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Introduction to PFCs

Nikwax is committed to maximising enjoyment of the great outdoors with minimal environmental impact, which is why we have never used harmful chemicals in our water-based products. Since we were founded by Nick Brown in 1977, we have always championed a culture of transparency and public scrutiny around PFCs – long before they were on the world’s safety radar. In this month’s blog we delve into what these toxic fluorocarbons are, and why we should all be concerned with them.

What are PFCs?
PFCs is the name given to the broad family of products called perfluorinated compounds: man-made substances containing linked carbon and fluorine atoms (they are also called PFAS, which stands for polyfluoroalkyl substances). The chemical bond between carbon and fluorine is one of the strongest in organic chemistry, making it very attractive for use within different industries. PFCs can appear in all sorts of products – from carpets and clothing, to food packaging and personal care products, and firefighting foams. They are excellent at repelling oils and water and have been used extensively on non-stick pans for example, and on outdoor apparel as a durable water repellent coating.

Why are PFCs so problematic?
Despite their many useful applications, it is precisely their (chemical) repelling properties that make PFCs so hazardous. The strong bond between carbon and fluorine is persistent and can take thousands of years to break down – if it even breaks down at all. As a result, PFCs are often nicknamed ‘forever chemicals’. These forever chemicals are demonstrably harmful to the environment and our own health, which is why Nikwax, as an outdoor brand, has never included them in our cleaning and waterproofing products.

Literally thousands of substances fall under the PFC banner, leaking into the environment via industry air emissions and wastewater discharge, as well as via treated home goods that enter landfill. Some PFCs can also travel easily through soil and water, increasing the risk of groundwater contamination. As they take so long to break down, over time the amount of PFCs in the environment will increase and bioaccumulate (build up) in crops and livestock, which means humans are also at risk of ingesting them. In the UK, the Environment Agency* has found extensive evidence of PFCs in groundwaters, rivers and coastal waters, which has led to widespread contamination of our freshwater and marine life. Early evidence even suggests it can damage the human immune system and impact fertility and you can learn more about this by taking a look at the PFC page on our website here.

© Rijk van de Kaa, Unsplash

How is Nikwax helping to make a difference?
Quite clearly, we all need to be mindful of the choices we make. Over 45 years ago, we chose to prioritise clean chemistry over quick-win PFCs, ensuring our aftercare products are always safe for use in the home, and are always safe for the environment:

·        They are PFC-free

·        They are water-based and degrade into harmless compounds

·        They do not use aerosol propellants, which contain Greenhouses gases

Since 1977 we have been world leaders in the provision of high performance yet low impact cleaning and waterproofing products for outdoor gear, and we are committed to their safety for many more years to come.

*Source; EA report: Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS): sources, pathways and environmental data Chief Scientist’s Group report August 2021 chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1012230/Poly-_and_perfluoroalkyl_substances_-sources_pathways_and_environmental_data_-_report.pdf

 

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Environmentally friendly aftercare for outdoor clothing – without PFCs!

Our guest blog comes from Author Anne Engelhardt, who is the founder of Germany-based blog “outdoorjoker.de”. Outdoorjoker test and write about new and/or very special products and great gadgets for use in the outdoors. All authors are passionate outdoor enthusiasts, are working on a non-profit agreement but, instead, are practicing honest journalism.

Our demands on technical outdoor clothing are admittedly quite high. This functional gear should be made from an ultra-modern, functional fabric, be as breathable and comfortable as possible, have a low weight, and ideally suit a range of activities. Good technical clothing not only has a significant impact on the success of an expedition, but is simply the life insurance when hiking under adverse conditions. It is under extreme conditions, such as rain and cold, that differences in materials and innovative technologies become noticeable. Even more essential is choosing your perfect weather gear to make your outdoor adventure a great success.
With intensive use, it is not only the functions of the clothing that affects its technical performance but its adequate maintenance. Dirt, mud and sweat can cause even the most technical jacket to reach its limit. The success of an expedition can therefore be dependent upon selection of the appropriate clothing care product. Our two editors – Eva and Olli – had this experience last year whilst touring Ireland. With backpacks they explored the island for five days, which is not exactly known for fine weather. Despite high-performance outerwear with a corresponding water column, Olli’s raincoat quickly failed in the extreme conditions. This caused the membrane to lose its breathability, meaning sweat could no longer escape and allowing heat and moisture to build up inside.

Looking for suitable cleaning and waterproofing care for outdoor clothing, here at Outdoorjoker we came across the wide range of products from the British outdoor aftercare manufacturer Nikwax. Our favourite: Nikwax Tech Wash. The `All-rounder` cleans clothing (and backpacks) thoroughly, whilst reviving the breathability and water repellency. You particularly notice a great difference on technical clothing that has been worn for a while and has not been washed. The durable water repellent (DWR) coating applied to technical clothing in the factory wears off over time and is destroyed by both dirt and use of conventional household detergents. This is evident in extreme situations, such as on the ski slope, when the upper material becomes clammy, compromising the clothing’s functionality and leaving the wearer cold. Tech Wash ensures that the original water repellency remains intact for longer. Nikwax TX.Direct can then be used to replace lost water-repellency. The powerful combination of Tech Wash and TX.Direct would have given Olli’s jacket a one or two percentage point lead.

Nikwax aftercare is not only intended for outdoor clothing, even lifestyle brands such as the British manufacturer Barbour, recommend the cleaning and waterproofing products of Nikwax.

What we also like about the Nikwax range is that all substances have been developed without animal testing. They also do not include PFCs (perfluorinated and polyfluorinated chemicals). These are chemical compounds that are produced synthetically and do not degrade in the environment. PFCs find their way into food and drinking water, subsequently getting ingested and accumulating in the body. Research results have shown PFCs can cause not only a general weakening of the immune system but also reduced fertility. The devastating effects are detailed in a report by Greenpeace published in January 2016, entitled Leaving Traces.

Nikwax aftercare works effectively on all varieties of functional materials and technologies, prolonging the life of clothing and equipment and consequently saves valuable environmental resources. For this reason, this British company quite rightly deserved to win the Queen’s Award for Sustainable Development.

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Peter Kohl joins forces with Nikwax to exclude PFCs

Peter Kohl are a substantial, central European-based, supplier of high quality Down to the Outdoor Industry. With over 100 years of experience in providing high quality processing, they adhere to the certified Responsible Down Standards, to ensure down has been ethically sourced.

Peter Kohl was the first Down finishing company in Europe to install the Nikwax process for producing Nikwax Hydrophobic Down (NHD). NHD is a highly water-resistant form of down which is produced in an environmentally friendly way, without persistent chemicals such as PFCs.

Now Peter Kohl are confirming their commitment to innovation and sustainable production by signing an agreement with Nikwax whereby they will ensure that PFC (fluorocarbon water repellents) are excluded form every part of the Peter Kohl production process. This will mean that NHD from Peter Kohl can be used, in future, by brands who want to progress their commitment to zero PFC in production, and Zero Hazardous Discharge.

Down is the optimum material for very cold conditions, providing exceptional insulation for the absolute minimum weight. But until recently its big drawback has been its vulnerability to water. When normal down gets wet and it loses all of its ability to keep you warm. However, Nikwax Hydrophobic Down provides the optimum outdoor insulation solution – water-resistance, low weight, and high insulation, without the use of hazardous persistent chemicals.

  • You can shake NHD with water for 1000 minutes and it still will not sink.
  • You can wash it at least 5 times with Nikwax Down Wash Direct and it will maintain its water-resistant and insulation properties.
  • Therefore NHD is not only a high performance material, but also a material that will give you a long and useful life.

Nick Brown, CEO of Nikwax said Peter Kohl have been a fantastic partner for this project and have cooperated at all levels in term of development. This is a highly important step on the road to showing that the best available technology can also be the most sustainable technology, and moving PFC products out of the outdoor market.”

Jürgen Sandvoss, Head of Outdoor Sales at Peter Kohl said “We have been highly impressed with the waterproof performance of the Nikwax Hydrophobic Down., and this has encouraged us to make this commitment to zero PFC in our production. We know that ultimately all of the Outdoor brands want to take the most sustainable route, so we believe that this is not only a good moral decision, but a good business one too, and excellent for the consumer.”

Nikwax has pioneered the move away from polluting PFC water repellents and continues to demonstrate that high performance waterproofing can be achieved with minimum environmental effect. Nikwax Hydrophobic Down can only be produced with materials that have been screened for ethical sourcing, so the Nikwax brand wraps up sustainability and animal welfare under one banner.

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Greenpeace mount successful expeditions to high altitudes and high latitudes using Nikwax PFC-free fabric technology

To draw attention to the threat posed by pollution from perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs), Greenpeace has visited some of the most inhospitable places on earth, by foot, to sample the pristine water and snow for PFC chemicals. At the same time it tested PFC-free outdoor clothing in extreme conditions, aiming to overcome the myth that functional clothing needs PFCs for the toughest climates. A number of the garments used by Greenpeace researchers were manufactured by Páramo, who uses the PFC-free Nikwax Analogy waterproof fabric system. Expedition members commented that they were very happy with the equipment, even in harsh weather conditions above 5,000 metres of altitude.

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The new Greenpeace report “Footprints in the snow”, based on the expeditions, reveals PFCs can be found in some of the remotest corners of the world. PFCs have for years been used by many aftercare companies to achieve the water repellency of their treatments. Nikwax is the only aftercare and fabric technology provider to have never used PFCs, having assessed them as hazardous materials. PFCs do not break down easily in the environment and build up in our bodies. There is good scientific evidence that PFCs cause health issues: affecting the hormone system, promoting growth of cancerous tumours and causing sterility.

Previous Greenpeace research revealed PFC water repellents are found on the waterproofs of most major outdoor brands. For the latest report, the expeditions found traces of both long-chain C8 PFCs (traditionally used by outdoor brands) and short-chain C6 PFCs (more recently adopted as a “safer” alternative to C8s). The report highlights that most outdoor brands are still contributing towards the presence of PFCs after failing to eliminate these toxic chemicals from their products. Greenpeace believes outdoor companies need to avoid using all PFCs for the sake of human health and the environment.

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Nick Brown, CEO of Nikwax said: “I recognised 15 years ago that using PFC technology in Nikwax products would be taking a risk with the health of my consumers. Anyone who cares about the wellbeing of their family and future generations should be concerned that the continued spread of PFCs will leave us with decades of pollution to deal with. From outdoor lovers to city dwellers, the power is in the hands of ordinary people to urge the industry and politicians to take action on the total elimination of these toxins.”

Nikwax has been one of the few pioneers in the industry to campaign against the use of PFCs and earlier this year held a conference with Greenpeace at the ISPO Outdoor trade fair to simply lay out the dangers these chemicals pose.

It’s time to act! Find out more and read the full report at www.greenpeace.org/detox

Images: Greenpeace

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A personal letter from Nick Brown, founder of Nikwax, about PFC pollution, and Greenpeace

Dear Outdoor Enthusiast,

I am writing to you about something which I do not think has received enough attention in the UK, in the hope that you will help us to publicise it.

PFC pollution – Britain lags behind in awareness

Most people in Britain would have no idea what I am talking about, whereas in Germany, Central Europe and Scandinavia a group of chemicals called PFCs are often in the news.

In short, they are chemicals that combine Carbon and Fluorine and are widely used in the manufacture of Outdoor clothing. They are also used in food packaging, carpets and many household chemicals.

PFCs are persistent and incredibly toxic and Nikwax does not use them – why not?

In the year 2000 Nikwax was looking into using fluorocarbon, PFC water repellents. Around that time, 3M, at a stroke, decided to pull all of their PFC fluorocarbon water repellents off the market – this raised alarm bells. The main reason given at the time was that PFCs are persistent in the environment. This seemed to me to be good enough information to embargo them for Nikwax. However, as a company, we continued to be offered different versions of PFCs by chemical suppliers, with the promise that they were “perfectly safe”. We have continued to reject them for 15 years.

15 years later different variants of these PFC toxic chemicals are used by almost all manufacturers in the Outdoor Industry – and their use is still increasing – why?

PFCs are big business. And they are complicated. And they are invisible. And the same kinds of professional PR companies have been adopted to protect them as those which are used by the tobacco companies, to great effect.

Who is fighting against this PFC pollution? – Greenpeace have taken the lead

Greenpeace are an organisation which takes no money from business. Their goal is to protect the environment and us, and to take up battles against impossibly powerful organisations. Greenpeace have recognised that textile manufacture is creating terrible water pollution, including PFC pollution, throughout the world, and it is their intention to do something about it. To that end, they created their campaign Chemistry for any Weather.

Nikwax invited Greenpeace to speak to the Outdoor Press at the ISPO sport trade show in Munich in February

To make the Outdoor Industry more aware of the issue, Nikwax decided to give a talk at the recent ISPO sports trade fair in Munich, to explain the PFC issue in simple terms, and to invite along Greenpeace to speak about their campaigns. The fluorochemical industry has largely managed the issue by adding layer after layer of complexity. Our intention was to lay out the issues as simply and clearly as possible. To see me on the podium with the representatives from Greenpeace, go here!

Who does NOT use PFCs in Outdoor Clothing?

Almost no one. All of the major outdoor brands use PFCs. But, some outstanding companies like H&M have already taken the lead in terms of streetwear. In the UK, only one purely outdoor brand has controlled the exclusion of all PFC water repellents from their production, and that is Páramo. To find out which major brands are working with Greenpeace to remove PFCs, watch our video!

How long will it take to exclude PFCs from the whole Outdoor business?

That depends entirely upon you. At one level, business is a great democracy: you can vote with your wallet. Most serious outdoor companies now have a plan to try to remove some PFCs from their production by 2020. They recognise the problem, but in reality many are often hiding behind a smokescreen of “environmental labels” or statements like “PFOA-free” which do not mean PFC-free.

How do I know something is PFC-free? Does Bluesign mean PFC-free?

Bluesign most definitely does not mean PFC-free. The vast majority of Bluesign approved waterproof garments contain PFCs.

Demand PFC and fluorocarbon-free from your retailers and the business will change, and fast. You have the power, as consumers. But most of all, take your information from Greenpeace, and not from the PR statements and eco-labels which have been crafted by the PFC industry to protect textile companies.

Isn’t Nikwax just another chemical company – what gives YOU the authority to point the finger?

I believe that here is such a thing as responsible business, but only if business is held to account. As a businessman I can be a force for positive change.

However business cannot hold business to account. You cannot be poacher as well as gamekeeper. I recognise that we need independent campaigners like Greenpeace to force the issues, create the publicity, and drive the less responsible businesses towards a more positive environmental future. I do not agree with all of Greenpeace’s positions, but I thoroughly support their advocacy and campaigning. As a lonely voice in the Outdoor Industry on this issue I have often been drowned out by the bigger brands and accused of raising the issue for commercial reasons. That is not the case. At Nikwax we make millions of units of waterproofing. I believe that if I had gone down the PFC route 15 years ago, someone would have died by now from cancer as a consequence. It is not a responsibility I wanted to take. So I support Greenpeace in that they make it easier for all of us to do the right thing.

Please, pass the word and send this to your friends.

And GET OUTSIDE!

Greetings

Nick Brown