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(05.02.2015) PFC in outdoor products – balancing performance and ecology

Why are PFCs used in outdoor products?  
Outdoor products are so popular precisely because of their water and dirt repellent properties. This functionality is achieved with the help of chemical substances that are applied to the surface of textiles during the manufacturing process. Durable Water Repellency (DWR) fabric surfaces are permanently impregnated. Without this treatment, rain would soak into the outer fabric creating a wet and clammy feeling, even when a waterproof membrane is used. Until now, polyfluoride and perfluoride chemicals (PFCs or fluorocarbons) have primarily been used as DWR.   

How dangerous are PFCs?

PFCs have long been known as a critical issue in outdoor products. The most criticized PFC substance is PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid). This substance is a synthetic (man-made) chemical that does not naturally occur in the environment, but has now been detected around the world - even in the Antarctic. It is toxic, bioaccumulative, persistent and is suspected of being carcinogenic.   

How widespread are PFCs?

PFC are used in the manufacturing of countless products used in daily life, including non-stick frying pans, carpets, fire fighting foam and work clothing in the medical field. The entire outdoor branch only produces a fraction of the PFCs released around the world.   

By 2020, VAUDE will completely eliminate the use of PFCs – what have we achieved so far? 

VAUDE has long been working proactively to avoid PFCs and is working hard to find functional PFC-free alternatives. This issue has a very high priority at VAUDE; it is a part of our sustainability strategy and we have engaged the help of experts in the process.  

VAUDE made a voluntary commitment to becoming fully PFC-free across the entire collection no later than 2020. As a bluesign® System Partner, the bluesign® Restricted Substance List, which heavily regulates the use of PFC and sets strict limits, applies to all VAUDE products. We are working diligently in close cooperation with our suppliers and manufacturers of textile chemicals on environmentally friendly PFC-free alternatives. We have already achieved some important successes:

  • Since 2010 VAUDE has used only PTFE-free membranes that require no PFC during manufacturing. With the Sympatex® membrane made from polyetherester (PE) und our in-house Ceplex membrane made from polyurethane (PU), VAUDE offers PTFE-free alternatives with excellent functionality.
  • Since 2014, all VAUDE apparel has been completely PFOA-free.  
  • Starting with the Summer Collection 2015 (available in retail stores in Spring 2015), all water repellent clothing will be PFC-free. These are labeled with the Eco Finish symbol.
  • Starting with the Winter Collection 2015/16, all PFC products will be excluded from the VAUDE Green Shape Guarantee whose requirements are becoming stricter.

 

 

The proportion of PFC-free products in the Apparel Collections per season:  

 

What are the challenges – what comes next?   

We are also transitioning to PFC-free DWR finishes for our waterproof clothing. VAUDE has been working proactively for years on the full elimination of fluorocarbon use as soon as possible. The big challenge is to find the right balance between performance and ecology. This is sometimes a great balancing act. As an outdoor manufacturer, we are committed to providing VAUDE quality to our customers. PFC-free waterproof clothing must also meet these demands on functionality. This means that if we sell a waterproof jacket, water should bead up and roll off – the outer material should not absorb it. Our customers expect this as a given – even if it is an environmentally friendly product. Higher quality also means a longer product life span and therefore less need for new products for a higher overall sustainability.

A look behind the scenes: using a great deal of financial and human resources, we have long been committed to the development of PFC-free finishes for waterproof clothing. For years, VAUDE has tested all PFC-free finishes for waterproof clothing available on the market for their water beading properties. We have been working very closely with textile manufacturers. The prerequisites for the introduction of a new technology is initially a complex process conversion for all partners involved in our supply chain; we accompany the process closely and provide support -  both for the manufacturers of the chemical finishes as well as the fabric manufacturers, textile suppliers and producers – to gain momentum in the development process. We have already achieved a high level of process reliability in the application of this new technology and good results. But we must also deal with setbacks. For the coming season, for example, we had planned to use a new PFC-free finish for 1/3 of our waterproof collection. It had passed all tests during the development phase, the prototypes were completely produced but they then failed further testing – the outer fabric absorbed water (see picture, below right).

 

Therefore, we are still currently using (in most cases) PFC-containing (C6) DWR, which is, however PFOA-free. We are using the C6-PWR only as an intermediate step ("bridging technology") on our way to complete withdrawal from the use of PFCs.

The following example shows a PFC-free alternative that demonstrated unsatisfactory water repellency performance during testing.

It is important that every customer, with the help of expert advice from a specialized dealer, can select the right product with the best functionality for his or her purpose. Critical to maintaining functionality is the proper care of the products - it should be an informed purchase. To assist retailers in this issue, VAUDE provides training materials that include information on the topic of PFCs as well as on the optimal care and environmentally friendly waterproofing.

Success in fighting the use of PFCs at the industry level   

VAUDE has campaigned intensely for other outdoor and sports manufacturers to also take up the issue. As a single outdoor brand, our impact on the chemical industry is quite low. However, awareness has grown rapidly in the outdoor industry - many outdoor brands are pulling together. With the support of industry associations such as BSI and EOG, we have worked together to set new requirements for the chemical industry. We have succeeded in convincing textile manufacturers to drive the development of environmentally friendly alternatives to PFC. We have made significant progress at the industry level - the whole value chain is now working together on this issue. So we have paved the way for the comprehensive development of additional, new PFC-free materials. This is currently running at full speed but, like all innovations, it requires some development time, a great deal of expertise and experience. We expect further progress at the ISPO 2015. Chemical suppliers have announced that they will introduce the next generation of PFC-free DWR finishes. Both we at VAUDE and our suppliers are closely monitoring these developments and are ready to put these new technologies into practice as soon as possible.

The  Greenpeace "Detox" Campaign has also helped to raise public awareness of PFC issues to increase pressure on the industry and thus drive development forward.

In addition to safe and environmentally friendly products, VAUDE is campaigning for a variety of other sustainability issues, such as climate neutrality of the entire company and fair social standards in production as a member of the Fair Wear Foundation. We provide transparent and self-critical reporting in our sustainability report (GRI 4 standard):

Sustainability Report

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