Phasing out PFAS in outdoor clothing – how green is it?

Major changes are needed to create a sustainable society. When unsustainable processes, materials and substances are substituted there is a risk that the substitutes are just as unsustainable. The project examines how the Swedish market for functional outdoor clothing has phased out and replaced the group of chemicals known as PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkyl Substances).

Sometimes the risks posed by a substitute are not yet known. In other instances the environmental burden shifts from one risk to another, e.g. from water to air pollution, or from climate to biodiversity. This is called “regrettable substitution” and constitutes an obstacle on the route to a sustainable society. This is why we need to learn more about sustainable substitution.

Regrettable substitution of hazardous chemicals is common. Synthetic chemicals are omnipresent, and have greatly enhanced our quality of life, but they can also adversely impact the environment, as well as human and animal health. Research has shown that the planetary boundary for novel entities, including synthetic chemicals, has been critically exceeded, with potentially drastic consequences. Chemical use has more than doubled since 2000, and a growing global middle class is expected to fuel a sharp rise in the number of chemicals on the market. According to researchers, the trend is exacerbated by the fact that regrettable substitution is common when hazardous chemicals are phased out.

PFAS are used because of their unique properties. They can repel oil, dirt and water from surfaces, and therefore have numerous applications, not least as a proofing agent for shoes and clothes. PFAS comprise thousands of chemicals, of which only a few are regulated. This makes it difficult even for environmentally aware companies to restrict their use of PFAS.

The researchers in this project are studying how outdoor clothing companies are phasing out PFAS, and whether the substitutes they are using negatively impact nature, human beings and animals. Although these companies are subject to the same regulations and the same pressures from customers, their decisions on phase-out and substitution have varied – from complete to only partial phase-out of PFAS. To understand this variation the researchers are examining how companies choose different kinds of substitution (substitute chemicals, methods or processes) when phasing out chemicals, and what environmental and health effects the substitutes have.

The project combines social and natural sciences to determine how companies weigh potential harm, functionality and economic factors against each other in the substitution process and if the substitute chemicals or methods have adverse environmental and health impacts. An interview study with companies in the sector is combined with laboratory tests to see whether the companies are making choices that lead to sustainable substitutions. Garments and fabrics are undergoing chemical and biological analysis to record the presence of hazardous chemicals and unknown substances that may have negative impacts on animal or human health. Mechanism-specific tests are used to measure the effect of all chemicals in a fabric, thereby minimizing the risk of missing harmful chemicals and mixtures.

The social and natural science methods are this way combined to add to our knowledge of how sustainable substitution can be achieved. The project results may help companies and regulators in their efforts to achieve a non-toxic and sustainable environment.

“Ensuring Sustainable Substitution: Learning from the corporate phase-out of PFAS in outdoor clothing”

Principal investigator:
Dr. Sabina Du Rietz

Örebro University
Ingrid Ericson Jogsten
Maria Larsson

Örebro University

SEK 6.1 million