Your ski jacket is full of petrochemicals. Ditto a fair amount of the other clothing in your closet that attains that magical, paradoxical state of being both waterproof and breathable when you’re hiking or biking up a steep ridge in a fierce storm.
Through decades of tweaks and improvements, material scientists and chemists have produced these miracle fabrics through a combination of membranes and finishes. High performance comes at an environmental cost, however, since these substances rely on petrochemical feed stocks. Plus, the use of perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) in finishes used to create durable water-repellent (DWR) exteriors—a key part of that waterproof-breathable magic that outerwear can attain—has an especially dark side: The chemical perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) is a by-product of PFC production, and studies have shown it to cause developmental problems in lab animals. The toxin, which plays a role in many industrial applications, has made its way into the environment, and small amounts are found everywhere, from the blood of polar bears to the blood of most humans.
Today, nearly every major outdoor apparel brand uses PFC-based finishes for waterproof-breathable jackets and pants. The EPA has been working with chemical companies for years to phase out the DWR finish, known as C8, that produces the most PFOA. Most companies are moving to a different DWR, known as C6, but here’s the rub: This alternative falls short in terms of performance, and it still generates trace amounts of PFOA. Plus, it’s still reliant on petrochemical feedstocks.
As part of its larger mission to reduce the environmental impacts of its products and supply chain, Patagonia announced earlier this month that its venture arm, $20 Million and Change, has invested $1 million in Beyond Surface Technologies (BST), a Swiss startup that’s developing plant-based chemicals it believes can replace conventional PFC-based finishes.
BST was formed in 2008 by a group of textile industry veterans with a strong background in chemistry who wanted to produce waterproof-breathable textile finishes differently. “It dawned on me that it is a bit crazy what we were doing,” says BST director Mathias Foessel, referring to mainstream companies seeking alternative petro-based finishes. “We were developing products with inherent hazards, and then trying to find the best way to mitigate those risks or control those hazards.”
So BST started developing alternatives to the alternatives. “What if we eliminated the risks to begin with? Why not come up with [textile] finishes with lower hazards or no hazards? And then we can use crude oil for something more important.”
Five years in, BST has brought three different bio-based finishes to market that are already being used by a number of major brands, including Patagonia, Levi’s, Adidas, and Puma.
These finishes include the Midori Biosoft, which is designed for use on base layers; Midori Biolink, a natural acid-based finish for denim (replacing a conventional finish that contains formaldehyde, Foessel says); and Midori Evopel, which is the holy grail of textile finishes because it is designed for waterproof-breathable shell fabrics.
BST is using a range of agricultural and algal products as feedstocks, with a focus on raw materials that have been approved to use in personal care products or food additives. “If it’s approved to rub into your skin or to eat, it should be okay to functionalize your textile with,” Foessel reasons. BST also avoids GMOs and plants that would compete with food crops. It is also using some waste products from the production of other bio-based chemicals, such as biodiesel.
BST’s work is far from complete. Foessel says he’s confident that the Midori Biosoft and Biolink products are on par with the performance of their crude-based counterparts, but the current formulation for Evopel is a work in progress. For one, Evopel relies on a mix of crude- and bio-based feedstocks at this stage (Biosoft and Biolink are both 100 percent bio-based). For another, it’s not ready to go neck-and-neck with conventional waterproofing finishes.
“There is research needed to put it up a notch and increase performance,” he says of Evopel. “With PFCs used in sportswear and apparel, you have different classes of performance and expectations. We believe [Evopel] is not good enough yet.”
This is why that $1 million from Patagonia is well timed.
The financial support from $20 Million and Change is also the first outside funding BST has accepted; until now, the founders have bootstrapped the firm. “We have turned down other investors who wanted to take a larger role [in BST], and we declined because we felt it was important to keep the freedom of being able to work and test what we want to, and even fail and come back and restart. That’s part of the fun,” Foessel says. “We have to be independent in our decision making. We have a high rate of failure, and if there was someone in the back room trying to veto ideas, we’d not have gotten here.”
Of course, even if BST succeeds in disrupting the crude-based textile finishes sector, most of the fabric its products will be used on will continue to be derived from crude (although many polyesters are made from recycled PET bottles).
All consumer products have environmental impacts, and those impacts have to be viewed across the product’s entire lifecycle—natural fibers have drawbacks not only in terms of performance but also the amount of water needed to produce them compared to synthetics. Still, Foessel believes it may be possible to use the Biolink finish on base layers made from natural fibers and match the wicking performance of synthetics, though that would require innovations from other parts of the textile world. “We started at zero. We came with a strong passion. I think we need experts in other fields who can do the same [to put the performance of natural fibers on par with synthetics].”