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Lifestyle

The Quest to Ban the Best Raincoats in the World

Why Patagonia, REI, and just about every other gear retailer are going PFAS-free.

An Arc'teryx jacket.
Heatmap Illustration/Arc'teryx, Getty Images

Hiking gear exists so that, when nature tries to kill you, it is a little less likely to succeed. Sometimes this gear’s life-saving function is obvious — a Nalgene to carry extra water so you don’t die of thirst, or a fist-sized first-aid kit so you don’t bleed to death — while other things you don’t necessarily purchase with the thought that they might one day save your life. Like, say, a small Swiss Army Knife. Or, in my case, a raincoat.

Last summer, on a casual day hike in Mount Rainier National Park, my family was overtaken by a storm that, quite literally, rose up out of nowhere. It had been a sunny, clear day when we left the parking lot; at four miles in, we were being lashed by hail and gale-force winds on an exposed alpine trail, with no trees or boulders nearby for shelter.

Then, one member of our hiking party tripped.

In the split second before she stood up and confirmed she could walk out on her own, my mind raced through what I had in my pack. Stupidly, I had nothing to assemble a makeshift shelter, no warmer layers. But I did have my blue waterproof rainshell. In weather as extreme as the storm off Rainier that day, keeping dry is essential; if we’d had to wait out the rain due to a broken ankle, we’d have become soaked and hypothermic long before help arrived. My raincoat, I realized during those terrifying seconds, could save my life.

But what made my raincoat so trustworthy that day on the mountain could also, in theory, kill me — or, more likely, kill or sicken any of the thousands of people who live downstream of the manufacturers that make waterproofing chemicals and the landfills where waterproof clothing is incinerated or interred. Outdoor apparel is typically ultraprocessed and treated using perfluoroalkyl and poly-fluoroalkyl substances, a class of water- and stain-resistant “forever chemicals” that are more commonly referred to as PFAS (pronounced “pee-fass”). After decades of work by environmental groups and health advocates, states and retailers are finally banning the sale of textiles that have been treated with the chemicals, which in the outdoor industry often manifest in the form of Gore-Tex membranes or “durable water repellent” treatments.

These bans are fast approaching: Beginning in 2025 — less than 12 months from now — California will forbid the sale of most PFAS-treated textiles; New York will restrict them in apparel; and Washington will regulate stain- and waterproofing treatments, with similar regulations pending or approved in a number of other states. Following pressure from activists, the nation’s largest outdoor retailer, REI, also announced last winter that it will ban PFAS in all the textile products and cookware sold in its stores starting fall 2024; Dick’s Sporting Goods will also eliminate PFAS from its brand-name clothing.

This will upend the outdoor apparel industry. Some of the best coats in the world — legendary gear like Arc’teryx’s Beta AR and the traditional construction of the Patagonia Torrentshell — use, or until recently used, PFAS in their waterproofing processes or in their jackets’ physical membranes. Though the bans frequently allow vague, temporary loopholes for gear intended for “extreme wet conditions” or “expeditions,” such exceptions will be closed off by the end of the 2020s. (Patagonia has “committed to making all membranes and water-repellent finishes without [PFAS] by 2025,” Gin Ando, a spokesperson for the company, told me; Arc’teryx spokesperson Amy May shared that the company is “committed to moving towards PFAS-free materials in its products.”)

Even if you aren’t buying expedition-level gear, your closet almost certainly contains PFAS. A 2022 study by Toxic-Free Future found the chemicals in nearly 75% of products labeled as waterproof or stain-resistant. Another study found that the concentration of fluorotelomer alcohols, which are used in the production of PFAS, was 30 times higher inside stores that sold outdoor clothing than in other workplaces.

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  • The reason outdoor companies have historically loved PFAS so much is simple: The chemicals are unrivaled in their water repellency. PFAS are manufactured chains of fluorine-carbon bonds that are incredibly difficult to break (the precise number of carbons is also used in the naming process, which is why you’ll hear them called “C8” or “C6,” sometimes, as well). Because of this strong bond, other molecules slip off when they come into contact with the fluorine-carbon chain; you can observe this in a DIY test at home by dripping water onto a fabric and watching it roll off, leaving your garment perfectly dry.

    It is also because of this bond that PFAS are so stubbornly persistent — in the environment, certainly, but also in us. An estimated 98% to 99% of people have traces of PFAS in their bodies. Researchers have found the molecules in breast milk, rainwater, and Antarctica’s snow. We inhale them in dust and drink them in our tap water, and because they look a little like a fatty acid to our bodies, they can cause health problems that we’re only beginning to grasp. So far, PFAS have been linked to kidney and testicular cancer, decreased fertility, elevated cholesterol, weight gain, thyroid disease, the pregnancy complication pre-eclampsia, increased risk of preterm birth and low birth weight, hormone interference, and reduced vaccine response in children.

    Chemical companies and industry groups often argue that certain PFAS are demonstrably worse than others; the so-called “long-chain” molecules, for instance, are thought to have higher bioaccumulation and toxicity potential, and have mostly been replaced by “short-chain” molecules. But as Arlene Blum, a pioneering mountaineer and the founder of the Green Science Policy Institute, an environmental advocacy organization that opposes PFAS, told me, “in all the cases that we’ve studied,” forever chemicals have been found “to be harmful in one way or another,” whether they’re short or long.

    From a health perspective, the good news is that activists are winning. While initial efforts to protect humans and the environment from PFAS in the mid-2000s resulted only in the voluntary phase-out of long-chain chemicals like PFOA and PFOS, the new laws target the entire class of thousands of compounds to prevent an ongoing game of whack-a-mole with chemical manufacturers. (A recent report by The Guardian found that the chemical industry spent $110 million in the last two U.S. election cycles trying to thwart or slow the various bans.) Public pressure campaigns mounted against ostensibly sustainability-minded companies like REI have prompted store-initiated PFAS bans that will also influence future gear sold in the United States. (REI was long a PFAS laggard, and was even hit in 2022 with a class-action lawsuit over allegedly marketing PFAS-containing clothes as “sustainable.” The company declined to comment for this story. Dick’s Sporting Goods did not respond to requests for comment.)

    But as the days tick closer to the first PFAS bans coming into effect in stores this fall, outdoor apparel companies are still scrambling to redesign their clothing. Some alternatives to PFAS do exist — Blum swears by her PFAS-free Black Diamond jacket — though even the most ardent supporters of the forever chemical bans will admit the waterproofing alternatives haven’t 100% caught up yet.

    “The main concern that most people have in the industry is the amount of work that it’s going to take to meet these guidelines,” Chris Steinkamp, the head of advocacy at the trade association Snowsports Industries America, told me. “Because PFAS is omnipresent. Unfortunately, they’re pretty much in everything.”

    Many outdoor apparel companies genuinely want to comply with the coming bans, Karolína Brabcová, the campaign manager for toxic chemicals in consumer products at Arnika, a Czech environmental non-profit, told me. “It’s not such a matter of greenwashing here,” she said. “It’s more about the fact that you’ve got the chemical industry on one side and the downstream users joining the consumers on the other side. And the downstream users don’t know everywhere the PFAS are being used; it’s a business secret.”

    In one case detailed by Bloomberg, the Swedish company Fjällräven had stopped using PFAS in its products, only to learn from a 2012 Greenpeace investigation that the chemicals were still present in its apparel. “A supplier using fluorochemistry on another company’s products was cross-contaminating Fjällräven’s,” the Bloomberg authors write, adding that “subsequent testing revealed” just having “products in stores near products from other companies that used the chemicals still resulted in low levels of contamination.”

    It isn’t always the case, however, that clothing manufacturers are unwitting victims of chemical sloppiness. Some apparel companies have taken advantage of the alphabet soup of chemical names to look more sustainable than they are. “We’ve seen in recent years products labeled as ‘PFOA-free’ or ‘PFOS-free,’ which suggests that they do not contain the long-chain PFAS that have largely been phased out from production in the United States,” Blum warned me. “That’s really misleading because oftentimes it’s a signal a product likely contains other PFAS chemicals, which may be just as persistent and may also be quite toxic in production to disposal.”

    The reason I could count on my raincoat to protect me in the mountains, though, was because, like most expedition-level gear, it is made of a membrane manufactured by Gore-Tex, with an additional DWR waterproofing finish that also contains PFAS. Gore-Tex is known in the outdoors industry for making the holy grail of performance fabrics: Its membranes are waterproof, durable, and breathable enough to exercise in, a challenging and impressive combination to nail. But to achieve this, the company has traditionally used the fluoropolymer PTFE, a notorious forever chemical you probably know by the trademarked name Teflon.

    This technology — or rather, these chemicals — are incredibly and irresistibly good at what they do. “The terrible truth,” Wired wrote in its list of raincoat recommendations updated this past December, “is that if you’re going to be exposed [to inclement weather] for multiple hours, you are probably not going to be able to rely on a [PFAS]-free DWR to keep hypothermia at bay.”

    When I reached out to Gore-Tex about its use of PFAS, company spokesperson Julie Evans told me via email that “there are important distinctions among materials associated with the term PFAS” and that the fluoropolymers Gore uses, such as PTFE, “are not the same as those substances that are bioavailable, mobile, and persistent.” She stressed that “not all PFAS are the same” and that PTFE and the other fluoropolymers in the Gore arsenal meet the standards of low concern, and are “extremely stable and do not degrade in the environment,” are “too large to be bioavailable,” and are “non-toxic [and] safe to use from an environmental and human perspective.” The National Resource Defense Council, by contrast, writes that PFAS polymers like PTFE, “when added as a coating or membrane to a raincoat or other product, can pose a toxic risk to wearers, just as other PFAS can.”

    Some of the environmental health advocates I spoke with said Gore-Tex’s language was misleading. Mike Schade, the director of Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program, which pressures retailers to avoid stocking items that use hazardous chemicals, told me that while it is “laudable that the company has phased some PFAS out of their products … what we’re concerned about is the entire class. We think it’s misleading to consumers and to the public to suggest that other PFAS are not of environmental concern.”

    Blum, of the Green Science Policy Institute, admitted that while “probably your Gore-Tex jacket won’t hurt you” — there is limited evidence that PFAS will leech into your body just from wearing it — there’s a more significant issue at the heart of the PFAS debate. “When you go from the monomer to the polymer” in the chemical manufacturing process, she said, it “contaminates the drinking water in the area where it’s made.” The disposal process — and especially incineration, a common fate for discarded clothing — is another opportunity for PFAS to shed into the environment. People who live near landfills and chemical manufacturing plants in industrial hubs like Michigan and many cities in Bangladesh suffer from PFAS at disproportionate levels.

    So then, where do we go from here? Hikers, skiers, mountaineers, fly-fishers — they all still need clothing to stay dry. “Our industry is committed to performance and making sure that the gear that people are sold can live up to the standards that athletes need,” Steinkamp said. “I know that is top of mind, and that’s what’s making [the transition] so hard.”

    But it also might be the case that our gear is too waterproof. “When we think about the intended performance of outdoor gear, there’s a lot of expectation that your gear will keep you extremely dry,” Kaytlin Moeller, the regional sustainability manager at Fenix Outdoor North America, the parent company of outdoors brands like Fjällräven and Royal Robbins, told me. “But when we really start to look at it,” she added, “I think part of the question is: What is the level of functionality that is really necessary for the customer to have a positive experience outdoors and be prepared for their adventure?”

    It’s probably less than you think; consumers frequently don Everest-level technologies to walk their dogs for 15 minutes in a drizzle. “As responsible creators of products, it’s our job to balance functionality with impact,” Moeller said. “And in terms of [PFAS], it just wasn’t worth the risk and the carcinogenic qualities to continue putting that treatment on our products when there are other innovative coatings and constructions that we can use.”

    Those alternatives, like innovative fabric weavings and proprietary waxes, might not sound as high-tech as hydrophobic chemicals. Still, for the vast majority of regular people — and even most outdoor recreators — it’s likely more than enough to stay comfortably dry. “We’ve been going into the outdoors for hundreds and hundreds of years without these chemicals,” Schade pointed out. “We can do it again.”

    Luckily for everything and everyone on the planet, new waterproofing products are getting better by the day. Gore-Tex has spent “the better part of the last decade” developing its new PFAS-free “ePE membrane,” Evans told me. Short for expanded polyethylene, ePE is fluorine-free (albeit, derived from fossil fuels) and has been adopted by Patagonia, Arc’teryx, and others in the outdoor industry as a PFAS-free alternative. Evans described it as feeling “a little lighter and softer” than old-school Gore-Tex, but “with all the same level of performance benefits” as the historic products.

    Other companies, including Patagonia, have been transparent about their phase-out goals and the ongoing difficulties of the PFAS-free transition; Gin, the Patagonia spokesperson, told me that as of this fall, “92% of our materials by volume with water-repellent chemistries are made without” PFAS, and that the new waterproofing “stands up to the demands of our most technical items.” Deuter, Black Diamond, Outdoor Research, Jack Wolfskin, Mammut, Marmot, and prAna are among other outdoor brands that are working to remove PFAS from their gear.

    “We have to work together, collaboratively, if we really want to eliminate them — to the point of the verbiage around being [PFAS]-free,” Moeller stressed. “No one can be [PFAS]-free ‘til everyone in the industry is, because of the risk of cross-contamination.”

    Then there are the consumers who will need to adjust. I admit, in the weeks before beginning the reporting for this article, I bought myself another raincoat. It was on sale from one of my favorite outdoor brands, and I was attracted to its aggressively cheerful shade of Morton Salt-girl yellow, which I thought would also help me stand out in the case of a future emergency.

    At the time, I hadn’t even thought to check what it was made of; what mattered to me was how, when I slipped it on, I became amphibious — like some kind of marine mammal, slick and impervious to the rain. Stepping out of my front door and into a downpour, I felt practically invincible.

    Blue

    Jeva Lange

    Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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