I recently went to a seminar held by OIA where Lorrie Vogel the GM of Nike's Considered program outlined her priorities in sustainability. Interestingly, her top priority isn't about recycling or reducing greenhouse gas. Her top priority is reducing and eliminating Toxins.
Nike's not the only one looking at this critical element of sustainability. We recently ran and Op-Ed by Nick Brown of Nikwax fame. Here it is...
Fluorochemicals in the Outdoor Industry
By Nick Brown, founder and managing director of Nikwax
Environmental Safety –With whom does the responsibility lie?
As a retailer, consumer, or gear manufacturer, how much responsibility do we have for avoiding the release into our environment of suspect materials? Should we leave everything to government legislation? In my opinion, the answer is no. Government can take a very long time to respond to scientific evidence. The use of perfluoroctyl chemicals is a case in point.
Perfluoroctyl (PFO) fluorocarbons are everywhere.
The outdoor industry - the apparel/footwear categories in particular - makes use of a class of chemical compounds called perfluoroctyl (PFO) fluorocarbons for the specific purpose of providing water-repellency on the exterior surface of jackets, footwear and bags of all kinds. There is a rapidly growing awareness that these compounds can biodegrade to a chemical called PFOA, which is highly persistent in the environment and in the human body. It is defined as a human carcinogen by the EPA and is a suspected cause of birth defects. This is a sensitive issue for people in the outdoor industry. We are supposedly environmentally friendly, yet we continue to use materials that have been shown to be risky.
The first wake up call for me came in 2000, when 3M removed their entire range of perfluoroctyl products from the market, cutting out hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue. I believe it was a highly responsible action on their part. Subsequently, most outdoor brands have continued to use PFO products on their garments sourced from other manufacturers. In the last seven years, however, the weight of evidence for the harmful nature of PFOs has continued to grow. The United States Environmental Protection Agency has called for the total elimination of all PFO products by 2015. Some well-known major outdoor brands have noted this evidence and are actively pursuing PFO alternatives for their own products.
PFO is not appropriate to take into the home as a liquid.
Personally, I do not think that there is a significant risk to a wearer of garments that have been treated with PFO products in a factory. However, I do believe there is a risk associated with having these chemicals in a liquid form in the home as an aftercare treatment for water-repellency. As a manufacturer Nikwax could have chosen this technology, but we rejected it. I did not want to bear the responsibility of putting small liquid packages of fluorocarbon into homes where it was being used unsupervised, potentially in a food area, and perhaps being spilled and ingested or directly inhaled.
Fluorocarbons may be dangerous to unborn children.
Recent research in both the USA and Denmark has linked head dimension of newborn babies to the amount of a perfluoroctyl material, PFOA, found in their umbilical cords. In other words, even extremely low levels of PFOA may negatively affect human growth. PFOA, which is persistent in human tissue, has a half-life of eight years. All humans now have PFOA in their blood.
What is the responsibility born by individuals, manufacturers and retailers? As individuals we have the right to take risks with our own lives and bodies. But as manufacturers and retailers, we have to be much more careful about the risks that we take for the individuals who use our products. We can never be fully aware of what all those risks are. However, when we become aware of them, we most certainly should not try to cover them up and act as if they do not exist. It is always better to jump before you are pushed!