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Waterproof fabrics | Harming environment | Health threatGreenpeace wore gear from Páramo, which uses PFC-free Nikwax treated fabrics, in some of their expeditions. Photo: Nikwax.
March 2016

The long and short of

windproof & waterproof fabrics

Softshell jackets introduced a new concept into the outdoor industry: durable water repellent (DWR) treatments that repel water and dirt from the outside of the fabric. Consumers love the benefits of fabrics that prevent clothing, footwear, and gear from becoming waterlogged and soggy — but these chemicals are harming the environment and pose a threat to human and animal health, reports GERRIE VAN EEDEN

Putting on a windproof and water-repellent softshell jacket or waterproof boots is a simple act for most consumers. Staying dry in adverse weather conditions is top priority, and with waterproof wear and gear that don’t absorb water readily available, consumers think more about what the products look like, than how it’s made.

But, environmental groups and researchers are calling for the discontinuation of certain chemicals used to make the fabric used in softshell jackets, outdoor footwear, backpacks, tents etc. waterproof without becoming waterlogged.

The outdoor industry has taken note and the elimination of harmful chemicals was a hot topic at the recent ISPO Munich show, where SWEREA (Swedish Research Institute for Industrial Renewal and Sustainable Growth) and the European Outdoor Group gave feedback at a session titled State of play for DWRs: Current and future (legal) challenges.

Some brands are eliminating this specific chemical from their manufacturing process completely, while others have opted for similar, yet less harmful alternatives.

The outdoor industry uses polyfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) to make fabrics water– and dirt repellent. The advantages to using a product like this are quite apparent. For technical outdoor gear worn in adverse and changing weather conditions, something that can keep you dry in a quick shower or a blizzard is quite handy — especially if it doesn’t hamper your activities by becoming heavy and clingy when wet. The dirt-repellent nature also means that they don’t have to be washed as often. All in all, this technology increases wearer comfort and the longevity of the product — something that consumers value quite highly.

But with the good comes the bad. And this case the bad guys are long and short-chain PFCs.

Causing harm

In 2012, Greenpeace released a two-part report that claimed that fabric finishes used on outdoor products contain chemicals that are hazardous to the environment and human health. Studies have linked the chemicals to birth deformities in animals in the wild. Subsequent Greenpeace reports showed just how widespread these chemicals had been released into the environment — traces were even found in human breastmilk and polar bear blood and water 1 000 metres below the ocean surface — and how long the contamination lasts. These findings resulted in a campaign by the organisation for the elimination of the use of PFCs.

Last year more than 200 scientists from 38 countries signed the Madrid Statement, which calls for the elimination of all PFCs from the production of all consumer goods. While the FluoroCouncil, which represents companies making PFCs, said PFCs were “critical to modern life” and phasing them out was unrealistic, several outdoor manufacturers said they were looking at alternatives and planned on phasing them out.

Long-chain PFCs (C8 – which contains 8 fluorinated carbons) are considered more harmful to the environment than short-chain PFCs (C6 or C4). It seems that short-chain PFCs are the obvious choice. But, to quote Dorris Lessing, things are not as simple as black and white.

Bigger is better, right?

The durable water repellent (DWR) that was until recently found in most materials used for the outdoor gear we know and love, has perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a so-called long-chain PFC, in its makeup. This chemical repels water and dirt excellently, but if and when it’s deposited into the environment through washing off or scuffing against trees, rocks or other abrasives, it takes a lot longer to break down and become harmless.

“C8 technology is the strongest chemical bond and is considered a persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic (PBT) substance and has since been detected around the world in the food chain, drinking water, animals and human blood,” Alice Davies wrote in a 1994 report on durable water-repellency based on a study she did in cooperation with the School of Fashion and Textiles De Montfort University, Leicester.

Following this, international legislation is starting the clamp down on C8 PFCs. Most notably some European countries have banned the use of C8 PFC altogether in a first step to prohibit the use of the chemical internationally.

Shorter chain PFCs are considered to be just as effective at repelling water and dirt, but it also tends to wash out of and rub off materials much quicker, which adversely affects the durability of a garment. The more you need to wash it, the shorter the lifespan. Short-chain PFCs do, however, tend to break down easier in the environment making it less harmful.

Consumers seem to be largely unaware of the issues raised over PFC-based DWRs. In another study conducted by Montfort University (“Outdoor Jackets with Durable Water Repellent Finish: A Consumer & Brand Perspective on Product Features, Usability & Product Aftercare”) as many as 77% of survey respondents answered that they were not aware of any environmental or health implications of using these products. In the same survey, customers constantly scored the durability of products high, even though manufacturers indicated that the use of DWRs could make them less durable.

Brand responses

It may be surprising to hear that Nikwax after-care waterproofing have been entirely free of these chemicals for decades (see story Below). “When we were developing our waterproofing technology, the owner (Nikwax founder Nick Brown) looked into them and just made the decision then and there that there was too much of a risk,” says Heidi Allen, marketing director for Nikwax.

“The PFC problem has not been solved by the introduction of C6 PFCs as an alternative to C8s. C6 is not proven to be safe, but rather less research has been done to show that it is dangerous,” says Nikwax in a press release. “As an industry we need to start making a genuine change.”

Athletic brands with outdoor clothing ranges, like PUMA and adidas, have adopted ambitious elimination targets for PFCs, Greenpeace reports. They have also found several small European outdoor brands (not locally available) that use PFC-free fabrics.

For other manufacturers short-chain PFCs are a viable alternative, and others have looked further afield. In fact, they have to.

Governments around the globe have now required chemical companies to stop making C8 DWR. C6 or better is what you get.

Vaude, The North Face and Jack Wolfskin have announced that they aim to eliminate the use of PFCs from all their products by 2010.

“All our hard shell jackets are made with PFCs. Only our midlayers, t-shirts, shirts and underwear are PFC free,” Mammut responded to a Greenpeace survey conducted at the end of last year, asking brands when they intend stop using PFCs.

Gore-Tex announced in January 2014 that it had eliminated long-chain perfluorocarbons from its universally used fabrics and linings and had moved to short-chain chemicals. “The biggest challenge certainly with a new DWR is the durability of the water repellency,” said Bernhard Kiehl, leader of the Gore-Tex fabrics division sustainability team.

Their research showed that outdoor products made with non-fluorinated DWR technology can result in more toxins being released into the environment because consumers must wash and reapply such finishes more often than PFC-based DWRs to maintain water repellency. As part of their third Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), Gore-Tex assessed jackets with different DWR treatments. This showed that the currently available non-fluorinated DWR offering does not offer a better environmental profile than Gore’s current fluorocarbon-based DWR treatment. (W.L. Gore: Non-PFC DWRs Can Release More Chemicals — 2016).

That is the dilemma faced by most outdoor brands. The alternatives do not always promise moonshine and roses.

In the study she conducted, Davies sourced 29 different commercially available repellents across the spectrum of the seven different types of DWR available and observed that the PFC-based finishes (C8 and C6) consistently performed better than the free ones. The short-chain PFCs didn’t perform significantly worse than the long-chain variants.

No alternative could give both the same level of performance and durability that long-chain PFCs do, the Davies study concluded.

  • Fluorine-free finishes do represent a drop in performance but can usually be considered acceptable in all but the harshest of conditions. The main variant in performance between fluorochemical and fluorine-free repellents is that the fluorine-free finishes do not provide any oil repellency (Alice Davies study), which means that it does not provide dirt protection.
  • Paraffin or wax-based finishes were some of the earliest examples of water-repellent finishes; natural oils and resins were being used to create waxed fabrics as early as the 18th century. These finishes don’t provide any oil repellency and laundering processes usually leaves them worse for wear. This is likely to increase the frequency of re-proofing treatments required compared to PFC finishes.
  • The same can be said for silicones. They just don’t wash well and the waste water from the application process can also be toxic to fish. (Davies study)
  • Another alternative is dendrimer repellents, which can provide good water repellency and can also be combined with fluorocarbon polymers, forcing them into a more ordered and effective structure.

For the time being, PFCs still provide the form of durable water repelling, but increasingly strict legislation has left the industry in a catch 22. Moving over to the alternatives would represent a drop in performance for brands, but it will make them more environmentally friendly, which is after all, at the core of most outdoor brands.

Greenpeace, on the other hand, claim that they tested PFC-free products from small outdoor brands on eight global expeditions in harsh weather conditions. “All of our clothing withstood these conditions and all of it was PFC-free,” Chiara Campione, Detox Outdoor Corporate Lead with Greenpeace Italy, wrote in a blog titled You asked Outdoor brands if they use PFCs.

What’s different about Nikwax?

Páramo was one of the smaller PFC-free outdoor brands that Greenpeace tested during one of their eight expeditions to determine the extent of PFC pollution in remote areas (see above). Páramo was the first brand to use Nikwax Fleece and Nikwax Windproof fabrics for their garments.

Nikwax prides itself that it has never used PFCs in their waterproof technology and that they are the only after-care brand to achieve this. Their use of environmentally safe waterproofing technology has earned the brand a Queen’s Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development in 2014 — the first British brand to receive this accolade.

Its founder and current MD, Nick Brown, is an outdoor enthusiast who is keenly aware that in order to enjoy the benefits of nature, we have to protect the environment. He is currently vice-president of the European Outdoor Conservation Association (EOCA), which Nikwax joined when it was founded in 2006. “A key part of our philosophy is to measure and understand our footprint so that we can hold ourselves to account,” says Nikwax. “From CO2 emissions down to the chemicals which make up our products, we want to know what we are putting out there, and what its impact is likely to be.”

They say they constantly monitor the performance of the products in their vast range, the safety of the raw ingredients they use in manufacturing, and the energy and waste efficiency of their production processes, so that back up any claims they make.

Nikwax only uses ingredients that are known to be safe, and avoid chemicals that are harmful to human and environmental health. Because they manufacture all their products in the UK, their use of chemicals is regulated by the European REACH Legislation. But, they have gone further, and their own scientists adopted an even stricter list of restricted chemicals as a precautionary approach, based on independent studies.

Tested fabrics

Their Nikwax Fleece and Nikwax Windproof fabrics were, for example, tested by Greenpeace. On its own, the Fleece offers protection against mist and humidity, whilst remaining cool because of their high air permeability and breathability. Depending on their activity level, and the wind, adventurers will feel comfortable at a temperature range below zero to + 15 degrees C.

The Nikwax Windproof Fabrics will cut out a gale force wind, and can be used on their own with a base layer to protect against summer showers and squalls. But, when worn together, the truth of the saying in unity lies strength, is proven: the combination gives full waterproof protection for up to five hours of heavy rainfall (rain room tested) and extends the temperature range to -10 to +15 degrees C. “All of this is achieved with a pair of jackets that together weigh less than a kilo,” adds Nikwax.

“I have used it in both the Himalayas and the Andes, where climbing 2,000 metres can change the ambient temperature from 25 to zero degrees, in one day,” says Nikwax MD Brown. “However, I also use it for low level walks in spring and autumn, when I know that the weather is going to be unpredictable and I want to be able to stay cool, yet have real weather protection when I need it.”

All original water-repellent treatments, whether PFC or otherwise, wear off through abrasion or wash away through use, and have to be replaced. This is where Nikwax makes its impact. Customers can waterproof their own breathable jackets at home without applying heat by using Nikwax TX.Direct instead of normal detergent in a wash — even in a washing machine.

It is locally available from Ram Mountaineering.

How does DWR work?

The appeal of Durable Water Repellent (DWR) technology is that it causes water drops to bead on top of a fabric and then roll off. This means that a waterproof jacket or hiking boot doesn’t become wet, clingy and heavy, even in heavy rain, which in turn ensures that the garment continues to breathe.

The water beads are formed by a chemical applied to the face of the fabric that creates microscopic spikes on the outer surface. These spikes increase the “contact angle” of water on the textile, encouraging the droplets to band together and become rounder. The rounder the droplet, the easier it rolls off the fabric - while flatter water splashes cling to the fabric, and eventually seep in.

The DWR coats individual fibres in the fabric and therefore doesn’t affect the fabric’s breathability. The coating also protects the fabric against oil and dirt, and therefore helps keep garments or gear looking better for longer.

Traditionally, the fibers have been treated with coatings that contain long-chain fluorinated polymers, which often contain raw materials and long-chain perfluoroalkyl acids (PFAAs) as impurities, which can be health hazards.

Not all DWR treatments are equally effective and the different technologies are rated, with a high score of 90. For example, indicating that water will roll off from about 90% of the fabric surface. Frequent washing, dirt and salt deposits can reduce the effectiveness of the DWR treatment and it is therefore recommended that garments and gear are regularly cleaned and treated with DWR replacement products.

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