Perfluorocarbons – you’ve probably heard a bit about them and we presume not all of it was good. But what are they? And why all the fuss?
Perfluorocarbons or PFCs are basically just chemical compounds. But the reason these particular compounds have got so much bad press is because they don’t readily break down. Instead PFCs are stored and spread in the environments they are used in. And that’s where the problems really start.
PFCs are used by the outdoor industry, a lot. They’re used to impregnate textiles to make them water and oil repellent. And they work really, really well. But, when you take that PFC-impregnated shell jacket home, take it out of the bag and use it for your next escape into nature, small PFC particles also escape into nature. But unlike you, they stay there. And spread. And as they’re stored in living organisms for several years they can gradually work their way up the food chain.
So it’s a kind of catch 22 situation. They offer great functionality for outdoor gear, but they’re slowly but surely flooding the environment around us. The very environment that the outdoor industry – including Fjällräven – relies on for its livelihood. And who knows what long-term effects these compounds will have on our health and the health of nature.
A few years ago we decided to look for alternatives. And wow, it really wasn’t easy. Firstly, the options were few and far between. And then there was the question of what were the side effects of these other chemicals?
“In a way it was perhaps easier for us – rather than other brands – to start looking for alternatives, as we didn’t already have a large collection of shell garments at that time, so we were able to get it right from the beginning,” explains Christiane Dolva, Fjällräven’s Sustainability Manager.
“But we didn’t just want to jump on the next fad. We were really cautious. Our view is that you have to be careful now or you could end up being sorry later.”
So we worked our way through a whole load of durable water repellents, known as DWRs. “We had to make a few compromises because when we found a solution with acceptable water repellency it proved to be less durable and oil-resistant than DWRs that contained PFCs,” explains Felix Aejmelaeus-Lindström, Fjällräven’s chemicals specialist. “But we felt we could educate our customers on how to take care of their shell garments in regards to durability and we could also supply them with a PFC-free impregnation spray to top up the existing impregnation.”
“We asked ourselves: does a jacket really need to be oil proof if it’s better for the environment,” adds Christiane. “We felt it was a low price to pay. It’s easy in this industry to add functionality because it’s nice to have, but every added function has a side effect, often on the environment in the form of chemical release or production issues. We need to evaluate if every function is worth the extra environmental impact.”
But the challenges didn’t stop there. We then had to make sure the DWR supplier could work with the materials supplier and that the fabric we’d chosen – recycled polyester – would work with the DWR.
“One of the complicated parts in developing a new treatment is that it involves a lot of communication between different suppliers,” says Felix. “There are so many people involved and so many confidential details. This doesn’t just require trust, but the actual signing of non-disclosure agreements. It’s like playing chess – it’s a slow process of moving forwards and backwards all the time.”
But we eventually got there and the results were Keb Eco-Shell Jackets and Trousers – products we’re really proud of and that have even won awards. But when we say we eventually got there, we mean that our impregnation is PFC-free.
What about the zips? They’re a small detail, but an important one. There are currently no water repellent PFC-free zips. None at all.
We tested some zips that claimed to be PFC free. But whether they were PFC free or not soon became irrelevant, as they didn’t offer any water resistance – which is essential on a water resistant jacket. So what to do?
Right now we’re investigating. “We want to convince other big suppliers to change their minds about zips. But we’re not quite there yet,” says Christiane. “But when we first looked into PFC impregnation there wasn’t much choice there either. So we hope if we and other brands can put pressure on the industry to take another look at their zips we can initiate a change.”
Our product development is an on-going process. Just because the Keb Eco-Shell Jacket has won awards for its sustainability; just because it’s made from recycled polyester; just because the impregnation is free from harmful PFCs doesn’t mean we stop, sit back, pat our backs and say ‘nice job’. This is because we still have a way to go.
“We never settle,” says Felix. “We’re always striving to improve. We continue to look to better our products. It takes a lot of time. But our ambition is to be proactive and always ask, ‘can we make this product any better?’”. The answer is usually: yes.