Greenpeace investigation in 2012, “Chemistry for Any Weather,” little movement was seen within US-based outdoor apparel companies or suppliers to move away from these harmful chemicals, and most consumers were unaware of the harmful effects PFAS posed.

American brands are nearly a decade behind

In episode 6 of the Forever Chemicals podcast series, titled European Companies are Far Ahead, Arlene Blum, the founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, mentions delayed industry interest in listening to science despite approaching leading brands and educating them on the dangers of PFAS as early as 2013:

“In the outdoor industry, they felt they needed the performance, and they did not want to stop using PFAS. It was only with regulation, which is a level playing field, that they are stopping and indeed discovering that you can have perfectly good gear without PFAS.”

Now, over ten years after Arlene began approaching outdoor brands, we can expect US-based outdoor apparel and equipment brands and most major industry suppliers to have eliminated PFAS from at least some of their product lines and supply chains by the January 2025 deadline under the California Safer Clothes and Textiles Act (AB 1817).

The regulatory landscape of PFAS is constantly changing, making it hard to keep up with, which is perhaps why early adopters of cleaner chemistry did so voluntarily. Now, brands that were behind and felt the industry didn’t get enough of a “heads up” before the regulations went into place in the US are leaning into marketing campaigns emphasizing their move away from harmful chemistry. At best, this should be seen as greenwashing, and at its worst, it is deceiving consumers into believing that the industry has their best interests in mind when their primary concern was performance, not human or environmental health, from the start.

Legislation or not, brands have responsibility to phase out PFAS

While there are many differences in how European and US-based brands are approaching the PFAS phase-out, there are similarities in the battle over widespread PFAS regulation. In 2020, the EU released a chemical strategy that included phasing out PFAS unless the use was deemed essential. After industry pressures and aggressive lobbying, the EU dropped major PFAS regulations under the REACH guidelines at the end of 2023, allowing chemical companies to continue business as usual. Similarly, PFAS regulation in the United States is slow to progress and is falling at a state level due to lobbying and industry pushback against federal regulations. Even major outdoor industry suppliers like W.L. Gore & Associates have been seen on record as recently as 2022 opposing PFAS legislation.

Although PFAS regulation appeared necessary to move the needle in the United States, it likely isn’t something the world can rely on long-term until more industries get on board with these changes. So, in a regulatory landscape seemingly controlled by industry, European outdoor brands have the right idea, and voluntary phase-outs of hazardous chemicals may be the best approach to persuade impactful market changes.

 

Lead image: Screenshot from podcast trailer.

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Meg Carney
info@norragency.com
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