Just over a decade ago, fashion’s biggest brands laid out an ambition to eliminate harmful chemicals from their supply chains, a lofty goal set in response to a damning Greenpeace report that revealed rivers running pink from the industry’s dye and chemical runoff.
The initiative prioritised 11 of the most hazardous chemical groups used in the industry, among them so-called “forever chemicals” — a particularly nasty group of toxic substances that never break down and have been linked to health risks from reproductive issues to cancer. More technically known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, they’re used for a range of practical applications, including turning ordinary textiles into performance fabrics resistant to water, stains, oil and even creasing.
At the time, concern really focused on a select group of PFAS considered most dangerous and polluting. And big brands have continued to use large chunks of the chemical family, even as scientific research piled up demonstrating its dangers to people’s health and the environment.
“They’re surprisingly widely used,” said Alden Wicker, a material science journalist and author of To Dye For, a book about unregulated chemicals in clothing that publishes in June. “[PFAS are] on anything that promises some sort of performance related to stains, or waterproofing or water resistance.”
PFAS are still found in a range of sports, outdoors and performance wear. Brands including Patagonia and Canada Goose use them in waterproofs and they show up in the manufacturing process for prime performance fabric Gore-Tex. Weeding them out presents a mammoth industry-wide challenge.
But health scandals in other sectors that use PFAS coatings — like cookware — has raised public awareness of the risks associated with the chemical group and prompted tougher regulation that’s to force the fashion industry to take action.
In late September, California passed a law to ban the substances from apparel manufacturing and sales by 2025, and similar legislation is under consideration in states including Maine, Washington and New York. On the other side of the Atlantic, countries in the European Union are looking to implement sweeping bans on PFAS across a range of sectors, textiles included.
This regulatory push is “hugely significant,” said Wicker, shortly before the California bill was signed into law. “I think that brands could do it if they were forced to do it.”
The Limits of Self-Regulation
Until now, efforts to eliminate PFAS have been left up to brands themselves, with limited impact.
Few companies that make performance products have succeeded in totally weeding out the chemicals and many have yet to commit to even try. Nearly all of the 30 major American clothing and footwear brands assessed by the non-profit National Resource Defence Council still allow PFAS in their supply chains, and nearly two-thirds have weak commitments to eliminate them, according to a May report.
In the absence of any regulation to require change, many companies have made a calculated trade-off between chemicals management and performance characteristics, experts said. PFAS coatings that provide marketable benefits still show up, even in products where they aren’t strictly necessary or have limited use, like running shorts that are frequently washed and therefore quickly shed their coatings, or winter coats worn by city-dwellers, not mountain climbers.
“Nobody wants to be the first one to [take the] leap and then figure out that consumers really did perceive a difference,” said Scott Echols, technical director at Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals (ZDHC), a voluntary industry initiative focused on responsible chemical management. Many brands use its framework to govern which chemicals can and can’t be used in manufacturing their products.
On Nov. 1, it will add all PFAS to its list of banned substances for the first time. Until now, it didn’t have enough industry support to take more assertive action, said Echols.
“The reality is, if we were simply to say it’s [banned], we’d have a lot of brands that just would say, ‘sorry, we’re not going to do it, you’re unrealistic.’ It’s a balancing act [to avoid] undermining our ability to get them to move.”
Nascent Research and Development
Another challenge is finding alternative, safer chemistries that match PFAS on performance, price and accessibility.
That isn’t helped by the fact that, just a few years ago, the industry poured a lot of effort into switching to a form of PFAS that were thought to be much safer, until more recent research showed otherwise — a cautionary tale of “regrettable substitution,” said Boma Brown-West, chief growth officer at chemical safety non-profit Healthy Building Network.
More recent innovations are just reaching the market and mostly still some way from wide-scale commercial rollout. For example, the first PFAS-free version of Gore-Tex has only just hit the market this season, with a handful of brands including Adidas, Arc’tyrex and Patagonia featuring the material in upcoming collections.
W. L. Gore & Associates, the maker of Gore-Tex, said it plans to apply the technology to the vast majority of its fabrics by Autumn/Winter 2025. It’s a move that will require significant investment and resources to deploy at scale, a common hurdle for PFAS-free innovations. “It’s not simply a matter of switching one pipe on a manufacturing line to another,” said Matt Schreiner, consumer fabrics sustainability champion at Gore’s Fabrics Division.
That kind of development will be a boost for brands like snowboarding label Burton, which eliminated PFAS from 84 percent of water-resistant products in its latest collection. It aims to reach 100 percent by 2025, but finding suitable alternatives for its most durable, high-performance equipment has proved tricky.
Some brands are making progress with in-house innovation: Canada Goose, for instance, has been experimenting with fluorine-free finishes such as silicone and paraffin wax, with a view to phasing out PFAS by the end of next year. Meanwhile, outerwear company Paramo has adopted water-repellant fibre structures that, much like animal hair, push water droplets and moisture away in one direction.
But bringing innovations to scale remains a challenge, with many reluctant to take a risk on costly new options. PFAS’ versatility and wide-ranging performance benefits create a particular challenge, with no one-size-fits-all drop-in solution available at scale.
“There are some alternatives [to PFAS] on the market, [but] like any innovation, often those things are considered too expensive for the garments that are being produced,” said Dio Kurazawa, co-founder of sustainable supply chain consultancy Bear Scouts. “The designers of the brands have a hard time being convinced by the quality, and sometimes it’s valid.”
New Rules, New Movement
Regulatory moves could finally unlock some of the hurdles that have held back change, experts say.
Any brand operating in California, a major consumer market with a GDP that rivals Germany’s, has just over two years to figure out how to make PFAS-free products (hard-wearing outdoor gear have until 2028, but will need to be labelled to indicate they contain them). Similar measures are expected to come through in other states, if not at the federal level, in the near future.
There are already signs of change. Where previously brands often insisted on PFAS coatings so they could market the performance benefits, looming regulation and the prospect of ZDHC’s updates have made them much more open to suggestions for PFAS-free textiles over the last 12-18 months, said Lewis Shuler, head of innovation at supplier group Alpine.
Governments in major manufacturing hubs are also looking to improve chemical safety. A new initiative launched Oct. 14 by the UN Environment Programme and governments of Bangladesh, Indonesia, Pakistan and Vietnam will provide $43 million funding to improve chemical management and weed out substances of concern — like PFAS — over the next five years.
Ultimately, however, brands will need to vet and deepen engagement with suppliers to get a handle on the chemicals that go into their products, said Wicker.
“You’re going to have to pay a little bit more, you’re going to have to work with factories that are willing to be really fastidious about what they’re using and how,” she said. Historically speaking, “a lot of brands don’t want to do that.”