Outdoor Gear Makers: Get Green or Die Trying

Lots of big brands are shifting toward more sustainable gear, without harmful PFCs. But for the industry as a whole, change is slow.

It’s unclear how long the road is to being completely PFC-free. (Janna Morton)
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One day in July 2017, the shake machine, which tests water resistant properties of hydrophobic down, had been going for 2,000 minutes. Samantha Lee, a then 21-year-old intern at bulk down supplier Sustainable Down Source (SDS), knew she was onto something. So far, the test results indicated that 33 hours of rain wouldn’t rob the feathers, which had been treated with a eco-friendly Durable Water Repellent (DWR), of their insulating properties.

But there wasn’t time for Lee to celebrate. Just as she realized she might have found the answer to a question that’s been plaguing the outdoor industry for years, a lightning bolt struck the company’s headquarters in Cincinnati, Ohio, setting part of the building on fire and causing some of the company’s electronics to go haywire. 

Everyone evacuated, including Lee, who forgot her lab notebook. She texted her manager, Caroline Zapf, chief sustainability officer for SDS, which produces hydrophobic down under the name DownTek, something to the effect of “Well, the good news is, the shake machine’s still going and has surpassed 2,000 minutes. Bad news: the building’s on fire.”

It’s a story with a happy ending—or, perhaps, a beginning. Lee had scored big.

She had created a DWR treatment that performed extraordinarily well: it was third-party tested to withstand 33 hours of constant rain, compared to DownTek’s original formula, which was only rated for 16.7 hours. More remarkably, it contained zero PFCs, (short for perfluorocarbons), the harmful and non-biodegradable chemicals that the outdoor industry had heavily relied on to make apparel water resistant up to this point, but performed just as well if not better.

Down’s weakness is moisture. Get it wet and it compresses, losing its renowned insulating powers. Companies have long turned to DWR treatments that contain PFCs to bolster it against moisture, but at an environmental cost. So a PFC-free treatment that actually repels water is somewhat of a holy grail.

This wasn’t Sustainable Down Source’s first attempt at PFC-free. The company created a ZeroPFC line in 2014, which was environmentally successful but less effective at repelling water. They spent several years researching alternative, PFC-free down coatings to replace the ZeroPFC line. Lee came up with her formula, which uses Bluesign-approved (rated safe for both humans and the environment) chemicals, in one summer’s worth of work. Moving forward, DownTek will produce only PFC-free down filling, treated with Lee’s DWR. The company will nix PFCs from the production of about half a million pounds of hydrophobic down this year alone. (It's worth nothing that many major brands, including Big Agnes, Brooks-Range, and L.L. Bean, use DownTek in their products.)

This isn’t the first brand to release PFC-free DWR, either. Nikwax launched its PFC-free hydrophobic down in 2013, in collaboration with Rab, but has long made PFC-free DWR treatments. The brand looked into PFC chemistry in the ‘90s, when it started proliferating in the industry for its performance, says Heidi Dale Allen, marketing VP at Nikwax. But then research indicated that PFCs are harmful for people and the environment. Since Nikwax is an after-market care product that people apply themselves in their homes, they decided the risks outweighed the benefits, and they steered in the opposite direction. Fjällräven stopped using PFCs in its rain shells in 2015. DownTek debuted Sustainable Down Source’s ZeroPFC in 2016, though it performed about one-third as well as its original formula. Last year, Columbia released its first PFC-free rain jacket, the Outdry Ex Eco Rain Shell, and this year, Marmot came out with its own.

In the grand scheme of the mounting horrors we inflict on the environment every year, DownTek is just one so-called “ingredient brand” in one fairly small industry. Even the whole of the outdoor industry is barely a blip on the scale of the work that needs to be done to eliminate PFCs in manufacturing and chemical production, says Chris Dreszig, head of marketing and communication for Bluesign. Since PFCs are extremely effective at repelling water, grease, and stains, they’re ubiquitous in household items like pots, pans, and carpets, as well as in technical apparel and coatings on airplanes.

Still, progress is progress.

“We should really be leading the entire consumer goods market,” says Dale Allen. She added that even though DownTek is a direct competitor of theirs, she still sees their new formula as a win. “As long as we’re all working in the same direction, that makes me happy.”

Patagonia doesn’t use DownTek—or any hydrophobic down—in its line of gear, but it has committed to jettisoning its use of PFCs by the year 2020. A few other brands have made such goals publicly. VF Corporation—which owns Smartwool, the North Face, Jansport, Eagle Creek, and other iconic brands—plans to be PFC-free by 2025. Burton and Jack Wolfskin plan to be PFC-free by 2020. 

But there’s no set goal for the industry, says Beth Jensen, senior director of sustainable business innovation of the Outdoor Industry Association. That’s in part because DWR that uses PFCs is still used in so much gear. We’ve come to expect maximum performance as a baseline for satisfactory gear. It’s great to hear that a jacket has been rain-room tested for 24 hours without fail, but few of us ever even come close to pushing our gear to those kinds of limits. In some ways, we’ve forced some over-engineering of outdoor apparel, says Dreszig. 

Jensen acknowledges that brands are challenged by customer expectations as they work to find greener solutions. Educating them is a big part of this process. Right now, many brands say they’re more internally driven and motivated by like companies than they are being pushed by customers to use greener materials or chemistries. Regulations have also changed. As research has proven the harmful impacts of chemicals like PFCs, certain forms have been banned by government agencies in the U.S. and abroad.

“This is such a big deal in our industry,” says Matt Dwyer, director of materials innovation for Patagonia. Patagonia customers have no issues asking hard questions, but “by the time a customer is asking us for something like this, we’re too late.” 

It’s unclear how long the road is to being completely PFC-free, largely because the industry doesn’t want to rush into solutions without longevity, Jensen says. The best thing you can do for the environment is to buy stuff that lasts long enough that you won’t need to replace it, preventing more products from being made later down the line.

“If you use a product only once, the impact is very high. If you can use it 10, 100, or 200 times, that’s better,” Dreszig says. “It’s not just a step back, [brands] have to produce products that are really needed by consumers. When sustainability starts by design, designers should actually think much more about what they’re doing in terms of sustainability.”

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