PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a family of as many as 12,000 dangerous synthetic chemicals that pollute the drinking water of approximately 200 million Americans, accumulate in wildlife, and have been found in places as remote as Mount Everest and the Arctic. Linked to health impacts for both humans and animals that range from cancer to suppressed immune function, the chemicals are extremely persistent (that is, resistant to breaking down) and can build up in our bodies and in the environment.
Despite their threat to people and our planet, PFAS continue to be used widely in the apparel industry. The chemicals largely appear as coatings or in membranes to make products waterproof, stain resistant, and breathable. This leads to PFAS pollution throughout the product’s life cycle, from the manufacture of the chemicals and products to their use by consumers to their disposal.
PFAS use in apparel and other consumer products is coming under increased scrutiny from lawmakers. However, apparel manufacturers and retail stores don’t need to wait for the law to catch up to the proliferation of toxic PFAS. They can get out in front of the regulatory curve and protect their customers and the planet from PFAS pollution by immediately adopting policies to end the use of PFAS in clothing, footwear, and accessories. Indeed, some already have.
NRDC and Fashion FWD surveyed the PFAS-related policies and commitments of 30 top U.S.-based apparel brands and retailers, including companies in the footwear, indoor apparel, and outdoor apparel sectors and several of the nation’s leading apparel retailers. We graded them on the basis of their time lines for PFAS phaseout, the range of products covered by their PFAS policy, and public availability of company PFAS commitments, as well as their PFAS labeling and testing protocols. Our survey found:
Levi Strauss & Co. Leads the Way With Strong PFAS Elimination Policies
The growing list of companies committed to a phaseout of PFAS comprises some of the best-known apparel brands in the United States. Several companies have already eliminated PFAS use in their supply chain. Levi Strauss & Co. leads the industry, followed closely by Victoria’s Secret and Deckers Brands (including UGG, Teva, and others). Keen Footwear also earns high marks for removing the toxic chemicals from its shoes.
Other companies have clear, time-bound commitments to phase out all PFAS from their apparel, including American Eagle, Ralph Lauren, Gap Inc., and PVH (the parent company for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Speedo, and Patagonia). Their commitments should serve as a call to the rest of the apparel industry to immediately adopt their own policies to stop using PFAS in their products.
The Majority of Apparel Companies Have Weak Commitments
Of the 30 apparel brands and retailers surveyed, 18 brands and retailers received a grade of D or lower. Some of these companies did not have a publicly available commitment to eliminate any PFAS, while others had pledged to eliminate only PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS (perfluorooctane sulfonate)—two PFAS chemicals already phased out of use in the United States. Some of these brands and retailers are among the best known in the United States and include Walmart, Wolverine (the parent of Hush Puppies, Keds, Merrell, Stride Rite, and other brands), Macy’s, and Skechers.
The Outdoor Industry Lags Behind Customer Values in PFAS Policy
Patagonia received the highest grades of all the outdoor apparel brands surveyed for having established a time line to eliminate use of all PFAS in its supply chains in the future. However, the remaining U.S. brands within the outdoor apparel sector received surprisingly low grades despite the environmental and public health concerns of many of their customers. REI, VF Corp. (parent of The North Face, Timberland, Jansport, and others) and L.L. Bean, for instance, received grades of D or F for incomplete commitments that excluded some PFAS or for long time lines for phaseout.
European outdoor apparel companies Jack Wolfskin, Houdini, and Vaude, and outdoor textile supplier Polartec® have eliminated PFAS from their supply chains, demonstrating that it can be done and that U.S. brands are delaying unnecessarily.
Inaccurate and Misleading Definitions of PFAS Lead to Consumer Confusion
Many companies use outdated, inaccurate, or misleading definitions of PFAS in their commitments and communications regarding the chemicals. These outdated definitions can result in consumer confusion around whether the products they purchase contain PFAS. For instance, companies should cease using the label “PFCs of environmental concern–free” if their products contain any PFAS, because it falsely suggests some PFAS are not of environmental concern.
On the basis of our findings, we compiled the following recommendations for apparel manufacturers and retailers, policymakers, and consumers:
Apparel manufacturers and retailers should act immediately to protect public health and the planet. They should publicly commit to a time-bound phaseout of all added PFAS in their apparel supply chains and label any products that contain PFAS until a phaseout is achieved. They should also urge industry trade associations to adopt these recommendations for their memberships.
To ensure protection across states and the country, the federal and state governments should ban all PFAS in consumer apparel and require labeling of products that contain PFAS until all uses are phased out. Policymakers should also ensure that these laws contain no loopholes that would allow manufacturers to substitute other toxic PFAS for those already banned, and that existing PFAS contamination is subject to strong cleanup standards that safeguard public health.
Consumers should use our “Consumer Guide to PFAS and Labels” to be PFAS detectives and seek alternatives wherever possible. Consumers should also act by urging their favorite brands and retailers to phase out PFAS and adopt safer alternatives and by asking state and federal policymakers to ban PFAS in apparel.
As a major user of PFAS, the apparel industry can play a key role in turning off the tap of PFAS pollution. Instead of making and selling raincoats, shoes, and other products coated in PFAS chemicals, brands and retailers in this sector should stop all use—and, when functionality like waterproofing or stain resistance is necessary, immediately turn to safer alternatives. We know this change is possible. Companies and brands in each of the categories surveyed have already made the shift. It’s time for the rest of the industry to catch up.