In the wintertime, perhaps more than any other time of year, we prize our gear. Particularly our outdoor gear making it possible and even fun to be adventuring in the wind, cold, rain and fog. I suppose that’s why they say, there’s no bad weather, just bad clothing. Bottom line, if you’re enjoying outdoor activities, you’ve got performance gear on.
As our work is all about the chemicals in our stuff, I always challenge myself to buy things without harmful chemicals even for items that MADE SAFE® hasn’t certified – but in winter – eeesh! The nasty stuff is especially hard to escape.
Unlike summer when it’s hot and all you need is an organic cotton tee and shorts to avoid most chemicals and synthetics, in the colder climes it’s much trickier.
In winter, if you want to enjoy outdoor time in the frigid temps it’s all about what you’re wearing. You start with layers. The most available, cheapest, and common layers are made of synthetics which require chemicals at every possible turn – in the manufacturing, washing and treatment of the fabrics. Then, once you start to use them, they can shed the chemicals.
Let’s take a closer look.
INSIDE THE LAYERS
The base layer, which sits closest to your skin, is usually made from polyester or nylon. It is often paired with spandex to provide stretch and help the fabric retain its shape wear after wear. These apparel items, essentially made from plastic materials, are often designed to ‘wick’ moisture away from your skin while making direct contact. Unfortunately, this plastic material won’t break down in the environment, can’t be upcycled or recycled well, and sheds microplastics into our air, water and soil. These “performance” items are contributing to our massive plastic pollution problem. They are also highly flammable, so many are treated with chemical flame retardants which are persistent pollutants and harmful to humans as well.
To avoid these problems the simple solution is to make the base layer from natural materials that will wick and warm such as merino wool and silk. (Cotton doesn’t help wick moisture so it’s not the best base layer material in the cold.) All of this goes for your socks too. I’ve personally found that merino wool socks are warmer than their synthetic cousins. And these natural fibers don’t retain sweat and odor in the same way so they’re easier to wash and maintain.
One thing to avoid in these layers is anything made with nanomaterials or antimicrobial fibers. It’s unnecessary. And they merely introduce more chemicals that may get through the skin and have a chemical cost we don’t yet know enough about. Better to avoid.
Next up is the middle layer, which you want to use for real warmth, making wool or down superior natural choices. For most activities and conditions, you can skip the other performance fabrics here, too.
Last but not least comes the outer layer, and that is where things get especially tricky. Your average winter coat probably has been made from or treated with a material to make it wind, rain and or snow proof. The most common product used for this is GORE-TEX fabric: Part of what makes it waterproof, windproof and “breathable” is the fact that it’s made with perfluorinated chemistries – per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Think: nonstick like those frying pans that are decidedly unhealthy for humans and our environment.
WORTH THE POLLUTION PRICE TAG?
Examples of the deleterious effects linked to PFAS are liver damage, cancer, and reproductive toxicity in humans, and bioaccumulation, persistence, and groundwater contamination in the environment. PFAS are considered endocrine disruptors, meaning they mimic, block or interfere with hormones in the body’s endocrine system. The industries creating these chemicals knew about their harms since the 1970s yet continued to produce them, and it has only been quite recently that there has been talk of regulating PFAS in the United States.
PFAS can also be found in various types of footwear for its ability to repel water. There are other chemical concerns with footwear beyond PFAS, as most shoe bases are made from foam. Think: the innocuous-looking sneaker base that is typically made from foam leftover from the carpet industry. And guess what those are treated with? Chemical flame retardants. Much like PFAS, flame retardant chemicals are also endocrine disruptors that have been linked to cancer and fertility issues, among many other concerns. Sadly, they too, are persistent in the environment.
All of this shows you that harmful chemicals are being used, sometimes with excellent performance! But this begs the question: Is the performance of these toxic chemicals and synthetic materials worth the pollution price tag? For people living in a colder climate or spending time outside during the winter months, there is a necessity for gear to make this possible. In one sense, these chemicals may feel unavoidable if not absolutely crucial due to the circumstances.
Fortunately, there are ways to make better choices in the midst of an industry that is heavily reliant on performance. If you are in the market for new winter gear, you can avoid synthetic materials and instead search out base or mid-layers made of natural fibers. When shopping for outer layers, look for companies that are proudly manufacturing without the use of PFAS (PFCs) such as PTFE. Examples of companies moving towards the elimination of these chemicals are Prana, Patagonia, and The North Face. For waterproof shoes, actively avoid models that advertise GORE-TEX; there are nontoxic DIY alternatives, including nature’s most natural waterproofing agent, beeswax.
While the area of outdoor gear—and specifically winter outdoor gear—is a tough area to tackle when it comes to sustainability, there are better and better options arising every year. I hope this encourages you to think differently about your winter gear and pursue options that are better for both you and the planet.