Avoid PFCs With Eco-Friendly Outdoor Gear and DIY Techniques

There are some good alternatives to these harmful chemicals.

Mountain climbers at the top of a cliff

Andrea Isasi

That mountain-climbers and campers love the outdoors is an undisputed fact, but the evolution of their gear sadly does not reflect that dedication to nature. As eco-fashion guru Lucy Siegle points out in The Guardian, the winner of the long-standing rivalry between mountaineers and surfers as to “who is the greenest” is a no-brainer, since surfers are clearly in the lead on environmental issues such as ocean plastic pollution and sewage contamination.

By comparison, there are relatively few conversations about the widespread presence of PFCs on land, some of which come from the production and maintenance of mountaineering and camping gear. PFCs, or per- and poly-fluorinated carbons, have long been used to create breathability in fabric while repelling water. They do a pretty decent job of it, but the problem is that they wash off into the environment and persist indefinitely. They have been linked to testicular and kidney cancers, obesity, and decreased response to vaccines. They bioaccumulate in blood and breastmilk and can have a disruptive effect on fetal and infant development.

The threat is serious enough that 200 scientists signed the Madrid Statement in 2015 calling for PFCs to be phased out completely. While most outdoor gear brands continue to use PFCs, a few companies have come up with great alternatives. Here’s where you should start looking when it’s time to replace your old rain gear. The first five slides feature specific brands selling PFC-free outdoor clothing, and the last three slides have advice for treating your existing gear using PFC-free formulas.

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credit: Fjallraven -- Assorted kids' gear

Since 2012, all products made by this Swedish company are free from PFCs. As it explains on the website, this means that rain gear will need waterproofing treatments more regularly (every second wash) than if PFCs were used in the formulas, but this is “a reasonable compromise in exchange for avoiding spreading toxins in the environment.”

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credit: Páramo

Hailed as one of the first outdoor gear manufacturers to eliminate PFCs entirely from its supply chain, UK-based Páramo produces attractive, high-quality clothing that stands up to hard use. It discloses factory locations, follows fair-trade labor standards, and uses cutting-edge “directionality” technology to keep its fabrics dry.

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credit: Puddlegear

Puddlegear is a Canadian company that manufactures PFC- and phthalate-free rain gear for young children. It was founded by a mother of three who used to work as a distributor for a European raingear company, and now lives on the west coast of Canada, where it rains for much of the year. These bright-colored coats, pants, gloves, and sou’westers are warm and dry, made from flexible inert polyurethane. They are priced very reasonably.

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credit: Nau -- Men's Quintessentshell Trench

Nau is an ethical clothing company that we've written about a lot on TreeHugger. It sells a few waterproof jackets for casual, urban use. Its latest collection has done away with PFCs entirely, and the result is Durable Water Repellent (DWR) treatments that are bio-based and hydrocarbon polymer-based.

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credit: Vaude

Vaude, a German company, is one of only three outdoor gear manufacturers that got a thumbs up from Greenpeace during its Detox campaign, when it tested popular brands for the presence of these chemicals. While Vaude’s product line is currently only 95% PFC-free, it has pledged to be entirely PFC-free by 2020. You can learn more details about its water-repellent substitutions here.

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credit: Nikwax promo image

If you’ve already bought waterproof gear, but want to make it greener…

Use a PFC-free treatment when it’s time to wash and re-waterproof a jacket or pair of pants. One name that appears continuously on eco-minded websites is Nikwax, a water-based, non-toxic product that coats fabric and leather fibers with elastic molecules. From the website:

“[Nikwax treatments] bond to anything that is not water-repellent, but leave the spaces between fibres open and breathable. Nikwax treatments can flex and move with the fabric and leather fibres. That is why Nikwax treatments can withstand several washings and remain whereas the competitors must be re-applied after each wash.”
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Greenland Wax

credit: Fjallraven -- Assorted kids' gear

This hard bar of pure paraffin and beeswax is made in Sweden and sold online by Fjallraven—to the tune of 70,000 bars a year, all cooked in the same pot that’s been used since the 1960s! It can be rubbed into cotton/polyester or canvas fabrics (Fjallraven specifies its G-1000 line) to make them resistant to rain, moisture, and wind.

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DIY waterproof

credit: Keith McDuffee -- A bar of beeswax

One commenter on TreeHugger, a couple years ago, said he waterproofs all kinds of fabrics and leather with a homemade blend of melted pure beeswax, mixed with olive or linseed oils, or sometimes just candle wax. He rubs it in, then heats with an iron or hairdryer. “If done correctly, it does not change the appearance. If used sparingly, the cloth even stays breathable.” I haven’t done it myself, so cannot vouch for its efficacy, but the formula sounds close enough to the Greenland Wax to make sense.