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PORTLAND – Campaigners will stage a protest outside the Portland, Oregon store of Columbia Sportswear this week, calling on the outdoor brand to phase out its use of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) and U.S. PIRG Education Fund will deliver a recent petition, with more than 48,000 signatures, urging the retailer to discontinue the use of PFAS chemicals in their products. Such chemicals imbue clothing with water and oil repellence properties but have been linked with negative health and aquatic life impacts.

Speakers at an event will discuss how this family of chemicals impacts human health and the environment, ways other brands have phased out PFAS from their supply chains, and what consumers can do to protect themselves from such chemicals.

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The event comes just after Columbia Sportswear’s stakeholder meeting where CEO Timothy Boyle said: “We’ve been focused on reducing our use of PFAS and, ultimately, phasing them out. I’d like to point out to investors that Columbia has developed a line of products, called OutDry Extreme, with no [PFAS] attached to the product in our manufacturing process. So, we’re really leading the industry in providing these highly productive, terrific products without the use of PFAS.”

The NRDC claims that while this comment is a step in the right direction, Columbia Sportswear lacks a public timeline for elimination of these products in its supply chain and has yet to adopt a comprehensive definition of PFAS to apply to their sustainability standards.

We were curious as to why this campaign is focusing on Columbia Sportswear given there are many outdoor brands still using PFAS in clothing, despite saying they would phrase out such chemicals by 2020 as part of the Greenpeace Detox Commitments.

We put this to a spokesperson from NRDC. They told us: “Earlier this year we launched a report re: PFAS in apparel. The report ranks 30 of the nation’s top retail and apparel brands based on their public commitments and responses to a survey to eliminate PFAS from their products.

“For outdoor apparel brands specifically, Patagonia received the highest score in this category (B) and Columbia Sportswear was one of the brands that received a F. Here’s an excerpt from the report that adds some additional colour: ‘While many U.S. outdoor apparel companies talk about the importance of pristine natural places, the industry continues to contribute to PFAS pollution of these very places, with the majority of brands surveyed receiving a D or below. In fact, only two companies have a time-bound commitment to phase out all PFAS from their products in the future: Patagonia by 2024 and L.L. Bean by 2026. No other U.S. outdoor apparel brand surveyed has gone as far. VF (parent company of North Face and Timberland), for instance, has committed to phase out all PFAS chemicals except PTFE, by 2025. Similarly, REI has banned only a few PFAS chemicals from its supply chain but excluded many. The policy lag of most of the U.S. outdoor apparel industry is particularly notable given the environmental and public health concerns of much of its consumer base. In one of our latest blogs re: our Columbia campaign we note: As one of the largest outdoor apparel brands in the U.S. and with its focus on supplying products to consumers who enjoy spending time outdoors, Columbia Sportswear should be leading the effort to eliminate PFAS use in apparel, not lagging behind.'”

Perhaps the bigger question is why brands are being let off the hook by being allowed to set these distant timelines at all given there are PFAS-free alternatives on the market which do a similar job in terms of water repellence (and have been for years).

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