Only a few months ago it would have appeared unlikely for W.L. Gore & Associates and “game-changer” to appear in a statement from Greenpeace about perfluorinated compounds (PFCs). Yet that is exactly what happened at Ispo Munich earlier this month, after the Gore Fabrics Division outlined its goal to eliminate “PFCs of environmental concern” from consumer fabrics products that represent about 85 percent of the units in the market by the end of 2020.
The batch of consumer products targeted by this program by the end of 2020 include jackets, footwear, gloves and accessories. Gore's target is that the first products with a durable water repellency (DWR) treatment free of PFCs should become available in the retail market from the second half of 2018. PFCs of environmental concern are to be eliminated from Gore Fabrics' remaining consumer fabrics laminate shipments between 2021 and 2023. This second batch predominantly consists of specialized outdoor products and complex technologies.
PFCs have been at the center of the Detox Outdoor campaign started by Greenpeace in 2015 and targeting the outdoor industry – even though its use of such compounds makes up a small share of the global consumption. Greenpeace put the spotlight on outdoor companies due to their use of PFCs in making waterproof membranes and water-repellent coating. Páramo, Vaude and Rotauf have joined the Detox commitment.
At Ispo Munich, Greenpeace Switzerland published a report called “PFC Revolution in the Outdoor Sector,” described as an overview of the progress made toward the elimination of “hazardous” PFCs in outdoor gear. Greenpeace acknowledged that the range of outdoor products free of such PFCs would be significantly broadened by Gore's commitment, given the influential role played by Gore Fabrics in the relevant supply chain.
The reactions in the outdoor industry were mostly enthusiastic. Many regard Gore's commitment as crucial to accelerate change and obtain the elimination of PFCs from the entire supply chain. This target is broadly supported in the European outdoor industry, as many brands have been pro-active in eliminating PFCs from their products and the supply chain, although opinions have diverged in the recent years about the means to achieve that and the performance of alternatives so far. Some critics argued at Ispo Munich that Gore's target for elimination of hazardous substances wasn't sufficiently ambitious with regard to the timeline. Others were eager to find out more details, some of which are available in an 11-page document on Gore's website.
In any case, the Ispo event and the publication of the report mark a remarkable change in the relationship between Greenpeace and some parts of the outdoor industry. Just a year ago, Greenpeace activists directly targeted stores of prominent outdoor brands as part of the Detox campaign. None of the parties consulted, including specialists in sustainability in the outdoor industry, had expected an agreement between Greenpeace and Gore in Munich.
While reiterating that its products have always been safe for consumers, the maker of Gore-Tex said it wanted to make a “very significant investment” to develop new, more environmentally friendly technologies for weatherproof membranes and water repellent coatings for consumer products, researching both fluorine-free and fluorinated options.
Gore said that it started to hold talks with Greenpeace about the use of PFCs in the outdoor apparel industry as part of its ongoing engagement with stakeholders. Some leading outdoor brands probably put Gore under additional pressure to come up with solutions – but Greenpeace attributed much of the credit to campaigners and their activities around PFCs in the outdoor industry.
For a start, the two parties have come to a mutual understanding on the properties of materials that constitute a PFC of environmental concern – distinct from polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE), the polymer at the center of Gore's solutions. Gore stated that, based on broad scientific consensus and supported by Greenpeace, Gore's PTFE membrane material made without PFCs of environmental concern is environmentally sound.
The group said it was working on several options, but its technical understanding so far is that the performance and durability of PTFE should make it the preferred choice for many consumers, and particularly the most demanding end users. Gore Fabrics wants to work together with its suppliers to eliminate PFCs that are present in the processing aides that they use to make PTFE.
Gore published its targets on PFCs as part of a broader range of environmental and chemical management goals. They complement an existing program that is based on independent standards like Bluesign and Oeko-Tex. The progress made on the elimination of PFCs year over year is to be tracked in the group's Responsibility Update, which will be available on the Gore-Tex website.