Fashion’s fight against forever chemicals is just getting started #855


New legislation is coming down the pike that will force brands to eliminate PFAS in their supply chains. The challenge? They’re everywhere.

Fashion and beauty have a forever chemicals problem — one that’s only going to grow bigger as PFAS show up on legislative agendas.

Europe is considering a ban of all PFAS — which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as ‘forever chemicals’ because they persist for thousands of years. Bans in California and Washington state on the substances in apparel and other products go into effect next year; other states have legislation in the works. The Biden administration finalised the first national drinking water standard in the US this month, and is moving to designate two specific PFAS chemicals (PFOA and PFOS) as hazardous substances under the federal Superfund law. Also this month, a United Nations official said that PFAS pollution in North Carolina violates human rights, while another expert said even the DDT crisis of the 1960s doesn’t compare to the damage being caused by PFAS today.

The problem? PFAS are everywhere. They’re in every ecosystem, every human and even human placenta that’s been tested and, seemingly, every product we touch.

Best known for their use in waterproof and stain-resistant clothing, and for making long-lasting or waterproof cosmetics, they’re also found in sunglasses, body lotion, eyeshadow, mascara, lip balm, sunscreen, shampoo and conditioner, dental floss, acne treatment and hand sanitiser. And their use extends beyond finished products: PFAS are also used in leather tanning, dyes and pigments, printing ink, sewing thread, zipper coatings, the enamel on buttons and snaps as well as countless manufacturing processes and equipment. This means that unless a brand has made a concerted effort to dig into and remove them at each step of the manufacturing process, there’s almost no way a brand has effectively done so.

Many brands have already established policies to avoid using PFAS — a good first step, but the tip of the iceberg. As both legislative and consumer pressure picks up to remove these chemicals from products, brands have far more challenging work ahead. Removing PFAS completely requires engaging with every supplier about what goes into every product and process. It’s also going to require a willingness to explore and experiment with alternatives, and to be open to adjusting performance expectations, says Kevin Myette, director of global brand services at Bluesign, which monitors supply chains and provides brands with chemistry and textile production expertise.

Intentional and unintentional uses

Many of the biggest fashion and beauty companies have PFAS policies, from Gucci parent Kering and Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing to beauty giant Estée Lauder.

Brands that haven’t taken similar steps are going to struggle to comply with policies such as the California ban, which goes into effect next year. “Any company that’s starting now is so far behind,” says Myette.

In Europe, companies have already been dealing with legislation. In February 2023, the European Chemicals Agency published a comprehensive dossier proposing a ban on approximately 10,000 PFAS. “There are alternatives or you can reformulate the product. The performance is probably less if you use alternatives, but companies have realised that customers don’t see a difference. If you test the product [in a lab], you’ll probably see a slight difference — the customer will not,” says Jonatan Kleimark, senior chemicals and business advisor at the International Chemical Secretariat (ChemSec), a Sweden-based non-profit founded to advocate for stricter regulatory controls on potentially hazardous chemicals.

Myette of Bluesign thinks the proliferation of PFAS throughout the supply chain, and the lack of brand acknowledgement as to how much of a problem those unintended uses are, undermines the notion that European companies are ahead of others in eliminating PFAS. “You need to look at [every] facility top to bottom, because it’s likely there. It might be in a lubricant for a machine… or the release agent or in a dyestuff, things like that. You really have to be vigilant”.

Product reformulation is important, but only goes so far. The hardest PFAS to eliminate are going to be the ones that brands aren’t ready to admit they don’t know about yet, and that’s a point many companies appear to be stuck on.

How brands are navigating PFAS policies

Vogue Business reached out to two dozen brands and companies to ask if and how they know the full spectrum of where PFAS are used in the final products, in individual ingredients or component parts and in processes throughout the supply chain; and what policies or practices they have in place to ensure products that are supposedly PFAS-free are, in fact, free from both unintentional uses as well as cross-contamination from uncontrollable or unsuspected sources, including water and even shipping receipts associated with product distribution.

Many did not respond; most of those that did sent statements reiterating their policies or efforts to date. What the brand responses had in common was a sense of certainty that they are successfully working to eliminate PFAS, and do not appear to acknowledge that they are in fact likely still lingering throughout their supply chains.

The most prominent exceptions are footwear brand Keen and outdoor label Outdoor Research, as well as beauty companies Credo Beauty and Beautycounter, which have been outspoken about their intent to eliminate PFAS from their full supply chains — and how difficult that work has turned out to be.

“We need to take an aggressive approach through government regulation and through the supply chain in order for any industry to be able to say [products are] PFAS free,” says Credo’s director of science and policy Christina Ross.

A glimmer of hope for brands is that as more legislation goes into effect, it is likely to create a critical mass of efforts by both brands and suppliers to work towards the shared goal of eliminating the chemicals. Until now, it’s been a patchwork approach, making it a challenge for any brand to know exactly what’s going on its supply chain, and equally challenging for suppliers to take action if some brands are asking for change while others are not.

Meanwhile, Sweden-based ChemSec is taking an additional approach: they’re trying to stem the flow of PFAS from the start. Its annual ranking ChemScore assesses the “medium and long-term investor risks and opportunities stemming from these threats”. “We are primarily focused on the chemical industry. We’re really targeting the ones producing the stuff in the first place,” says Patrik Witkowsky, ChemSec’s sustainable finance advisor.

“One of our main achievements is that 3M have announced — 3M is one of the largest chemical producers in the world, [one of the] inventors of PFAS — that they will stop producing PFAS by 2025, which makes it easier now for investors to go around and say, ‘If 3M is doing it, why aren’t you doing it?”.

Read more – Vogue Business