The on-going quest for PFC-Free Eco-Shell
Perfluorocarbons. What are they? Why the bad press? And how can we use less of them?
Perfluorocarbons. You probably have heard a bit about them, and we presume that not all of what you heard was good news. But what are they? And what is all the fuss about?
In essence, Perfluorocarbons, or PFCs, are chemical compounds. But the reason these particular compounds have gotten so much bad press is because they do not readily break down. Instead, PFCs are stored and spread in the environments they are used in.
That is where the problems start.
PFCs are used by the outdoor industry a lot. Mostly to impregnate textiles to make them water and oil repellent. And they do their job really, really well. When you take that PFC-impregnated shell jacket home however, and then remove it from the bag to use during your next nature escape, small PFC particles also escape. Unlike you, they stay in nature. And spread. In fact, PFCs are stored in living organisms for several years, and can gradually work their way up the food chain.
It is kind of a catch-22 situation. On one hand, PFCs offer great functionality for outdoor gear. On the other hand, they are slowly and surely flooding the very environment that the outdoor industry – including Fjällräven – relies on for its livelihood. Furthermore, the long-term effects that these compounds have on our health and the health of nature remain unclear.
In a way it was easier for us than for other brands to start looking for alternatives, as we didn’t already have a large collection of shell garments at that time. We were able to get it right from the beginning.
Fjällräven’s Head of Sustainability
A few years ago, we decided to look for alternatives. It was not easy. First, the options were few and far between. Second, we had to question the possible side effects of these other chemicals. Christiane Dolva, Fjällräven’s Head of Sustainability, explains:
“In a way it was easier for us than for other brands to start looking for alternatives, as we didn’t already have a large collection of shell garments at that time. We were able to get it right from the beginning”.
That is not to say we were not cautious about the process. We did not want to jump onto the next trendy alternative. Our view was – and always is – that you have to be careful in such matters. We worked our way through a range of durable water repellents, known as DWRs. According to Chemicals Specialist Felix Aejmelaeus-Lindström, to come to a final decision on the product, we had to make a few compromises. As he says, “When we found a solution with acceptable water repellency, it proved to be less durable and oil resistant than DWRs that contained PFCs. We felt however, that we could educate customers about how to take care of their shell garments in order to maintain their durability and could also supply them with a PFC-free impregnation spray to top-up existing impregnation”.
Christiane adds, “We asked ourselves, ‘Does a jacket really need to be oil repellent if it is better for the environment?’ We felt it was a low price to pay. It’s easy to add functionality because it’s nice to have, but every function as a side-effect. Often an environmental one in the form of chemical release or production issues. We need to evaluate every function to determine if it is worth the environmental impact”.
The challenge of finding alternatives to PFCs did not stop there. We also had to ensure the DWR supplier could work with the materials supplier and that the recycled polyester we chose would work with the DWR.
“One of the complicated parts in developing a new treatment is that it involves a lot of communication between different suppliers,” says Felix. “There are so many people involved and so many confidential details. This doesn’t just require trust, but the actual signing of non-disclosure agreements. It’s like playing chess, because it’s a slow process of moving forwards and backwards all the time.”
The story is not over. When we say we “got there eventually”, we mean that our impregnation is PFC-free. What about other product elements, like the zippers? It is a small detail, but an important one. There are currently no water-repellent PFC-free zips. None at all.
We tested some zips that claimed to be PFC-free, but whether they were PFC, or not, soon became irrelevant. They did not offer any water resistance, which is essential for a water-resistant jacket. Committed to the cause, we continue to investigate options.
“We want to convince other big suppliers to change their minds about zips, but we’re not quite there yet,” says Christiane. “But when we first looked into PFC impregnation, there wasn’t much choice there either. We hope that if we and other brands can put pressure on the industry to take another look at their zips, we can initiate a change.”
Product development is an ongoing process. Just because the Keb Eco-Shell Jacket has won awards for its sustainability; just because it’s made from recycled polyester; just because the impregnation is free from harmful PFCs doesn’t mean we stop, sit back, pat our backs and say to ourselves, “Nice job”. We still have a way to go.
“We never settle,” says Felix. “We’re always striving to improve. We continue to look to better our products. It takes a lot of time, but our ambition is to be proactive and always ask, ‘Can we make this product any better?’”
The answer is usually: yes.
Waterproof shell materials, Fjällräven Academy