Making waterproof gear as green as possible continues to be a struggle for the outdoor industry.
By now, the outdoor industry largely agrees: To be green, we need to get perfluorinated compounds (PFCs) out of gear. Many companies have dropped the most troubling long-chain waterproofing formulas (C8s) for shorter-chain alternatives (C6s), which don't persist as long in the environment. But research conducted by and for Greenpeace and the Environmental Working Group suggests the search for less-toxic alternatives must go on. “Short-chain chemistry is not a solution,” said Greenpeace’s Mirjim Kopp. “It’s just replacing one bad chemistry with another.” One concern: Short-chain chemistries are applied in larger quantities, so more chemicals are released into the environment during manufacturing and over products’ lifespans.
“We don’t have the same body of safety testing for these replacements, and some of the testing we do have indicates they share some of the same concerns about biotoxicity,” agreed David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group.
Searching for a better solution
Nikwax founder Nick Brown launched his company as PFC-free from the start. But while Nikwax has long specialized in water-based after-care products, it’s now developing chemistry for initial applications. Its sister company, Páramo, has offered PFC-free outerwear since 1992.
Páramo’s approach to waterproofing mimics the washing-machine process Nikwax users undertake at home: treating a finished garment to increase water repellency. But such treatments affect different fabrics differently, and garments made with membranes and taped seams absorb them unevenly (Páramo’s apparel doesn’t use membranes).
The trick is finding a DWR replacement that doesn’t also compromise the quality of the gear or shorten its lifespan. Part of the problem is that C8 chemistries provide both water and oil repellency, a performance trait that alternatives have struggled to match. Shedding dirt and body oil is key to maintaining effectiveness—dirty gear doesn’t stay as dry.
“Moving from C8 to C6 chemistry was absolutely the right thing to do—in fact, moving to PFC-free chemistry is the right thing to do on DWRs, and it’s what we’re working towards—but we’ve recognized performance limitations,” said Robert Fry, global director of product merchandising and design for Mountain Hardwear, which currently uses C6 DWR.
Last year Patagonia invested $1 million in chemical startup company Beyond Surface Technologies in hopes of securing a PFC-free option. So far, they’re still committed to using C6. “We do have a [PFC-free] DWR on hand, but we want to come up with a higher-performing second generation to offer a better or, ideally, true alternative to PFC-based products,” Matthias Foessel, CEO of Beyond Surface Technologies, said in an emailed statement.
Any solution might require consumers to adjust their expectations for waterproof gear. Fjällräven has used a PFC-free, iron-in alternative DWR made from beeswax and paraffin on its polyester/cotton fabric since the brand launched, and in fall 2015 added the PFC-free hardshell fabric Eco-Shell, which needs to be re-treated every five to 10 washes.
“On my old skiwear, water would bead off it like a brand-new car,” said Nathan Dopp, president of Fjällräven North America. But while Eco-Shell still repels water, it doesn’t bead the same way. “The consumer doesn’t think it’s still waterproof, so it’s going to be an education process,” Dopp said.
Chemical company Sciessent has also developed a PFC-free water repellency they’re calling Curb. Their alternative works like a waxy finish that maintains a nice handfeel, says CEO Paul Ford. Brands have been testing it out, and it has just been picked up by Cosmo Fabric, a technical textile supplier that works with some of the industry's major players.
Apparel brand Nau will launch a PFC-free DWR in their spring 2017 line, some of which will come from DuPont spinoff Chemours, that promises a performance level comparable to the C6 chemistries currently in use—at least, eventually. Chemours's Teflon EcoElite uses a plant-based formula.
“Given that it is a relatively new chemistry in the market in terms of durable water repellency, I think it will evolve and improve,” said Mary Jane Murphy, director of textiles and sustainability for Nau.
Revolutionary approaches to staying dry
But perhaps tweaking chemical formulas isn’t the right approach at all—some argue that solving the PFC puzzle will require totally reinventing the approach to waterproofing garments. Gore’s Active Shell with Permanent Beading Surface and Columbia’s OutDry Extreme, which both invert the approach to membranes and fabric, may be early examples of the kinds of innovations companies need. Columbia’s latest version, OutDry Extreme ECO, layers a wicking fabric made from recycled plastic bottles with an outer membrane that provides waterproofing and eliminates the need for PFC-based water repellency.
“The main problem with how the industry is looking at this issue is that they’re trying to iterate on an old-fashioned design,” said Scott Trepanier, director of communications for Columbia. “They take this three-layer model of construction and they’re trying to make it better and better and better, but that fundamental construction technique has its limitations. If we’re having issues with DWR, let’s not just rethink DWR, let’s rethink how jackets are built.”
Better luck with down
Where PFC-free alternatives have seen widespread success and adoption is in creating hydrophobic down. It’s easier for these chemistries, which often mimic the natural lipids (fats) ducks and geese produce to stay dry and afloat, to bond to feathers than to nylon or polyester. That’s the idea behind Sustainable Down Source’s DownTek’s Zero PFC, which uses nano-level lipids one billionth of a meter in size to create water-repellent down. Nikwax has also created Hydrophobic Down, a water-repellent down that relies on a mineral wax elastomer. And Allied Down has committed to being 100 percent PFC-free by 2017 (they’re very close), and has already crafted a paraffin-based treatment, HyperDRY Eco.
Still, the race continues for an industry-wide solution, whether that’s a better DWR or a brand-new way of building gear—because in this field, staying inside when it rains is never going to cut it.
This story appears on page 12 of the Outdoor Retailer Daily Pre-Show edition.