Patagonia’s $1 million bet on eco-friendly water repellency

Can Beyond Surface solve the industry’s DWR problem? Find out why Patagonia is banking more than $1 million on it.
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The race for textile treatments that walk with a softer step on the planet is about to enter a higher gear after Patagonia announced a more than $1 million investment into start-up chemical company Beyond Surface Technologies.

Part of Patagonia’s $20 Million & Change venture fund, the investment helps fund a company has built itself to be nimble and independent enough to innovate, but in need of faster access to the trials that provide feedback on potential new products. At the top of the list for key research at Beyond is the now notoriously troublesome chemistry associated with waterproofing garments for the great outdoors.

“Our commitment to achieve the best performance that makes clothes that last a lifetime currently requires that we use chemicals that are toxic and that don’t degrade in the natural environment, and to us, that’s a problem,” said Adam Fetcher, director of global public relations and communications for Patagonia. “We’ve done quite a bit to try to get over this problem. … We’re not there yet, but we’re really excited and feel that this investment in Beyond Surface Technologies increases the chances of finding a solution sooner rather than later.”

The privately financed Beyond Surface Technologies was founded in Switzerland in 2008 by a team of professional chemists, the self-described greenhorn among them being CEO Matthias Foessel, who had more than 20 years in textile chemistry work with a mission of using renewable raw materials that meet performance and price standards.

“We thought, certainly not for all areas but for some areas, rather than keep managing and controlling risks, we can come up with raw materials that are safe to use that do actually perform,” he told SNEWS.

The company spent three years researching renewable options such as those used in the agriculture, personal care, cosmetics and food industries. They’ve even considered bio waste streams — one man’s trash becomes another man’s raw materials. Most textile treatments can be traced back to a petrochemical starting point — meaning an increased greenhouse gas footprint at the start and a tougher biodegradation process at the end of a garment’s life.

The three commercially available technologies from the company now are:
>> Midori Biosoft, a plant seed oil-based wicking finish for baselayers made from any fiber.
>> Midori Biolink, a natural acid-based finish for cotton denim that replaces predecessors that relied on carcinogenic formaldehyde.
>> Midori Evopel, its “first gen” durable water repellent to replace treatments that include PFCs (perfluorinated chemicals). Some of those products are in their third or fourth season in the market.

Outdoor companies have been looking to rid their lines of those waterproofing chemistries that rely on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, that is found to be persistent and bioaccumulative in the environment — it has spread to both poles of the earth and has been found in fish species in remote waterways. Governments have begun banning long-chain fluorocarbon-based chemistries. Some companies have switched from so-called long chain, or C8, chemistries to shorter chain, C6, chemistries, which is expected to reduce the chemical-footprint in environment.

“The problem that I see is that moving from C8 to C6 is not solving the issue,” Foessel said. “If you’re really concerned about PFOA and if your intent is to go PFOA-free, then your only choice is to walk away from PFCs entirely.”

Patagonia has been searching for alternatives to fluorocarbon-based treatments for years, but found that wax and silicon based alternatives fail to live up to the standards, particularly in the life of the garment.

Foessel is clear on this point: “There are no current alternatives in the market that match the performance one-to-one.”

PFCs provide key levels of performance for water resistance, oil repellency and durability that alternatives aren’t able to provide, he said. For a rain shell in a half-hour-long rainstorm, he said, the fabric holds up. For alpine gear, thousands of feet above sea level and in snow or rain and wind, “that’s is where our alternatives are not yet a match.”

“I know there’s not a technology that’s immediately applicable,” Fetcher said. “We have really tough standards for performance and the reason we have those tough standards is because making sure that our products will last a lifetime is the most important thing we can do from an environmental perspective. It's more important than any other tinkering with our supply chain and frankly it outweighs the negative impacts that the current chemicals have on the environment.”

But this is the first generation for PFC-free alternatives, and Foessel said he hopes the process of bringing about the next generation will be accelerated through this partnership with Patagonia. Often, the process of creating a new textile treatment in the lab, deciding it’s a good one and convincing a retailer, mill or brand of the same, then testing it and getting results can easily take year, he said, and then the results might send you back to the lab to start the whole process over

“It’s great to have a partner in the outdoor industry like Patagonia where if we have an idea, we have an open door to test our ideas and get some fantastic and incredibly fast worthwhile feedback very early in our development process, which can really cut down the development time significantly,” Foessel said.

“Most important for us is that they have the resources to really spread their wings and work to develop a safe and effective alternative to the current DWR formulations as quickly as possible,” Fetcher said.

As with the other environmentally friendly technologies that Patagonia has pioneered, whatever alternatives Beyond Surface Technologies delivers and Patagonia brings to market will also be released for use by other companies.

--Elizabeth Miller

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