Close-up view of water beading off a jacket

DWR and PFCs

If you’re looking at outdoor gear, you’ve probably seen the words DWR (durable water repellency) in many product descriptions. DWR finishes are what help water bead off your jacket or tent, and they require complex chemistry and expertise to apply them correctly to make them effective.

A class of chemicals known as PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals) are of particular concern to MEC and to many leading outdoor brands. PFC finishes are widely used and found in everyday items from textiles to food packaging. On fabrics, they help repel water and protect surfaces from picking up dirt or stains; on pizza boxes and fast food wrappers, they prevent oils from soaking through.

Although the presence of PFCs on garments does not pose a direct consumer health risk, the release of PFCs into the air and water during manufacturing can lead to environmental contamination. These substances aren’t found naturally and persist for hundreds of years before they degrade. Since that they can travel via air or water and biomagnify (get more and more concentrated as they accumulate in animals up the food chain – including humans), it means that PFCs are a class of chemicals that MEC takes seriously.

What MEC Label is doing

For many years, MEC Label has been building out a robust chemical management program geared toward continuous improvement. Through our work with bluesign® technologies, we’ve aligned with outdoor brands and textile manufacturers around the world to identify, remove and replace harmful chemicals with safer alternatives. MEC, through the bluesign system, currently screens for more than 900 chemical inputs to manage them and eliminate those known to be harmful – PFCs are one class of chemical we actively manage.

In 2016, we permanently phased out the use of long chain (C8) PFC DWR chemistry from our product manufacturing and transitioned all products to materials using short-chain PFC (C6) formulations. While still persistent, these short-chain compounds have lower toxicity and are considered to be the safer alternative. Working with bluesign-approved materials also ensures that our manufacturers have appropriate emissions control systems when using challenging chemistry like PFCs.

What’s next

We know there is still work to do. Our next step is transitioning to non-PFC DWR alternatives. This transition is taking time, as we want to make sure the decisions we make take many factors into account. How do the alternatives perform? What short-term and long-term impacts do they have? How do they affect the lifespan of a product?

The challenge we face is that the performance attributes of outdoor gear – robust fabrics that are lightweight, and that protect people in extreme weather conditions – aren’t achievable without complex chemistries (PFC or PFC-free), elaborate process technologies, and resources like water (and the resulting mill effluent) to manufacture them. The same chemical nature that makes PFCs environmentally persistent is also why they’re so effective at repelling water and stains. Alternative water repellency chemistries are improving and we’re excited to see what the future will hold.

We have a responsibility to provide MEC members with uncompromising quality and products that will serve them for many years. We also commit to creating the most environmentally benign products we can. It’s a delicate balance. And it’s why we continually seek to raise the bar, improve our systems and lighten MEC’s product footprint.

Making your waterproof gear last

If you own a jacket or pants with DWR, you can keep them water repellent by giving them a little TLC. Not only will it continue to keep you dry, it will also extend the life of your jacket to reduce waste and the need for new DWR products in your closet (and save you money too). Learn how to wash and re-waterproof your gear, and how to repair your waterproof-breathable gear.

Top photo: MEC rain jacket by Vancouver Institute of Media Arts.