Why is nobody talking about outdoor gear’s PFAS problem at Snow Show?

Much of our outdoor clothing and gear is waterproofed using toxic PFAS chemicals, but a few industry leaders are beginning to recognize it's not worth the impacts on our health and environment.

Toxic threats

Cross country skiers on a ski trail
Emily Rogers

Former Zero Out Toxics, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Last week, the Outdoor Retailer Association hosted the Snow Show, an annual convention that brings together outdoor gear brands in Denver. The convention is a chance for retailers to discover new brands and products to sell and engage with a growing community of outdoor enthusiasts. This year, after significant growth in outdoor activities during the pandemic, the Snow Show promised to have 350 brands present as well as resources about emerging trends in the outdoor industry.


One trend that shouldn’t be ignored is growing consumer concerns over per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, commonly referred to as PFAS.These toxic chemicals should not be in outdoor clothing and gear in the first place. Unfortunately, however, this ever-growing class of chemicals is used in a wide variety of consumer products, including outdoor gear. PFAS are generally  used in outdoor gear to make products waterproof and grease-resistant or in the case of ski wax, to reduce friction and improve glide. 


Often referred to as “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down, these chemicals have been linked to a wide range of negative health impacts, including liver disease, fertility issues and cancer. Over time, PFAS build up in the environment and in our bodies, compounding their negative health effects. With 98% of Americans already having detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, work needs to be done to stop the continuous flow and build up of these chemicals in the environment and our bodies. 


The outdoor industry prides itself on promoting healthy living and active lifestyles. You’d think that industry would avoid using chemicals that pollute our bodies and the environment, and yet, many outdoor brands are failing to phase these toxic chemicals out of their supply chains and products. In fact, consumer advocacy group Toxic-Free Future released a report, Toxic Convenience: The hidden costs of forever chemicals in stain- and water-resistant products, last Wednesday, the same day the Snow Show began, which found that clothing and gear labeled as stain- and water-resistant from several big outdoor retailers contain worrying levels of toxic PFAS. “Forever chemicals” were found in products sold by outdoor clothing and gear retailers like REI, which is why PIRG supports Toxic-Free Future’s campaign calling on REI to commit to phasing out PFAS from its stores.


While the findings from this report are troubling, there are some companies that have taken it upon themselves to protect their customers and the environment by phasing out PFAS from their supply chains and products. Brands like Patagonia and The North Face have recently made public commitments to working on eliminating PFAS from their products over the next few years. Fjällräven and Keen are among the brands that have already begun phasing out PFAS from their products. These industry leaders should be celebrated and more brands should commit to following suit to protect consumers and the places we love from these toxic chemicals.


Brands that are taking the lead on eliminating PFAS should celebrate these advancements and promote awareness about the toxic threat of PFAS at the Outdoor Retailer Association’s Snow Show. Hopefully, over the next year we will see more brands following suit and next year’s convention will have 350 outdoor clothing and gear brands committed to PFAS-free outdoor products. After all, when we go outside to enjoy all that nature has to offer, we shouldn’t be leaving a toxic trail of pollution behind us.


Emily Rogers

Former Zero Out Toxics, Advocate, U.S. PIRG Education Fund