12 Nov 20 | Weekly podcast
New Greenpeace research highlights the continued use of hazardous chemicals in outdoor brands’ products. But what is the healthiest relationship between campaigners and brands?
For example, Greenpeace recently tested outdoor gear from brands including Columbia, North Face and Patagonia, for hazardous chemicals that are used for waterproofing. Many outdoor brands emphasise their environmental credentials and have glossy advertising in natural settings, making them, of course, particularly vulnerable to claims that they are failing on sustainability.
Greenpeace’s testing, on a small selection of products (for example, 11 jackets, eight backpacks and two sleeping bags), found widespread use of environmentally-hazardous polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), which turned up in all but four of 40 products. Of greater concern, a form of PFC, perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), was found in 18 samples.
PFOA is a cancer-causing substance that persists in the environment, with traces being found in snow on mountain tops and in polar bears’ livers. Companies recognise its hazards and are working to phase it out. US outdoor brand Patagonia, for example, says it has moved to an alternative form of PFC.
Some brands, such as Sweden's Fjällräven and the UK's Páramo are already going PFC-free, she says. However, she concedes that for clothing that must withstand the most extreme conditions, there is no ideal alternative to PFCs.
Some brands might be tempted to react defensively to such campaigning activity, or to raise legitimate points about the research. Speaking to Innovation Forum, Mammut says that “we tested our own products in an independent laboratory and had different results than Greenpeace”. Mammut is making progress and Greenpeace “doesn’t seem to recognise any of our efforts,” the company says.
But brands might instead look at such reports as useful reminders about matters that could become the subject of regulation. Norway already has a law restricting PFOA to a minimal level in products – 11 of the samples according to the Greenpeace tests exceeded this limit. A European Union-wide restriction similar to the Norwegian limit has been proposed. In other words, brands do need to make real progress in reducing or substituting or face product lines being banned.
Reports are often, therefore, the writing on the wall. Companies that do not act ahead of regulation could find themselves scrambling to catch up when regulation does come into force.