Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI bans PFAs

Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI bans PFAs
Seattle-based outdoor retailer REI bans PFAs

REI’s new product standards will require its suppliers to eliminate all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFASs, from pots, pans, clothing, shoes, bags, packages and similar equipment sold by the retail chain. Suppliers of heavy-duty clothing such as professional quality raincoats will have until 2026 to make these products PFAS-free.

Mike Schade, a program director for the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future, told Grist that the decision would “put another nail in the coffin for PFAS.”

PFAS is a class of over 9,000 man-made chemicals whose nonstick and water-repellent properties have made them useful in a variety of consumer products, from outdoor clothing to pans to fire foam. These substances do not break down naturally in the environment – hence the name “forever chemicals” – and have been detected in the blood of 97 percent of Americans and hundreds of wild animal species worldwide. While regulators are still looking at the full health implications of PFAS, the chemicals have already been linked to serious health problems, including cancer and liver damage.

Over the past few years, retailers and manufacturers around the world—including, most recently, the Fortune 500 company 3M—have pledged to stop producing PFAS and phase them out of the products they sell. But other companies, like REI, have been perceived as slow to respond. Since September 2021, REI has been the target of a national campaign urging it to set a concrete timeline to forever eliminate chemicals not only from its private-label products, but from other clothing it sells in its stores.

Schade said that not doing so was at odds with REI’s branding as an environmental champion. “PFAS leaves a toxic trail of pollution,” he told Grist. He cited widespread drinking water contamination from PFAS production facilities across the United States, as well as problems further downstream, when PFAS cuts off waterproof clothing. PFAS can also destroy indoor air quality in homes and shops, and are released into the air from treated products such as clothing.

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Before this week’s total ban, REI stated that it aimed to “expand” the use of PFAS alternatives and that it did not use two of the most common persistent chemicals — called PFOA and PFOS. However, newer, so-called “short-chain” PFASs were used for which “viable alternatives” did not yet exist. (Some of REI’s competitors, including Jack Wolfskin and Fjallraven, say they have already completed the transition to these alternative technologies, which could include options like polyurethane, a type of plastic material, or brand-name chemical treatments like Empel that market themselves as environmentally friendly.) Critics were are quick to point out that these short-chain versions are not necessarily safer than long-chain forms of PFAS. And a recent independent test of REI clothing found both short- and (allegedly banned) long-chain forms of PFAS.

Meanwhile, REI and other clothing companies are being driven to act by legal pressure — especially in New York, where a recently passed law bans PFAS from most clothing by the end of this year. The law is expected to create a national standard, since companies are unlikely to create separate, PFAS-free product lines just for the Empire State. California also has a ban on PFAS in most clothing, but the law does not come into effect until 2025.

Schade applauded REI for its new PFAS elimination timeline, but he urged the retailer to avoid “regrettable substitutions” by taking steps to ensure that any substitute chemicals used to waterproof its products are also safe for consumers.

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