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REI to stop selling clothes, cookware with 'forever chemicals'

caption: REI Seattle Interior Outdoor Collective
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REI Seattle Interior Outdoor Collective

Sumner, Washington-based REI has announced it will stop selling items that contain "forever chemicals" used in waterproof clothing and camping cookware.

It's a pivotal move for the company and its more than 1,000 brand partners.

PFAS, which stands for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, are known as "forever chemicals" because they don't break down over time. They are present in most of the waterproof clothing and cookware sold in the U.S., including at REI stores.

Just how much apparel contains the toxic substances? More than 70% of items sold as water-proof or stain-proof in the U.S. contain PFAS, according to a 2022 study by Toxic Free Future.

That same non-profit lobbied REI for the past 18 months to kick the chemicals to the curb, soliciting letters from thousands of consumers and supporting rallies about PFAS outside REI locations.

Mike Schade of Toxic Free Future says REI was an obvious choice for them to lobby.

"REI is one of the largest and most significant retailers in the outdoor industry," Shade says. "Also, as a company dedicated to sustainability and bringing people into the outdoors, we think that they're perfect to lead the outdoor industry away from these toxic forever chemicals.”

The outdoor retail giant announced Tuesday it would make the change, and require its suppliers to do the same. The PFAS ban is outlined on the company's product standards document.

PFAS have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

REI aims to have all cookware and apparel sold in its stores free of PFAS by fall of 2024. The one exception is professional apparel for expeditions, with a 2026 goal date for those items.

Schade says he hopes REI's decision will spur other companies to ban forever chemicals. His group is currently lobbying DICK's Sporting Goods.

REI has taken a stand against a toxin before. REI and Nalgene pulled tens of thousands of water bottles (and other kitchen items) from its shelves in 2008 because they contained the chemical BPA.

But this latest ban is more involved, applying to all cookware and apparel, with special attention on the PFAS heavy category of waterproof clothing.

Schade says REI is the right company to lead the outdoor industry on this issue. Finding replacement products, for one, is an area that requires innovation.

"Some of the alternatives that are out there, like paraffin waxes, are safer from an environmental perspective, but others may also pose hazards," he says. "So, we really would like to see REI take the next step and ensure that the substances their suppliers switch to are truly safe for public health and the environment."

REI media contacts said they were unable to make a company leader available for an interview.

A statement by the company says, "durable water-repellent (DWR) finish is sometimes necessary to achieve water resistance and meet the durability and performance expectations of our customers."

"The use of PFAS-based chemistry for DWR finishes," the company says, "has been standard practice for performance textiles and other applications, due to its durability and performance benefits. REI has been working to address the use of PFAS via the rigorous chemicals management program we have in place for the products we sell under the REI Co-op brand."

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