Forever chemicals won't wash in outdoor gear

Opinion: Most of us enjoy the great outdoors, but we need to rethink the environmental impact of the forever chemicals in the clothing we often wear there, says Lokesh Padhye

Small tent in foreground with Mt Cook in background

Aotearoa, renowned for its breathtaking landscapes, outdoor adventures, and ‘clean and green’ image’, faces a pivotal moment as OECD countries, particularly the United States and EU members, move towards restricting the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), commonly known as forever chemicals, in outdoor clothing.

Bans on PFAS-treated textiles are imminent. By 2025, California will prohibit most of these textiles, New York will restrict them in apparel, and Washington will regulate stain-and waterproofing treatments, which primarily introduce these harmful chemicals in outdoor gear. Other states are considering or have approved similar regulations, and the EU is proposing a more comprehensive ban in consumer products.

PFAS are synthetic chemicals widely employed in various industries and consumer products for their water- and grease-resistant properties. Characterised by strong carbon-fluorine bonds, they earned the moniker forever chemicals because of their resistance to degradation. The substantial environmental and health risks associated with PFAS – linking these chemicals to diverse health issues such as kidney and testicular cancer, hormone interference, and diminished vaccine response in children – emphasise the pressing need to address this pervasive issue.

Traditionally, PFAS has been integral to waterproofing technologies in outdoor gear, yet the global concern regarding their adverse environmental and health impacts signals a pivotal moment for the industry.

It is important to delve into why restricting these chemicals in New Zealand’s outdoor gear is an appropriate response to forthcoming regulations and aligns with our commitment to sustainable practices and environmental stewardship.

Major outdoor gear businesses are well aware of the issue. REI, the largest outdoor retailer in the US, has committed to banning PFAS in all textile products and cookware from fall 2024, and Dick’s Sporting Goods will remove PFAS from its brand-name clothing. Similarly, Patagonia has pledged to produce jacket membranes and water-repellent finishes without PFAS by 2025, and Arc’teryx has gone a step further to commit to using PFAS-free materials in all its products.

As an outdoor enthusiast’s haven, our nation must carefully consider the implications of this global shift. It is important to delve into why restricting these chemicals in New Zealand’s outdoor gear is an appropriate response to forthcoming regulations and aligns with our commitment to sustainable practices and environmental stewardship.

New Zealand has already demonstrated its commitment by being one of the first countries to propose a ban on PFAS in cosmetics. Something similar to what California is proposing for outdoor gear makes perfect sense here.

The rest of the industrialised world has already had to accept PFAS as an enduring environmental concern. Environmental monitoring to date, though limited, indicates that the PFAS problem here is probably not as bad. So this is an excellent opportunity to ensure we remain that way. In fact, being one of the first countries to be PFAS-free is a long-term and ambitious goal that is well worth it.

If introduced here, regulations on PFAS use will present significant challenges for outdoor gear manufacturers. These challenges are also catalysts for innovation, allowing New Zealand’s outdoor gear manufacturers to pioneer the development of eco-friendly waterproofing technologies that align with indigenous concepts of sustainable practices.

One argument against PFAS restrictions concerns the performance of outdoor gear. Critics argue that PFAS provides unparalleled water repellency, a crucial factor in extreme outdoor conditions. However, advancements in technology, such as the PFAS-free ‘ePE membrane’, prove that high-performance gear can be achieved without compromising environmental and health standards. New Zealanders, known for their ingenuity and innovation, will be happy to be part of change to better protect the planet without sacrificing the functionality of our outdoor gear.

In the meantime raising consumer awareness is paramount. Educating outdoor enthusiasts about PFAS’s environmental and health implications and the industry’s commitment to sustainable alternatives empowers consumers to make informed choices aligned with the nation’s environmental values and indigenous wisdom.

A transition period is essential for New Zealand’s manufacturers to adapt and adopt PFAS-free alternatives, supported by a clear timeline similar to that provided by American regulators.Grounded in the Māori concepts of kaitiakitanga (guardianship) and whanaungatanga (relationships), New Zealanders already embody a commitment to responsible outdoor recreation and environmental preservation.

Embracing PFAS restrictions in outdoor gear reflects our dedication to upholding ecosystem integrity in harmony with the Mātauranga Māori.Restricting PFAS in New Zealand’s outdoor gear can be much more than a mere compliance measure but a strategic move aligned with the nation’s values, environmental consciousness, and commitment to global sustainability.

As New Zealand navigates the path to sustainability, showcasing the viability of balancing high-performance outdoor gear with responsible environmental practices for the wellbeing of the planet and future generations is a valuable opportunity.


Associate Professor Lokesh Padhye, Faculty of Engineering. 

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not
necessarily the views of Waipapa Taumata Rau University of Auckland.

This article was first published on Newsroom, Forever chemicals in outdoor gear won’t wash any more, 23 January, 2024 

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