A growing number of U.S. state bans are forcing clothing companies to find less toxic alternatives to per- or polyfluorinated substances — called PFAS for short — when making shirts, hats and rain jackets that are water- and stain-resistant.
California and New York have PFAS bans in apparel that take effect in 2025, while Maine banned PFAS in consumer products, including apparel, starting in 2030. The bans are focused on keeping this broad family of chemicals, which have been linked to cancer and other health impacts, out of new products. But that leaves a loophole for the continued sale and circulation of existing PFAS-made products in secondhand markets, at a time when buying used is only getting more popular. The used apparel industry surged to $177 billion in global sales in 2022, according to a recent report by the online resale retailer ThredUp. And sales are projected to double to $350 billion by 2027.
“Should we really continue reselling products that contain fundamentally hazardous chemicals?” says Mike Schade, director of the environmental group Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program. “A circular economy is going to be an utter failure if we recirculate dangerous chemicals.”
ThredUp ranks No. 781 in the Top 1000, Digital Commerce 360’s database of the largest North American online retailers.
Secondhand shopping and sustainability
Meanwhile, companies are embracing resale, renting and other circular business models as a way to cut environmental waste and boost their own sustainability credentials. In September, Swiss athletic brand On launched a resale site; a month later, Chinese fast fashion giant Shein did as well. The high-end outdoor clothing brand Canada Goose jumped into resale this past January, followed by Hennes & Mauritz AB announcing in March that it would team up with ThredUp to sell used clothing and accessories.
Restrictions on clothes with PFAS
PFAS chemicals are used in a range of products, including textiles, cosmetics and firefighting foam. From disposing of industrial waste to doing a load of laundry, there are a number of ways these substances find their way into the environment. And once they’re there, PFAS can persist in water and soil for long periods of time, earning them the nickname “forever chemicals.”
A wave of restrictions are coming online to limit PFAS in some or all applications. The restrictions focus on getting forever chemicals out of industrial supply chains for good. The emphasis has been on “turning off the tap” of PFAS, says Yiliqi, a scientist and project manager at the environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council, who goes by one name.
Schade says he hopes there will be more attention on getting PFAS out of legacy products as well. But dealing with PFAS in existing products isn’t easy.
“Once it’s in the clothing, it’s really hard for us to tell or deal with it,” Yiliqi says. Her advice is for people to avoid, where possible, new and used products that they know have PFAS. There isn’t always an explicit label that says “PFAS-free” or something similar. In such cases, she assumes descriptions about water- and stain-resistance likely mean these chemicals were involved.
PFAS in the fashion world
It’s unclear who in the fashion world is thinking about PFAS and secondhand sustainability. Even companies leading the way in both clearing forever chemicals from their supply chain and offering secondhand products were silent on the overlap. Patagonia Inc. and North Face’s parent company VF Corp. declined to comment. Both of them have taken steps to remove PFAS from their supply chains and both of offer resale options. Canada Goose Holdings Inc., another retailer phasing out PFAS and new to resale, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
When asked about PFAS chemicals, ThredUp co-founder and CEO James Reinhart said he wasn’t familiar. “I will look it up,” he told Bloomberg Green.
Maxine Bédat says the issue has yet to gain much traction within the circularity community. Bédat is the founder and director of fashion-focused think tank the New Standard Institute.
“As we attempt to transition into a better place, a just society, or whatever term we’re giving it, it’s not going to be a clean transition,” she says. She notes the impracticality of suggesting everyone simply get rid of their clothes and start over. “There will be challenges along the way, and right now there’s no easy solution here.”
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