Legislation in places like California and Europe is banning the use of PFCs starting in 2025. We’ve been saying no to them since 2009.
When it comes to our relationship with nature at Fjällräven, Global Product Director Donna Bruns is blunt: “Without nature we can just pack up and go home.”
In fact, one of our core values is to “act responsibly towards nature, humans and animals,” and it impacts everything we do. You can imagine then how Donna reacted in 2008 when she got a call from chemical expert and advisor Stefan Posner concerning PFCs. She was appalled. The news was bad. Really bad.
“They were in everything. They were everywhere.”
Emerging in the 1950's, per- and polyfluorinated compounds (commonly known as PFCs or PFAS) were a textile industry revolution. As a DWR (durable water repellent) their ability deter moisture, grease and dirt by altering the surface tension of materials was unparalleled. They were applied to all sorts of things. To t-shirts to repel sunscreen staining. Swimwear to enable quick drying. Socks to prolong their lifespan. And so much more.
Unfortunately, as time goes by, the chemical compounds shed into the earth’s water shelters and find their way into the soil. They even attached themselves to dust and aerosols, travelling through the air to some of the most remote places on earth. Eventually PFCs were detected in everything from small aquatic crustaceans to human foetuses and mothers’ milk. Studies at that time indicated they affected the immune system, hormones and organ function. Now we know that PFCs have the capacity to alter DNA.
Donna’s disturbing phone call didn’t end there either. She also learned PFCs were resistant to biodegradation. Once they were out there, they were out there, and there was no getting rid of them. In short, they’re “forever chemicals”.
“PFCs were the go-to DWR of the textile industry and outdoor companies,” says Donna, “So they were in all sorts of materials and all sorts of products. Tents and backpacks, and even stuff that it didn’t need to be, like G-1000. You name it, PFCs were in it. They were in everything. They were everywhere.”
After informing CEO Martin Axelhed and top Fjällräven management about the problem, agreement on the next step was swift and unanimous: PFCs had to go. The sense of purpose remains to this day, as Martin and management remain committed to leading the company through this critical topic.
“Oh $#*%, they’re in there too?”
Removing PFCs from all our products required extracting them from every level of our operations. Doing so, at every twist and turn of the supply chain was a lengthy, complex and painstaking task. We systematically went through every single component of every single product and every single production process to ensure no PFCs were used.
The more we dug, the more we learned. We’d talk to a supplier or manufacturer that had no real reason to use PFCs in a fabric and realise, ‘Oh $#*%, they’re in there too? Alright, we’ve got to get them out of there.’
“Some of our partners were really confused. They were asking, ‘Why are you doing this?’ and ‘Why is this a big deal now?’ because no other brands were asking about PFCs at the time. Luckily, many of our partners were up for the challenge and worked hard to help us achieve our goals.”
First, PFCs were no longer used in apparel, including membranes and weather-proofing impregnations. From 2015, we eliminated PFCs from textiles for tents and all other products. It was not until 2021 however, that we could get high quality zippers produced without PFCs and today, 2023, we are literally one group of trims away from reaching our goal. Maintaining this and pushing to zero PFCs however, requires vigilance. We continually do random checks of our products to ensure our strict policy is followed.
“For nature, we were willing to take the hit.”
When Donna and her team learned about the environmental impact of PFCs, their first thought was, “Is this it? Is this the only opportunity we had to make very functional shell garments?”
Of course, the answer was “No!” so they launched an ambitious project to develop a proprietary material entirely free of PFCs in parallel with eliminating them. Their goal: it should have the best possible water-repellent function with the lowest possible environmental impact.
This wasn’t about cobbling together a quick fix for the new season, but committing to a thorough process to find a sustainable future solution that provided effective protection against moisture and maintained breathability. Prototypes were tested in the lab and in the field, with emphasis put on working with reliable suppliers who applied the same stringent standards as we did.
After several years, Eco-Shell launched in 2012. Made with layers of polyester, the outer layer of recycled polyester is fully permeated with PFC-free DWR. It keeps the user dry by making it difficult for water to penetrate the garment and absorbs moisture from inside the garment, transporting it away from the body. As such, for the user, the functionality of Eco-Shell (and all our other weather-resistant products that came after) was the same: it kept them dry.
The big difference was in the durability of our PFC-free DWR. It required more regular reapplication. For Fjällräven it wasn’t a big deal because the process is easy. You simply spray more PFC-free DWR onto a clean garment and put it in the dryer. In 2012 however, the concept of giving consumers the responsibility of care and repair was all new. According to Donna,
“We had to communicate to people that yes, you’re still going to be as dry as you were before, but no, your garment’s water repellence isn’t going to be as durable. This is where you, the user, comes in. To keep your garment at full function you may have to care for it differently than you are used to.”
We basically created products that weren’t as good – on purpose. But that was okay for us because they were better for the environment. It was a risk. Some people wouldn’t like it. For nature, we were willing to take the hit.
“If something is the right thing to do, you do it”.
In 2023, legislation has caught up, and places like Europe and California have decided to ban PFCs starting in 2025. For nature, this is excellent news, and it gives many companies the incentive needed to begin the hard work of phasing out PFCs. For the unprepared, it’s going to be an intense time, so we’re happy we began our journey earlier. At Fjällräven we’re driven by our values, not legislation, so we have had the time and space needed to explore uncharted territory and discover superior solutions. Like Donna says, this is the best thing about Fjällräven. “If something is the right thing to do, you do it”.