REI leadership addressed PFAS problem in annual member meeting but ignored nationwide pressure to end the use of toxic PFAS
Members, customers, and health advocates express disappointment in REI’s failure to take action to protect our health and environment
SEATTLE, WA—Yesterday, during its annual member meeting, REI leadership failed to commit to phasing out toxic PFAS “forever chemicals” from the products it makes and sells. The company addressed the PFAS problem during the meeting following nationwide public pressure led by Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program, including on its own message board. However, REI’s response did not provide new commitments nor a date or timeline towards phasing out these toxic “forever chemicals.” REI’s response, made by Ben Steele, Chief Customer Officer, repeated the company’s prior chemical management efforts—which do not ban all PFAS. A transcript of REI’s response at the annual member meeting on May 16, 2022 can be found below.
Since last year, Toxic-Free Future’s Mind the Store program has led a national campaign urging REI and other retailers to ban PFAS in outdoor apparel and other textiles.
In response to REI’s invitation to submit questions for its annual meeting, REI members spoke out on the co-op’s message board demanding action on PFAS—totaling more than 90% of all comments. This public outcry comes after multiple emails and petitions were made to the company and signed by more than 110,000 REI members and customers as well as a letter from 100+ organizations representing millions of people.
In response to yesterday’s meeting, the following statements were made:
“The meeting was a big disappointment,” said Mike Schade, director of Mind the Store, a program of Toxic-Free Future. “The company shared no new commitments to address the PFAS pollution crisis impacting millions of Americans. REI failed to meaningfully respond to the tens of thousands of members demanding action on PFAS. The company must lead the outdoor apparel industry away from these unnecessary forever chemicals.”
“REI’s failure to commit to phasing out PFAS at its annual meeting was shocking given its commitment to sustainability and climate solutions,” said Laurie Valeriano, Executive Director of Toxic-Free Future. “The failure of REI to state when it will end the use of PFAS in all products is not acceptable, especially when these chemicals contaminate drinking water and breast milk, pollute low-income communities and communities of color, and contribute to the climate crisis.”
“Policies to restrict PFAS in apparel have already been introduced in multiple states across the country from New York to California to Minnesota, as part of their efforts to protect communities from this toxic threat. In fact, REI’s home state of Washington is moving the fastest to restrict PFAS in apparel,” said Sarah Doll, national director of Safer States. “Companies like REI need to get ahead of this curve and move to eliminate PFAS products from their inventory.”
The meeting follows Toxic-Free Future’s original testing, released earlier this year, that found PFAS in most stain- and water-resistant products—including items purchased at REI and other retailers. It also follows a peer-reviewed study, led by scientists at Toxic-Free Future, the University of Washington, and Indiana University, that found PFAS in 100% of breast milk samples tested and that newer PFAS build up in people. Toxic-Free Future’s September 2021 investigative report revealed that a U.S. PFAS manufacturing facility is a major source of both PFAS pollution and ozone-depleting chemicals that contribute to health problems and climate change.
In April, REI received a failing ‘F’ grade in a national scorecard ranking PFAS policy commitments across dozens of retailers published by NRDC, Fashion FWD, and U.S. PIRG Education Fund. Conversely, competitor Patagonia earned a ‘B’ grade—the highest grade of all the outdoor apparel brands surveyed—and is the only outdoor brand with a commitment to phase out all PFAS in all products by 2024.
In March, in REI’s home state of Washington, Governor Inslee signed a bill into law (HB 1694) that tackles PFAS “forever chemicals” in a broad range of products, including apparel, on the fastest timeline in the nation, by 2025. State policies to ban PFAS in apparel have also been introduced in California, Minnesota, New York, and Rhode Island.
REI’S RESPONSE AT ANNUAL MEMBER MEETING ON MAY 16, 2022
In response to the member question: “When will REI ban PFAS in the products it sells?,” Ben Steele, REI’s Chief Customer Officer, stated:
“At the co-op, we’re committed to selling high-quality, durable gear and always seeking to minimize impacts to the environment and people. A durable water repellent finish (or DWR) is sometimes necessary to meet the durability and performance expectations of our customers and members. Many DWR finishes utilize PFAS-based chemistry. Now, we’ve led the outdoor industry in mandating the phase-out of long-chain PFAS for key product categories through our product impact standards. And we’re expanding that to include all PFAS in categories like ski wax and aftermarket garment treatments. Brands across our portfolio have transitioned their DWR chemistries since we released the standards. And we actively encourage more retailers and more brands to join in these efforts. We’re also proud to already be offering PFAS-free waterproof apparel in many categories. We’re committed to continuing to elevate our chemical management efforts and expectations across more than 1,000 outdoor brands that make up our offering to our customers and members. As we identify pathways and opportunities for phasing out PFAS or making other improvements in our chemical management, we will pursue them and as always, we will share our progress with our community.”
Chemical companies sell PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) for application to paper and textiles as stain-resistant, water-repellent, and grease-proofing treatments.
A growing body of scientific research has found links between exposures to PFAS and a wide range of health problems including a weaker immune system, cancer, increased cholesterol levels, pregnancy-induced hypertension, liver damage, reduced fertility, and increased risk of thyroid disease. PFAS are often referred to as “forever” chemicals because they are not known to break down in the environment and can easily move through soil to drinking water. With remarkable persistence and mobility, PFAS have become global pollutants that threaten the health of people and wildlife.
A 2021 peer-reviewed study led by scientists at Toxic-Free Future (TFF), the University of Washington, and Indiana University found PFAS in 100% of breast milk samples tested and that newer PFAS build up in people. Toxic-Free Future’s investigative report revealed that a PFAS manufacturing facility is a major source of both PFAS pollution and ozone-depleting chemicals that contribute to health problems and climate change. And, earlier this year, TFF released a study that found PFAS in most products labeled stain- and water-resistant.
State governments are taking legislative and regulatory actions to phase out PFAS in products to prevent contamination in favor of safer alternatives. For example, laws in ME and WA have given state agencies authority to ban PFAS in a wide range of products. Eight states including CA, CT, ME, MD, MN, NY, VT, and WA have enacted phase-outs of PFAS in food packaging. Four states including CA, ME, MD and VT have adopted restrictions on PFAS in carpets, rugs, and fabric treatments. With new legislation adopted this year, WA will be evaluating safer alternatives for PFAS in other products such as apparel, firefighter turnout gear and others with a timeline of adopting restrictions by 2025. Ten states including CA, CO, CT, IL, ME, MD, NH, NY, VT and WA have put in place bans on the sale of firefighting foam containing PFAS.
Retailers are increasingly adopting safer chemicals policies to eliminate PFAS in key product sectors, according to the annual Retailer Report Card. Many outdoor and textiles brands have announced policies to reduce and eliminate PFAS. Patagonia has pledged to eliminate all PFAS across its entire product line by 2024. Last year, Polartec announced it was eliminating PFAS in its DWR (durable water repellent) treatments across its line of performance fabrics. Lowe’s and The Home Depot are no longer selling indoor residential carpets or rugs with PFAS, and Lowe’s also committed to stop selling fabric protection sprays with PFAS. In addition, 22 retailers selling food or food packaging have announced steps to reduce or eliminate PFAS in food packaging at their more than 140,000 stores.
Toxic-Free Future (TFF) is a nonprofit research and advocacy organization that advances the use of safer products, chemicals, and practices through science, organizing, advocacy, and consumer engagement to ensure a healthier tomorrow. Safer Chemicals Healthy Families is a Toxic-Free Future program dedicated to achieving strong federal policies that protect the public from toxic chemicals. Mind the Store is a Toxic-Free Future program that challenges retailers to eliminate toxic chemicals and replace them with safer alternatives, and scores major retailers on their safer chemicals policies in an annual Retailer Report Card.
Safer States is an alliance of diverse environmental health organizations and coalitions from across the nation committed to building a healthier world. By harnessing place-based power, the alliance works to safeguard people and the planet from toxic chemicals and sparks innovative solutions for a more sustainable future.