Last week, REI Co-op stores around the country closed for Black Friday. It’s a company tradition dating back to 2015, where the outdoor retailer asks customers to “opt outside” rather than participate in a post-Thanksgiving shopping spree. 

But there’s one thing that REI hasn’t yet opted out of: a class of compounds known as “forever chemicals.” By using these chemicals in its water-resistant outdoor clothing, a coalition of nonprofits and health experts says REI is needlessly polluting the environment and damaging people’s health.

“It’s ironic that a company like REI … is selling products that are contaminating some of the most beautiful and wild places,” said Mike Schade, a program director for the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future. Similar companies such as Patagonia have already committed to phasing out per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances — known as PFAS — and Schade’s organization is calling on REI to do the same.

PFAS comprise a class of chemicals that have been used in consumer products since the mid-19th century — often to give stain- and water-resistant properties to products like nonstick cookware, food packaging, and outdoor clothing. The problem, however, is that PFAS are linked to cancer, metabolic disorders, reduced fertility, and other health problems. Plus, they don’t break down once they escape into the environment, hence the nickname “forever chemicals.” Scientists are now finding PFAS just about everywhere they look — in drinking water, in breastmilk, in people’s bloodstreams. Even rainwater is now contaminated with unsafe levels of PFAS.

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PFAS “tend to get into everything” and pose serious risks to public health, said Jimena Díaz Leiva, science director for the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health. They’re released not only by shearing off of contaminated materials like clothing, but at the manufacturing stage, where large quantities may enter the environment through wastewater or airborne particles.

REI is hardly the only company whose products have tested positive for PFAS. Toxic-Free Future organizers say they are targeting REI because it’s a large and well-respected outdoor retailer. REI doesn’t just produce its own lines of clothing, but also sells items from a huge array of other brands: The North Face, Patagonia, Arc’teryx, Mammut, and Black Diamond, just to name a few. Some of these brands have already committed to phasing out PFAS. Still, Schade said REI could nudge them to move faster by screening products for PFAS, in addition to eliminating the toxic materials from its own product lines.

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REI has “a massive influence over the policies of the companies whose products they sell,” Schade said. “Requiring their suppliers to ban PFAS in their products … can have a ripple effect across the outdoor industry.”

REI says on its website that it’s already stopped using two of the most well-studied “forever” compounds — so-called “long-chain” PFAS known as PFOA and PFOS — and replaced them with short-chain PFAS “where viable alternatives do not yet exist.” But researchers warn short-chain PFAS may be just as problematic as their long-chain counterparts in terms of the threats they pose to environmental and human health.. 

In response to Grist’s request for comment, REI said it was “in the process of eliminating all remaining PFAS from our own products,” but it didn’t address questions about a timeline for that transition. 

REI hasn’t elaborated publicly on the barriers it faces as it moves away from PFAS. But accounts from other retailers describe a similar problem: It’s been hard to find PFAS replacements that are equally effective when creating durable outdoor products. 

Water droplets on orange fabric
PFAS give stain- and water-resistant properties to products like cookware, food packaging, and outdoor clothing. SSPL / Getty Images

PFAS worked “really, really well,” said Matt Dwyer, vice president of product impact and innovation for the outdoor clothing company Patagonia, which plans to eliminate PFAS from its products by 2024. For years, his company and others relied on the now-infamous class of chemicals to make rain gear waterproof — either by applying the chemicals externally in a “durable, water-repellent” finish, known in industry-speak as “DWR,” or by weaving them into a waterproof membrane that can be sandwiched between layers of fabric.

Early replacement candidates didn’t measure up, Dwyer said, likening them to “an artist’s hammer and chisel” next to the “dynamite” of PFAS. The alternatives also resulted in product side effects that compromised sustainability in other ways: Some early versions of a PFAS-free finish caused garments to fall apart, increasing concerns over textile waste

Still, some brands seem to have found sufficient solutions to move forward. Retailers including Marmot and Mountain Hardwear have released successful lines of PFAS-free items. Polartec, which makes fabrics for companies including Black Diamond and The North Face, switched to PFAS-free DWR treatments in July 2021 and has noted “no loss of performance from a water repellency or durability standpoint.” The outdoor brand Jack Wolfskin says they’ve already gone PFAS-free.

Swedish outdoor brand Fjällräven, which claims to be PFAS-free except for its zippers, says the only thing PFAS-free technologies seem unable to do is repel oil. But that’s a compromise the company says it’s been willing to make to address an urgent threat to public health and the environment. 

Why do these companies report such success while others haven’t? It’s unclear, since competitive clothing brands are generally tight-lipped about their PFAS replacements. Lydia Jahl, a science and policy associate for the nonprofit Green Science Policy Institute, said companies may be resistant to the costs of switching their product lines, or they may be running into supply chain issues. (Large fabric suppliers may not be ready to ditch PFAS, even when the retailers buying their materials are.) 

Some experts argue the challenges companies say they face when eliminating PFAS are overblown; after all, people have been making clothing for extreme sports since long before PFAS became ubiquitous. Back then, companies used wax-like finishes to keep water from soaking through their clothing. The British Air Force simply used tightly-woven cotton fabric.

In addition to bringing back some of those older techniques, today’s retailers have a growing number of options to replace PFAS. Fabrics from Marmot and Jack Wolfskin are using polyurethane, a kind of plastic material, to help repel water. Other companies use brand-name treatments like Empel and Bionic Finish Eco that market themselves as environmentally friendly. 

“There are alternatives,” Jahl said. “If they invest and put more resources into it, there are really good materials chemists … who can figure out the replacements for these companies.”

Schade, meanwhile, is hoping state legislation will force companies’ hands. California recently enacted a law to eliminate “intentionally added” PFAS from most apparel by 2025, and — because companies are unlikely to create separate product lines just for California — the law is expected to set a national industry standard. REI says it supports the law, which won’t apply to outdoor clothing for “severe wet conditions” until January 1, 2028.

Washington state is also eyeing stricter regulations for PFAS; the Evergreen State’s Democratic governor, Jay Inslee, signed a bill this spring that is expected to result in a quicker phaseout of the toxic substances, although a timeline hasn’t yet been specified.
“We are hopeful that these policies will prompt REI to reformulate their products,” Schade said — ideally, faster than the laws require. “The company has shown it can both do well and do good at the same time,” he said, pointing to its commitments on climate change and other hazardous chemicals. “We’d like to see REI be a leader and do the right thing to tackle chemicals that have polluted the drinking water for millions of Americans.”

Editor’s note: Patagonia is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.