"We are confident that we will achieve our goal of completely eliminating hazardous chemicals from production," explained Bettina Roth, Head of Quality Management at VAUDE. These efforts have also been recognized by Greenpeace: "VAUDE takes its corporate obligations seriously and is a living example of the fact that transparency and the regulation of global supply chains is possible. The company is showing the rest of the outdoor sector how to move towards a sustainable recycling economy. The substitution of hazardous chemicals is at the forefront and the company has initiatives for ecological design, durability, rental and repair to extend the life of their products," said Viola Wohlgemuth, Consumption and Chemistry Campaigner at Greenpeace, e.V.
By voluntarily signing the Greenpeace Detox Commitment in 2015, VAUDE made a clear commitment to phasing out the use of hazardous chemicals by 2020 and to reporting transparently on the process. A major challenge: in addition to the PFCs which were the focus of attention, there were another ten critical substance groups that could no longer be used or released into the environment. VAUDE also committed itself to creating responsible business models for more sustainable consumption.
In order to meet its high standards for environmentally friendly products that are free from hazardous substances, VAUDE has been working for years to make the manufacturing processes throughout the supply chain as clean and safe as possible. VAUDE has been a partner of the bluesign® system since 2001, following one of the strictest sustainability standards for textiles. Nevertheless, there were (and continue to be) critical groups of substances that we use due to a lack of alternatives. Although their use and application is strictly regulated by limit values, VAUDE voluntarily began gradually eliminating these chemicals even before the Detox Commitment. "When Greenpeace set its sights on the outdoor industry in 2012 with its Detox Campaign, we saw a great opportunity to finally make a difference across the industry and develop alternatives for chemicals of concern. As a single mid-sized brand, we hadn’t had enough influence with the material manufacturers before that time," said Antje von Dewitz, VAUDE CEO in reflection.
PFC-free: major hurdles have been overcome
Greenpeace's demands were focused on eliminating the use of polyfluorinated and perfluorinated chemicals, known as fluorocarbons or PFCs for short. These are used to produce membranes that make textiles both waterproof and breathable. They are also applied to the outer surface of rain gear to provide durable water repellency. The water-beading effect is what makes a rain jacket effective.
VAUDE had already eliminated the use of PFCs in its membranes by 2011 so the biggest challenge was to provide the outer fabrics for weatherproof gear with a durable PFC-free water-repellent finish. Public pressure from the Greenpeace campaign provided the push the industry needed which also affected the chemical supply industry. "We worked closely with our producers and suppliers, organized round table discussions and brought together partners who were used to acting as competitors. It was successful. Promising new developments came to the market which led to testing, testing, and more testing," reported Bettina Roth. Each different fabric and material reacts uniquely depending on its surface properties or color, so several hundred material tests with the PFC-free alternatives were necessary to achieve process reliability. VAUDE has now succeeded in making its water-repellent apparel, footwear and backpacks PFC-free. Greenpeace has also confirmed this: "VAUDE is meeting its Detox Commitment after eliminating PFCs from its production line and continues to report honestly on its progress. As an industry pioneer, VAUDE still needs to ensure that wastewater data from suppliers is publicly available so that civic institutions can transparently track the data behind the reported progress," said Viola Wohlgemuth.
Unfortunately, VAUDE had to go back to a PFC-containing finish for two styles of weatherproof jackets and weatherproof pants in the current Winter Collection 2020, as acceptable water-repellent properties could not be achieved with PFC-free alternatives. This was a setback that shows how complex and challenging the transition to pollutant-free chemicals continues to be. "We were all the more pleased that we managed to ensure full functionality again starting in 2021 with our PFC-free Eco Finish," explained Bettina Roth. In both the Summer 2021 and Winter 2021/22 Collections, all our apparel products will again be 100 % 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. It is now working at full speed on finding substitutions for the remaining four groups, and is confident of achieving this. To ensure compliance with stated limits and regulations, VAUDE is working with a Manufacturing Restricted Substances List (MRSL). This is a list of substances that are either completely prohibited or restricted by limit values and it applies to the entire manufacturing process. It’s not just a matter of obtaining a pollutant-free end product, but of taking all stages of the manufacturing process into account, from yarn production, weaving, dyeing, coating/laminating to waterproofing of the outer surface of finished product. "100 % of our primary partners have signed our M/RSL and committed themselves to compliance with our requirements, which is verified by periodical wastewater tests," explained Bettina Roth. As a "Friend" of the "Zero Discharge of Hazardous Chemicals" (ZDHC) association, VAUDE adheres to their guidelines for testing wastewater and sewage sludge in textile production.
Forward-looking ideas & business models for sustainable consumption
By signing the Detox Commitment, VAUDE has not only committed itself to avoiding the use of hazardous chemicals, but also to developing innovative business models for more sustainable consumption. Since that point, many ideas have been implemented and measures have been initiated that are helping to keep the ecological footprint of products as small as possible. For example, the outdoor brand has launched the eBay Upcycling Store – a material exchange platform for creative people, where residual materials that accumulate in manufacturing are auctioned off for a good cause. The platform is open to other companies from the textile industry and hopes to provide motivation for them to also offer their valuable residual materials instead of disposing of them. With its iRentit service, VAUDE has been offering a shared economy platform since 2017 where gear can be rented and used by several people. To ensure that the products can be used for as long as possible, VAUDE also focuses strongly on the issue of reparability. The idea that products should be able to be repaired is firmly anchored in the company’s design process using a rating system. VAUDE also has an in-house Repair Workshop and cooperates with the online platform iFixit as well as Repair Cafés. The VAUDE Academy for Sustainable Business was founded in May 2020 to help the successful sustainability pioneer share its experience and expertise with interested companies, organizations and educational institutions.
Additional information in the VAUDE Sustainability Report:
Hazardous Chemicals Management System:
More about VAUDE’s sustainable projects & services: