If you are native to the Pacific Northwest then you are probably familiar with Gore-tex. If you have ever purchased a waterproof backpack, tent, shoes, or even clothing, chances are that a Gore-tex label was affixed to it. In 1975, Columbia Sportswear introduced the first Gore-tex parka. A few years later, REI began selling outerwear products and personal clothing coated with Gore-tex. You can even walk into Wal-mart and purchase Gore-tex jackets and gloves. Over the past 40 years, Gore-tex has become the most recognized name in waterproof material for both outerwear products and personal clothing. But what exactly is Gore-tex, and why should there be no more?
Basically, Gore-tex is a waterproof/breathable fabric membrane that is treated with Teflon. Teflon is the brand name for polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). PTFE is created by a process involving the carcinogenic substance known as perfluorooctanoate (PFOA), which is a consistent environmental contaminant. PFOA is an unintentional byproduct formed during manufacturing processes that involve a group of toxic chemicals known as perfluorinated compounds (PFCs), which is discussed in this previous post. Essentially, Gore-tex is a fabric material that consists of extremely toxic chemicals that do not break down in the environment… ever!
Now, no one can deny the green movement. Almost every company that provides a product offers an eco-friendly version of that product. Increased awareness of the toxicity of certain chemicals is forcing companies to address public concerns over the effects that their products have on both human health and the environment. And the Gore-tex brand is not immune to this issue. Since Gore-tex has been a staple for many decades, they are inevitably the main focus of the concern over the toxicity of waterproof products.
So what does Gore-tex have to say about all of this?
Since Gore-tex is a patented product that has made a fortune off of toxic chemicals for the past 40 years, one cannot really expect them to publicly announce that all of their products are bad for human health and the environment. According to a section titled “PFCs” on the Gore-tex website, “Our products are environmentally sound and safe to wear… and cause no harm to people and are environmentally sound”. But they just started using PFOA-free materials in 2011, so what about all those years in which manufacturing processes and products containing PFOA were the standards? You can read through the PFC Fact Sheet available from the Gore-tex website, but that question is never addressed. Eventually, you will read that “Gore-tex is not a significant source of PFOA found in the environment”. But who knows how much scientific validity that statement has? How does one test where PFOA originated from in the environment??
Regardless of which types of PFCs are good, bad, or whatever, the waterproof product industry is moving away from using PFCs altogether… except for stubborn ol’ Gore-tex. According to Gore-tex, “developing a PFC-free durable water repellant polymer is a challenge for the whole industry”. Yet we are seeing the emergence of multiple PFC-free waterproof brands on the market. While REI still carries some Gore-tex products, they stopped using Gore-tex in their own branded garments in 2008 and switched over to eVent-brand garments, which is PFC-free. And Columbia Sportswear is now promoting OutDry products and their own brand of Omni-Dry products, both of which they say is just as good as or better than Gore-tex. In fact, it seems that there is an all-out war within the waterproof product industry between Gore-tex and Columbia Sportswear, which is discussed in this OregonLive article from 2011. Columbia Sportswear’s Omni-Dry products actually include signage that states “Better than Gore-tex”, which they say has been proven with multiple demonstrations at outdoor gear industry shows.
But, if the issue of PFCs doesn’t leave you with a sour taste in your mouth, then maybe an issue of business ethics might? After REI stopped using Gore-tex in their own waterproof garments, Gore terminated the licenses under which REI footwear is manufactured. When asked why, REI responded “Gore will have to answer that”. Both Columbia Sportswear and their subsidiary OutDry Technologies have filed complaints with the European Commission, accusing W.L. Gore & Associates Inc. (the makers of Gore-tex) of abusing their dominant market position in the sale of waterproof breathable membranes for footwear and gloves. And the Federal Trade Commission is conducting its own investigation to determine whether Gore has engaged in unfair methods of competition. All of this comes after Gore lost a lengthy legal battle with the company that created OutDry products, in which Gore tried to have the European Patent Office (EPO) withdraw OutDry’s patent. Details about the legal battle can be read in this article by MF Fashion.
As times change, minds change. Companies that continue to develop products filled with toxic chemicals are going to become targets of a newer generation of people that are interested in being eco-friendly and healthy. If the companies that have been around for half a century don’t change their ways, they will eventually be phased out. And we are actually witnessing that happening with Gore-tex. The companies that carried Gore-tex products for years now realize that those products do not represent their core values. Gore-tex products rely on materials that are toxic to both humans and the environment. And it seems that the makers of Gore-tex are more interested in defending their products and fighting their competitors, instead of admitting to their past mistakes and working towards a new eco-friendly future.
So… we say… “No More Gore-tex!”
Look for a future blog post that discusses more eco-friendly alternatives to Gore-tex!
Gore-tex’s webpage devoted to PFCs:
Gore-tex’s fact sheet on PFCs:
Greenpeace’s detailed chemical report on PFCs:
MF Fashion’s article about OutDry vs. Gore-tex:
Minnesota Department of Health’s overview of PFCs:
OregonLive’s article about Columbia Sportswear vs. Gore-tex: