Say Goodbye to “Forever Chemicals”
How we’re finally getting to PFC-free—and why it took so long.
Eight of our designers and materials experts gather around a table, 10 by 10, in the Forge, Patagonia’s research and development facility in Ventura, California. Alongside sewing machines, 3D printers, darning machines, spools of tape, and container upon container of zippers, snaps, elastics and labels, nearby bolts of fabric soar to the ceiling: Big Sur Blue, Gin Green and Adzuki Red, the gang’s all here.
But the octet is buzzing about a new fabric that’s just arrived from Vietnam and been sewn into a prototype ski/snowboard jacket. It will be our first waterproof product built with a DWR (durable water repellent) finish that doesn’t contain per- and polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs). These synthetic compounds are known for water repellency and nonstick pans, but also for polluting rivers, increasing cancer risk and staying in the environment—and our bodies—indefinitely.
It seems like they might have a winner. A material developer splashes some water on the jacket. The water beads up like it should.
Then comes the stain.
“This was an ‘oh shit’ moment for us,” says Malinda Scheff, a Patagonia material supplier quality manager. What the group saw that day in May 2018 was a sizeable oil stain courtesy of residual sewing-machine grease embedded in the fabric. It was invisible when the garment was dry, but with that particular chemistry, when the water hit, so did the stain. Avoiding machine grease wasn’t a problem we could solve. But it was an inevitability we’d have to account for with a new DWR finish, because PFC-free treatments don’t have the same resistance to oil as fluorinated chemistries do. “It was like going back to square one,” Scheff says.
On our journey toward better DWR finishes, that was one of several disappointing experiences before finally landing where Patagonia is today: 66 percent PFC-free across all fabrics with a DWR finish.
By 2024, all our DWR finishes, except those for waders, will be PFC- and PFAS-free. Waders will have PFC-free DWR in 2025. That goal coincides with restrictions on the use of PFAS in California, Colorado and Maine, the earliest of which went into effect in 2021. There are also proposed limitations in the European Union. (PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, is the latest terminology for this wide class of chemicals. If your Patagonia gear is PFC-free, it’s also PFAS-free, PFOS-free and PFOA-free.)
It’s taken more than 15 years to get where we are today. Scheff and her colleagues say we’re close to calling this done. Others say it’s about damn time. What’s indisputable is that getting to “PFC-free” without compromising performance was harder than we imagined and provided important, humbling lessons.
PFCs, PFAS, PFOS and PFOA: The gamut of fluorinated chemicals reads like alphabet soup. First produced in the 1950s, these chemicals have subtly different molecular structures with similar functions. They’re strong, heat-stable, and water- and oil-repellent, which has made them a fixture in nonstick cookware, stain-resistant carpeting, food wrappers and fire-extinguishing foam. Brands like Patagonia have used these durable fluorocarbons as a water-repellent finish on most synthetic products. In waterproof gear, they’re also used on the membrane—the barrier in your garment that keeps water out.
PFCs are good at their job. In gear, they’re so strongly bonded to the fabric that wearing it isn’t a risk. For apparel products, the primary problem is in the manufacturing phase, when the chemicals have the potential to contaminate water or food. Down the line, if that product is thrown away, the fluorocarbons can make recycling harder and impact soil and water around landfills. And they’re called “forever chemicals” because they can persist for thousands of years.
They might be coursing through you right now. Studies show that 98 percent of the US population has fluorocarbons in their system. There are also links to increased cancer risk, hormone disruption, decreased immunity and impacts to reproductive health. In 1999, PFCs got worldwide attention in a lawsuit against DuPont—which had been manufacturing these chemicals in Parkersburg, West Virginia—and again in 2019 in Dark Waters, the film adaptation of the case.
Environmentally, the manufacturing of PFCs is increasing greenhouse gas emissions and wreaking havoc on soil, air and water quality. They travel, too. PFCs have been found in bald eagles and fish in the contiguous US, polar bears in Alaska, and pilot whales in the Faroe Islands.
Given all the dangers of PFCs, keeping them in our gear wasn’t an option. In 2006, we began research around PFOA-free DWR (the most prevalent fluorocarbon at the time), started R&D trials with PFC-free DWR in 2015 and launched our first PFC-free DWR product in 2019. We were on it, sure, but we can’t argue without a little skepticism.
As John Oliver said—about us and other brands—on Last Week Tonight: “All of these companies insist that they are working to remove PFAS from their products completely in the coming months and years. And I hope that that is true, but we have heard things like that before and yet, here we fucking are.”
Eager to switch, in 2016 we pivoted from C8—long-chain PFCs then considered the most damaging of all fluorocarbons—to the seemingly less harmful C6. Then new studies discovered C6 isn’t any easier on the environment.
“C6 still contains fluorocarbons,” Scheff explains. “It’s like some plastics that take less time to break down. At the time, that was what everyone was doing and what our mills had on hand. Looking back, we could’ve done the work then to figure it out. It’s what we call a ‘regrettable substitution.’” (That’s common parlance among chemists—replacing a harmful chemical with something that’s, often unknowingly, just as bad. Like Sting sings in Another Day, sometimes “it’s hard to tell the poison from the cure.”)
After the C6 fiasco, Patagonia chemists like Laura Hoch dug into the makeup of PFC-free chemistries to avoid more regrettable substitutions. Hoch had a connection to the work. She spent her early years in Parkersburg, where her dad had worked for DuPont. “Not so fun fact: Yes, I drank the water,” she says.
At times, other outdoor brands seemed to beat us to PFC-free chemistries—except they hadn’t. Those products had tears, seam slippage and other mishaps before getting switched back to fluorinated treatments. Or they created some PFC-free successes, but not for pinnacle products that really need to withstand the elements.
The exact PFC-free chemistry we use depends on material, product and intended purpose. Ours are typically based on hydrocarbons (think polymers and waxes) or silicones. Once we had alternative chemistries we’d be proud of, we tested them on our top five styles with DWR finishes, like Nano Puff® jackets.
Solutions weren’t one-size-fits-all. One PFC-free option might work on nylon but not on polyester. And it wasn’t just water repellency we were testing. Was there chalking or seam slippage? Are there abrasion issues? And how good does it look? We learned from our oil-stained PFC-free prototype that our product quality team had to work with factories on sewing and finishing processes. We’re still finding ways to test if some chemistries are more susceptible to stains and oil than others.
At times, the challenge wasn’t in the lab but with our partners. When we were ready to make our Nano Puff styles PFC-free, it was our supplier who refused, citing that they needed more time and experience with the treatment. Other times, something that worked well in the lab didn’t stand up in the wild.
“We have our Ironclad Guarantee, so we can’t just smack a new chemistry on a product and send it out into the world knowing it could fail,” says Karba, a former environmental researcher at Patagonia. “We need to guarantee that it’ll work in the lab and field. That’s why it’s taken years to transition to that functional, durable chemistry that doesn’t have PFCs.”
All our waterproof products, including those with PFC-free DWR, must meet Patagonia’s rigorous H₂No® Performance Standard. It’s intentionally demanding so that we say yes only to products that guarantee long-lasting waterproof performance and breathability. After passing the lab check, these products are tested during skiing/snowboarding seasons all over the world. Key findings come out of field testing: When you wipe cheeseburger-covered hands on your Powder Town Jacket, that oily residue will stain the jacket until you wash it. You might also see “wet out,” when the exterior of the fabric looks wet but the inside—and you—aren’t wet at all. These are the trade-offs we can live with because they’re easily remedied with proper care and repair (see “A Clean Shell is a Happy Shell” below).
Fall 2019 brought the first of many wins: our first PFC-free DWR products, like the Pack Rain Covers. Two years later was our first 100 percent PFC-free technical products for alpine climbing, the Dual Aspect Jacket and Bibs—that was huge. Converting to PFC-free alternatives on both the shell surface and interior membrane, while also meeting a customer’s definition of “waterproof,” is a high bar to pass, requiring additional innovation, testing and time. This Spring 2023 season, we debuted a PFC-free rain jacket, our stalwart Torrentshell, which gets us to 66 percent PFC-free across all fabrics with a DWR finish.
But it’s about more than just our company, as we work with our suppliers and mills to prioritize shifts that will move the needle industry-wide. Scheff remembers one supplier who told her team that if the factory began using our PFC-free chemistry, they’d use it on other brands’ waterproof gear, too—whether those brands asked for the chemistries or not. That’s a big win considering the resistance we got from suppliers when we started to move away from C6 in 2016.
Our final push to 100 percent PFC-free by 2024, with the exception of waders, will be the hardest. Technical products like waders have been the toughest chemistry to crack, compounded in part by COVID-19-induced supply chain issues.
“We’ve moved slowly because we want to make sure the performance is there,” Scheff says. “And sometimes getting that perfect marriage of fabric and chemistry means completely redesigning a piece. I’m just waiting for the day I can pop the champagne.”
The Path to PFC-Free
Milestones and mistakes on our nearly 20-year journey.
Studies expose how fluorinated chemistries—the stuff that makes waterproof gear hydrophobic—endanger our health. We start researching DWR (durable water repellent) finishes made without PFOA (one of the more commonly used fluorocarbons at the time).
We begin converting our waterproof chemistries from long-chain C8 molecules—such as PFOA and PFOS, considered the worst of the bunch—to C6.
Greenpeace’s “Detox” campaign calls out Nike and Adidas for using polluting chemicals. We aren’t named but know we’re a part of the problem, too.
We kick off R&D trials for PFC-free DWR.
So long, C8. We finish the move from the long-chain fluorocarbon to the (seemingly) less insidious C6 across all products.
Dammit. Research emerges that C6 is just as damaging. This is what chemists call a “regrettable substitution.” It reinforces our commitment to eliminate “forever chemicals” forever.
We introduce our first round of gear built with PFC-free DWR finishes, including select products like the Pack Rain Covers.
Our first slate of PFC-free technical gear—built with waterproofing on both the garment’s finish and the inner membrane—launches with the Dual Aspect Jacket and Bibs, and Micro Puff® Storm.
Getting closer. Every All Mountain Snow product and all nonwaterproof Patagonia products with a DWR finish are 100% PFC-free in both fabric and trim. In total by volume, 66% of our products with DWR finishes are PFC-free.
The lineup gets longer: All H₂No® Performance Standard Alpine rainwear is 100% PFC-free, including the redesigned Torrentshell.
Our target year to reach 100% PFC- and PFAS-free across all products. Fishing waders will be the last to get there, thanks to their complexity. Look for those in 2025.