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Outdoor brand Vaude wants to ban harmful chemicals completely from production.
In 2015, VAUDE signed the Greenpeace Detox Commitment with the goal of consistently eliminating chemicals of concern, such as the controversial PFCs, from the manufacturing process by 2020. The result: The VAUDE clothing collection has been PFC-free since 2018; since 2020, this also applies to all shoes and backpacks. A total of seven out of eleven harmful substance groups have already been completely eliminated from production, and the sustainable outdoor brand has made great progress with four others. “We are confident that we will achieve our goal of completely banning harmful chemicals from production,” explains Bettina Roth, Head of Quality Management at VAUDE. These efforts are also recognised by Greenpeace: “VAUDE takes its corporate due diligence seriously and is thus a living example that transparency and regulation of global supply chains is possible. It shows the rest of the outdoor sector how to move towards a sustainable circular economy. Here, the substitution of hazardous chemicals is at the top of the list and there are initiatives for ecological design, durability, rental and repair to extend the life of products,” says Viola Wohlgemuth, Campaigner Consumption and Chemistry at Greenpeace e.V.
By voluntarily signing the Greenpeace Detox Commitment in 2015, VAUDE made a clear commitment to gradually eliminate chemicals of concern by 2020 and to report transparently on this. A big challenge: In addition to the PFCs, which were the focus, there were ten other critical substance groups whose use and release into the environment had to be avoided. Furthermore, VAUDE has committed to creating responsible business models for more sustainable consumption.
In order to meet the high standards for environmentally friendly and pollutant-free products, VAUDE has been working for years to make the manufacturing processes in the entire supply chain as clean and safe as possible. VAUDE has been a partner of the bluesign® system since 2001 and thus follows one of the strictest sustainability standards for textiles. Nevertheless, there were and are critical substance groups that are approved and used for lack of alternatives. Their use is strictly regulated by limit values; however, even before the Detox Commitment, VAUDE voluntarily undertook to eliminate these chemicals step by step. “When Greenpeace targeted the outdoor industry with the Detox campaign in 2012, we saw a great opportunity to finally get things moving across the industry and to develop alternatives for chemicals of concern. As a single medium-sized brand, we didn’t have enough influence with the material manufacturers until then,” says Antje von Dewitz, VAUDE Managing Director, looking back.
PFC-free: major challenges mastered
Greenpeace’s demands focused on the renunciation of polyfluorinated and perfluorinated chemicals, known as fluorocarbons or PFCs for short. On the one hand, these are used in the production of membranes that make textiles waterproof and at the same time breathable. On the other hand, they are applied to the outer material of rain products to make them permanently water-repellent. The so-called beading effect is what makes a rain jacket.
VAUDE has not used PFCs in membranes since 2011. So the biggest challenge was to provide the outer fabrics for weather protection clothing with a durable PFC-free water-repellent finish. Public pressure from the Greenpeace campaign got things moving in the industry and thus also in the chemical supply industry. “We worked closely with our producers and suppliers, organised round tables and brought together partners who normally compete. With success – promising, new developments came onto the market, which meant in the next step: test, test, test,” Bettina Roth reports. Because different substances react differently depending on the surface texture or colour, so several hundred material tests with the PFC-free alternatives were necessary to get process reliability. In the meantime, VAUDE has managed to make its clothing collection, shoes and backpacks PFC-free and water-repellent. This is also confirmed by Greenpeace: “VAUDE achieves its Detox commitments, having been able to eliminate PFCs from its production and continues to report honestly on its progress. As an industry pioneer, it still needs to ensure that wastewater data from suppliers is publicly available so that civil society can also transparently track the data behind the reported progress,” says Viola Wohlgemuth.
Unfortunately, VAUDE had to resort to a PFC-containing finish for two weather protection jackets and trousers in the current 2020 winter collection, as the desired water-repellent property could not be achieved with the PFC-free versions. This was a setback that shows how complex and challenging the switch to pollutant-free chemicals still is. “We are all the more pleased that we have managed to ensure functionality again with our PFC-free Eco Finish finish from 2021 onwards,” explains Bettina Roth. In both the summer 2021 and winter 2021/22 collections, all clothing products at VAUDE will again be finished completely PFC-free.
Seven of eleven substance groups eliminated
PFCs are only one of eleven substance groups that VAUDE is focusing on. The outdoor brand has already completely eliminated seven substance groups. For the remaining four groups, the outdoor brand is working at full speed on substitution and is confident of achieving this. To ensure compliance with the limits and regulations, VAUDE works with the so-called Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL). This is a list of substances that are either completely banned or restricted by limit values and which applies to the entire manufacturing process. So it’s not just about getting a contaminant-free end product, but taking into account all stages of production – from yarn production to weaving, dyeing, lamination and finishing on the outer fabric of the finished product. “100 % percent of our main suppliers have signed our M/RSL, committing to comply with our requirements, which is checked via regular effluent tests,” explains Bettina Roth. As a “Friend” of the “Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals” (ZDHC) association, VAUDE adheres to their guidelines for testing waste water and sewage sludge in textile production.
Forward-looking ideas & business models for sustainable consumption
By signing the Detox Commitment, VAUDE not only committed itself to doing without harmful chemicals, but also to developing innovative business models for more sustainable consumption. Since then, many ideas have been implemented and measures launched that help to keep the ecological footprint of the products as small as possible. For example, the outdoor brand has launched the eBay Upcycling Store – a material exchange for creative people, where leftover materials that arise in the manufactory are auctioned off for a good cause. The platform is open to other companies from the textile industry, which are to be motivated to also offer valuable material remnants there instead of disposing of them. With the rental service iRentit, VAUDE has been offering a shareconomy platform since 2017, through which equipment can be rented and thus used by several people. To ensure that the products can be used for as long as possible, VAUDE also focuses strongly on the idea of repair. Repairability is firmly anchored in the design process via an evaluation system. VAUDE also has its own repair workshop and cooperates with the online platform iFixit and repair cafés. Through the “VAUDE Academy for Sustainable Business”, founded in May 2020, the successful sustainability pioneer passes on its experience and expertise to interested companies, organisations and educational institutions.