REI Pursuing New Testing Method to Eliminate Flame Retardants

The co-op has started transitioning away from the chemical treatment in its brand tents.

Update (April 2021): In summer 2020, a new flammability standard for recreational camping tents sold in the U.S., called ASTM F3431,was published. In addition, in early 2021, an updated version of the CPAI-84 standard was published, establishing ASTM F3431 as the relevant flammability standard for tents sold in the U.S. REI Co-op and a cohort of leading tent manufacturers in the Outdoor Industry Association played an instrumental role in creating the new ASTM F3431 standard.

Going forward, REI Co-op will align with the performance requirements outlined by ASTM F3431 for its own tents and will work with partner brands to follow suit. Since it is feasible to meet these requirements without the use of flame-retardant chemicals, adopting the new standards will support the co-op’s transition away from the use of flame retardants in its REI brand tents. The REI Co-op Arete ASL 2 was the first REI Co-op tent to transition to completely flame retardant-free in fall 2020. Other REI Co-op tents are on track to transition completely away from flame retardants in future seasons. The co-op will also begin exploring new lightweight, durable materials that were previously unavailable due to incompatibility with flame-retardant chemical coatings.  

REI Co-op has shared plans to align with the performance requirements of the ASTM F3431 flammability standard that was published in the summer of 2020. This will help enable the brand’s transition away from flame-retardant finishes that began in fall 2020. 

This announcement is a major milestone in a long journey. “Finding a solution took extensive collaboration across a wide range of industry partners and passionate co-op employees,” says Scott F. Smith, manager of test engineering for REI Co-op. 

In the early 1900s, fires in large event pavilions (think: circus tents) weren’t uncommon. At this time, tents were made of cotton canvas and coated in paraffin, a highly flammable wax. These fires resulted in numerous injuries and fatalities, which in turn lead to the creation of tent-flammability testing standards and several state-level regulations in the 1970s. Since then, tent uses and the materials used to build tents have evolved, while the testing standard has not. 

Until recently, the primary tent-flammability testing method in North America was a standard called CPAI-84. Created in 1976 by the Canvas Products Association International, the flammability standard was intended to test for fire risk in paraffin-coated canvas event tents and ended up being used to test all tents, from backpacking and car-camping tents to ice-fishing shelters. Another issue: Studies show that some of the chemicals used in flame-retardant coatings (which have also been used in products like furniture, mattresses, children’s toys and building materials) are potentially harmful both to the environment and to human health

The CPAI-84 flammability standard, which saw minor revisions in 1995 but had remained largely unchanged before it was updated in early 2021, is used by most brands that sell camping tents in the country today. (Because some states require tents sold within their boundaries to comply with CPAI-84, brands often adopt the standard to meet state-level expectations.) To comply with the previous version of CPAI-84, most tent fabrics had to be coated with additive flame-retardant finishes, which are intended to prevent the start and spread of fire. 

As of January 2021, however, CPAI-84 has established the performance requirements from the recently published ASTM F3431 method. Since it is possible to meet these requirements without the use of flame-retardant chemicals, the updated CPAI-84 should help enable the industry to move away from the use of such finishes.

After it co-sponsored a study in 2015 that showed that people who handle car-camping and backpacking tents extensively (like tent makers) are exposed to the potentially harmful flame-retardant chemicals, REI partnered with the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA), other brands, standard-setting groups and regulatory agencies in the U.S. and Canada to find a better solution. 

The cohort gathered a decade’s worth of data on tent-related injuries from around the world, both in countries where the legacy version of CPAI-84 (and thus, flame retardants) has been in use (the U.S. and Canada) and where it hasn’t (Japan, Australia, England and the EU). The results showed that fire-related injuries are low—in both tents treated with flame retardants and those that are not. Researchers believe this finding is due to the evolution of lightweight, synthetic materials, which are inherently lower risk for flammability. 

This led the group to support the adoption of ASTM F3431 into CPAI-84, so REI and other tent manufacturers may begin eliminating flame retardants completely. Co-op designers hope to transition away from the finishes fully, though there may be some instances in certain products or materials where application is necessary. Likewise, REI intends to work with brand partners to avoid the use of flame-retardant chemicals whenever possible.


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