“PFCs are compounds with carbon chains of varying length, in which some or all of the hydrogen atoms are replaced by fluorine atoms,” explains detox-outdoor.org. As the bonds between carbon and fluorine are very stable, PFCs are not biodegradable – and build up.
The problem is that PFCs “are used in the DWR finishes applied to fabrics in order to repel water durably”, explains Vanessa Lappassat, sustainability lead at Lafuma. On garments with such a finish, drops of water roll away, like on duck feathers. But this property should not be confused with waterproofness.
Sustainability lead at Lafuma
PFCs are used [...] in order to repel water durably”
When environmental NGO Greenpeace went sampling in remote areas of wilderness worldwide, far from any urban area or pollution source, it unexpectedly found PFOA and PFOS. This was a hammer blow for the outdoor industry and its consumers, for whom the natural world is a playground and its protection a constant theme of communication. But although there are PFCs in many consumer products, outdoor enthusiasts – and brands above all – have decided to take action.
We're now targeting zero PFCs by 2020.”
Clothing manufacturers first tried damage limitation by switching from long chains (called C8) to short chains (C6), which are far less virulent. “We made the switch with the 2014-2015 winter collection. That was a first step. Next winter, 25% of our products will be PFC free, rising to 65% for winter 2017-2018,” says Vanessa, who adds, “But that’s not enough. We’re now targeting zero PFCs by 2020.
Replacement solutions are therefore being explored. It’s a complex endeavour: the brand must ensure the same degree of protection, but especially the same durability… which is currently unbeatable in the case of PFC C8. They pollute but perform! “To replace fluorine, you can use silicone or hydrocarbon molecules, but they don’t protect the fabric from oil,” explains Vanessa. It is also possible to reverse the jacket build and put the waterproof, breathable membrane on the outside, but the price to pay is greater fragility.
What’s more, the replacements are more expensive than conventional PFCs. “The economic aspect is definitely a barrier, especially as we don’t want to pass on the extra cost to the consumer,” explains Vanessa. “But above all, what’s slowing us down is the technical issues.”
“All these finishes react differently depending on the weave structure – simple, smooth or raised – and the type of fabric, etc.” The molecules attach to the fabric in different ways, and what works for one material won’t work for another.”.
Words by : Guillaume Desmurs