REI’s new product standards will require its suppliers to eliminate all per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, from the pots, pans, apparel, shoes, bags, packs and similar gear sold by the retail chain. Suppliers of heavy-duty apparel like professional-grade raincoats will have until 2026 to make those products PFAS-free.
Mike Schade, a program director for the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future, told Grist the decision would “drive yet another nail in the coffin for PFAS.”
PFAS are a class of over 9,000 human-made chemicals whose nonstick and water-repellent properties have made them useful in an array of consumer products, from outdoor clothing to pans to firefighting foam. These substances don’t break down naturally in the environment — hence the name “forever chemicals” — and have been detected in the bloodstream of 97 percent of Americans and hundreds of wild animal species worldwide. While regulators are still looking into the full health implications of PFAS, the chemicals have already been linked to serious human health problems including cancer and liver damage.
Over the past several 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 for eliminating forever chemicals, not only from its private-label products but from other brands of clothing it sells in its stores.
Schade said not doing so was inconsistent with REI’s branding as an environmental champion. “PFAS leaves behind 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 shear off waterproof clothing. PFAS can also muck up indoor air quality in homes and stores, wafting into the air from treated products like clothing.
Prior to this week’s total ban, REI stated that it aimed to “expand” the use of PFAS alternatives and that it didn’t use two of the most common forever chemicals — called PFOA and PFOS. It was, however, using newer, so-called “short-chain” PFAS for which “viable alternatives” did not yet exist. (Some of REI’s competitors, including Jack Wolfskin and Fjallraven, say they’ve already completed the transition to these alternative technologies, which could include options like polyurethane, a kind of plastic material, or brand-name chemical treatments like Empel that market themselves as environmentally friendly.) Critics were quick to point out that these short-chain versions are not necessarily any safer than longer-chain forms of PFAS. And a recent independent test of REI apparel found both the short- and (allegedly banned) long-chain forms of PFAS.
Meanwhile, REI and other clothing companies are being driven to act by legal pressure — particularly in New York, where a recently enacted law bans PFAS from most apparel 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 apparel, but its law doesn’t go 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 replacement chemicals used to waterproof its products are also safe for consumers.
This story was produced for Grist on Feb. 23, 2023 and is republished here with permission.