How high performance, chemical free mountain brand, Páramo, is cleaning up, pioneering the way for non-toxic manufacture and walking the talk of a pollution free environment
You are probably completely unaware of the fact that, if you're NOT wearing Páramo, then the chances are your ski or snowboard jacket contains toxic chemicals. One good reason to wear Páramo, huh? Another is that Páramo performs better than most outerwear that use harmful PFCs (perfluorinated compounds) in their manufacture and proofing. Which is why we at Style Altitude wear Páramo jackets for skiing, particularly in the colder months of the season. And now Páramo is leading the giants in the outdoor clothing industry, as a paragon of clean manufacturing virtue.
A recent exposé by Greenpeace outed the major brands in the industry for using PFCs, which are toxic and harmful to the environment, polluting the outdoors, ironically the market that they are catering for. Significantly, British Páramo, founded by Nikwax creator, Nick Brown, is the only outerwear company to have signed up to Greenpeace's Detox commitment.
But, despite being hailed by Greenpeace, worn by mountain rescue and the British Arctic Survey teams, Páramo has been under the ski and snowboard rider's radar. Until now.
So how has Páramo managed to walk the talk and achieve the Holy Grail of chemical free manufacture when nearly all of the big brands profess their love of the environment while ignoring any pressure to clean up?
And how is Páramo, a minnow among the bigger fish in the global world of outdoor clothing, going to capitalize on the advantage they now hold over the major brands?
There's only one man who can tell us. I blew a fraction of my annual carbon footprint allowance and drove to Páramo's headquarters in Wadhurst, East Sussex to talk to Nick Brown, the founder of Nikwax and Páramo, about PFCs, pioneering clean manufacture, new fabrics from Nikwax and infiltrating the ski market...
ED. Following Greenpeace's recent testing of top outerwear brands for PFCs, it's shocking that so few of the well known brands are doing anything about it. Except Páramo. How difficult is it to be toxic free?
NB. There are two parts to it essentially. The first part is setting a goal for what you want to do. So it's easy to say we want to be free of PFCs and, probably, everybody in the outdoor industry right now wants to be free of PFCs because some of them are being beaten up extremely hard by Greenpeace. Saying you want to do it is one thing, but the other part is compliance.
So how can we show that we are doing what we said we wanted to do? And that's the hard bit. And it's about setting up back office systems which allow you to check materials that you are buying in and to set up standard contracts with your suppliers so they all agree that they're going to deliver materials without PFCs and then you need some way of checking that what they say is true. And that has to be built into a system that actually can be independently audited by someone else because we can all say we are PFC free . We are using ISO 14001 as our auditing system for enviornmental standards.
So the compliance side is the difficult bit. The deciding you want to do it is easy.
ED. Why did we need PFCs in the first place?
NB. PFCs are a family of products that have some really good characteristics from a technical point of view in that they can be used to achieve high levels of water repellency and, also, levels of oil repellency so creating this wonder material that gives you dirt repellence. Unfortunately the nature of this dirt repllency means that these materials are actually permanently in the environment. They're not broken down by any organisms.
So, on the one hand, you have this benefit; on the other side you've got a massive problem because once you put this stuff into the environment there's actually no natural method of removing it. And that in itself would not be a problem if was not so intensely poisonous.
PFCs started coming into our environment post 1950s. They are highly persistent; there is no biological method of breaking them down. And the problem with these materials is that they are partially compatible with life systems so they also get into organisms like you and me and they are accumulative. They build up. If you had half a gram of this material in your body it would take you 10 years to get rid of half of it even if you had no more entering your body.
ED. How do you ingest it? In the air. Through wearing it? Drinking it in the water?
NB. There are various ways, depending who you are. It's been shown that Faroese children, who eat a lot of fish, have quite high levels of PFCs because the material's been concentrated up the food chain to them. And it's also been shown that the consequence for them is that their immune systems are compromised so they can't respond to an inoculation to something like diphtheria. That's one way.
Another way is that some of these PFCs are actually airborne and, ironically, there's been a move from a C8 to C6 PFCs, and a lot of noise that C6 is safer, but, actually, the new C6s that are in the garments that Greenpeace tested, are more volatile and, therefore, go into the air. And, let's say you're working in an outdoor store, you've got tons of jackets in that store, and there'll be a relatively high level of airborne PFCs. If you're working in an office building, they put a large amount of this stuff onto carpets and it'll be in the air conditioning system.
The levels that it starts to have effect, is incredibly low at 50 parts per billion; less than a milligram in your body, is enough to start affecting you and increasing the chance of cancer and all sorts of other diseases. So it's bad news.
The reason people want to use it now is because of a massive commercial interest. It's because they make money out of it. Because actually, in reality, it's not life and death if your carpet is stain resistant. And for outdoor clothing, stain resistance only lasts until the first wash anyway. And so it's a very superficial thing that's unnecessary for most people. Quite useful if you're a fireman. Or if you're a policeman having petrol thrown at you.
ED. Is it costly to manufacture without using PFCs? Does it have an effect on the price?
NB. It doesn't have to, no. Because non PFC is a minority production at the moment, it will inevitably be more expensive. But when it becomes mainstream it could well be cheaper. You still need chemistry to create water repellency for outdoor clothing. But you want to use chemistry that's not bio accumulatiive.
If you make the most ethically produced and non polluting garments on the planet in terms of outdoor waterproofs, which I believe we do, they're not going to be the cheapest garments out there. What you're basically competing with is very large scale production which is more polluting but far more profitable.
In terms of a goal for the future, it must be finding ways of getting to the scale where you can actually do these environmentally and ethically friendly things and still be more price competitive than other people.
ED. Do you think that consumers are worried about PFCs?
NB. Consumers in Britain and the United States are not yet aware of the problem. But consumers in Central Europe and Scandinavia are very aware. So the reason why the American outdoor brands are getting very very tetchy about this is because they have substantial sales into Germany and Scandinavia. If they were only selling into the States or UK they could basically hold off for another five to 10 years. For as long as they can.
Do I think that wearing a PFC treated jacket is a risk to the outdoor user? I would say the risk is absolutely insignificant. It would be a risk, potentially, to the outdoor shopkeeper because of such a concentration of jackets in recycled air.
ED. Are you going to shout more about being PFC free? Or do you think people will criticise you for just trying to make commercial gains out of being green?
NB. I think we have to be very careful about that. It's important to understand that people buy garments because they want to stay dry and warm. First and foremost.
ED. I'd choose a jacket if I knew it was the ultimate eco jacket!
NB. You'd still want it to work.
ED. Yes but if it did both.I'd be thrilled. Currently, though, I wouldn't know from a rail of jackets which was without PFCs.
Our Tech Editor shredding in one of his favourite Páramo jackets, the Enduro
NB So, first we have to market the fact that the garments work really well. And secondly, we've got to market the fact that we've actually screened them for this toxic material. That's the order in which it's got to go. But, sure, I absolutely think we need to be talking about it.
Relatively in the scale of things, Páramo is still a small brand. There are some very very big brands, which have been mentioned by Greenpeace like North Face, Mammut and Patagonia, who are still using PFCs. On the same day that Greenpeace held their press conference at ISPO, this year, North Face announced that they would be giving up PFCs by 2020.
ED That's still four years away!
NB. It is still a big step forward because that means the whole market place is going to go PFC free. But it will take a lot of work and there will be a lot of confusion and a fair amount of dishonesty en route, from my experience and how I've seen it so far.
ED. So how can other brands be persuaded to turn green?
NB. My impression is that brands know they've got to make that change because if they don't they're going to lose a large amount of money.
A little persuasion from Greenpeace to make top brands join the Detox campaign
ED Because customers will start deciding with their wallets?
NB. Absolutely. It's very interesting in terms of the ISPO trade show that for the last five years, at least, there have been lots of arguments about why it's too difficult to change and why performance is needed and the best available technology, any number of reaasons for not making the changes.
So while everybody was polluting then they were all safe. There was no competition amongst them.
In terms of this last ISPO, the arguments in favour of PFCs were completely routed. It had completely changed from all of this basic excuse making to 'oh my god we really have got to do this, we've got to do this fast and how the hell are we going to do it?'
There was this almost military defeat.
Of course, that's got to get translated into consumer awareness. But the fact is there are a number of brands now who have said, right we're going to do this. Some are more advanced than others.. The fact that they are now competing against the brands who are still using the old technology means that, actually, the amount of PR awareness and publicity that's going to come around this will now just explode.
ED. Can a fabric like Gore-Tex exist without PFCs?
NB. Gore could produce a product without PFCs. The question is would it be exactly the same and would they be able to achieve exactly the same performance? I believe that probably the answer is yes in terms of keeping people dry and warm. The problem for them, it appears, is not actually the technology, it's the marketing juggernaut which bases all of their stuff on this particular technology since day one. I don't think that it's the practical problem, it's the fact that they've got this huge business system that depends on these materials at the moment.
ED. Do you think there should be more political or legal forces to stop companies using PFCs?
NB. I do absolutely think there should be. And there will be.
One really interesting piece of information that I picked up recently, is that almost all of the measurements of hazardous substances and the amount of PFCs in humans have been taken from blood samples. According to the blood samples there's one particular kind of PFC that's C8 which you find in blood rather than other PFCs C6 and C4. There's a really interesting piece of Spanish research on cadavers from Tarragona that shows the different chain lengths of PFC C4, C6, C8 actually get distributed around the body in different places. So you have C4 in the lungs, C6 in the brain and C8 in the blood. The argument has been that C6 is safe because you can't find it in the blood. But actually you'll find there's probably plenty of C6 in the brain. And, similarly, there's plenty of PFC in the brains of polar bears. So actually this stuff distributes itself differently around the body.
The long and the short of it is, C8 products are already being banned, for instance, in Norway. At the moment there is no legislation against C6 but there will be because the German Environmental Protection Agency is looking at all of this research and, in due course, all of these materials will have to be controlled.
ED. What about the UK?
NB. We'll be bound by REACH which is European wide.
ED. Does Páramo have any global expansion plans?
NB. Absolutely. We've set up an office in Germany because we're aware that the benefits of Páramo are more meaningful to Central Europeans in many ways than they are to British people. And that's going really well; we're getting some very good response. And we will, next, go to the United States.
ED. Have you deliberately not expanded too quickly?
NB. As far as Britain is concerned we've built our business on word of mouth to quite a large extent. And recommendations. And the fact is we supply the British Antarctic Survey and the majority of mountain rescue teams choose Páramo.
But actually to hit the European and North American markets you would need a lot more than that. And huge investment. One of the reasons the business is able to do what it does is because it's privately owned but then that's also very limiting in terms of rate of growth. So because it's privately ownded it's able to make decisions, which are more radical, but also that has limitations in terms of where's the cash coming from? Now that we have this opportunity we've got to look at how we address it.
The systems that we've got for excluding PFCs are so far ahead of everybody else that we really have a big opportunity now. And not only that but signing up to the Greenpeace Detox commitment has created publicity for Páramo that's gone absolutely worldwide.
ED. So you're the only company that's signed up?
NB. Yes, the only outdoor company. There are a number of fashion brands signed up. But as soon as any significant outdoor players join there'll be a stampede.
ED. How come in the ski world you are still under the radar?
NB. In terms of Páramo clothing we are but not when it comes to Nikwax, my other business.
One of the problems with Páramo is that we have this lifetime guarantee. If you buy a Páramo jacket, 10 years later that jacket is still working. If you walk down the street in Kendal you'll see jackets 15 years old, which are working. Which means that the most up to date stylish garments are not the ones that people mostly see.
Our fabric systems for the ski business are perfectly matched because you absolutely don't need membranes. But we totally recognise that we've got to up our game in terms of style. We've got a new designer running Páramo development and he's actually a qualified ski instructor as well as an Olympic rower and general sportsman. And he's a post graduate from the London College of Fashion, so he will help drive us in that direction.
ED Just how is Páramo's Analogy fabric better and cleaner than other outdoor fabrics?
NB. In terms of functioning the breathability is, at least, 50 per cent better than the best membranes. The other thing is the fabric system, Analogy has this really important quality called Directionality, which means it moves condensation and moisture towards the outside of the jacket so it actually pushes liquid water away from you. And membrane systems just don't do that.
The overall management of moisture and water coming from your body is infinitely better than the competition.
From an environmental point of view there are, also, a couple of big pluses . The first one is that the system is extremely durable and reproofable and lasts a long time so there is a need to produce fewer jackets.The second one is that the jackets are 100% polyester and, therefore, are completely recyclable - and there are very few waterproof jackets which are completely recyclable.
And a third point is that we have a system where you can trade in your old garments. Some of them get sold on eBay and, recently, we've actually sent some to Calais, the ones that are really old but still working. The ones which are in really terrible condition that come back can be shredded and recycled.
ED But Analagy fabric relies on Nikwax to keep it proofed?
NB. Yes, it does.
ED. And Nikwax doesn't have chemicals involved?
NB. Well, we all have chemicals involved. But harmful ones? It's important to ask that. The ones we need to worry about are the ones which are persistent in the environment; the ones that bio-accumulate so they build up in the eco systems and people's bodies; and the ones which are carcinogenic or affect your health. Nothing that we do falls into those categories.
ED. How did you make Nikwax originally?
NB. The first products that I made were for leather boots. And then in the 1980s, we started developing water based products using water instead of solvents. Then everything went water based.
ED. And any future develpments up your Nikwaxed sleeve?
We are working to produce more raw materials for the outdoor industry. We're producing Nikwax Hydrophobic Down, waterproof down which, using similar technology for the manufacture of our other fabrics, is also PFC free. We're currently working with Berghaus, Rab and a few other brands. We managed to persuade a journalist from German TV to float across a lake in a Nikwax Hydrophobic Down sleeping bag, without sinking or getting wet, which is on Youtube .
Nikwax will increasingly become a material supplier for the outdoor industry. In due course we will have Hydrophobic Down jackets in the Páramo range.
ED. Did you set out to save the planet?
NB. When I started the business I hoped that, at some stage, I might be in a position to have some sort of influence. I was 22 so that's 39 years ago, when I started Nikwax.
The ability to do things has increased. On the one hand we've always tried to minimise our own environmental footprint. We've got more organised about being able to show how we do that in the last five years. And the consequence is that we received the Queen's Award for Sustainable Development, which only 11 companies in the UK received last year. We are the first and only outdoor company to have ever got that award.
Also, I now have more involvement in non profit organisations. I'm on the board of the European Outdoor Conservation Association and a trustee of the World Land Trust. Two charities directly involved with protecting the environment on which I can have a direct influence.
ED. What can people who care about the environment do to help?
NB. There are basically two things. On the one hand, minimise your carbon footprint, which basically is about what vehicle you choose to buy, do you choose to go on the train, do you choose to fly. That is actually very important.
But, equally, you can invest charitable money if you want to. The places where I would recommend would be in preserving rain forests because the loss of rain forest in terms of contributions to carbon immissions is probably as important as the immissions from our vehicles and everything we are doing in terms of burning fossil fuels.
I would recommend World Land Trust who have been perserving rain forests for some time.