They’re the chemicals which enable our fabrics to repel water – making it bead up and roll away. They can imbue clothing with stain and oil and repellency qualities while, in another setting, be used to give frying pans and cook-wear their non-stick properties. And yet, it would seem that the apparel industry cannot wait to see the back of per-fluorocarbons (PFCs) – and with good reason.
We’ve known about the environmental concerns around PFCs for many years now, the most notable of these being that some PFCs escape into the atmosphere and into wastewater during apparel production, while small amounts can even turn up as residue on clothing itself. These have potential toxicity, over time, to humans, wildlife and fish and are extremely persistent in the environment.
Arguably, however, it has taken Greenpeace and its Detox campaign which began in 2011 to really bring the issue of PFCs in apparel to the fore (and, it could be argued, made PFCs an issue – and apparel brands – legislators can no longer ignore).
Greenpeace has released numerous studies over the years highlighting problems associated with the use of PFCs in clothing manufacture. Much of its focus has been on perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, a particularly persistent PFC which has an 8-carbon backbone. Hence outdoor brands have moved to shorter chain PFCs, replacing C8 with C6 chemistry, with C8 production phased out.
C6 chemistry is seen as the better option from an environmental standpoint, although even this is not a straightforward issue. For instance, research in Sweden led by Stefan Posner, a senior researcher at Swerea IVF, found that pre-cursor fluorotelomer alcohols which are found in C6 chemistry indicate more severe endocrine disruptors than those in C8 chemistry.
In truth, discussions around C6 versus C8 chemistry are, in all likelihood, going to be rendered redundant in the next few years. Legislators around the world have had their eye on the whole class of PFCs for several years now, and an outright ban is on the cards in the not too distant future.
The outdoor clothing industry will be impacted hardest by such a ban, and it is this segment of the apparel industry which has had to give the most pressing thought to PFCs over the past few years. On this front, we have seen several brands launch PFC-free outdoor ranges, although it needs to be pointed out in this context that some researchers have also raised questions about the safety of alternative PFC-free DWR treatments, which typically include silicones, paraffins and dendrimer-based finishes.
We have also seen notable initiatives such as that by W L Gore to invest US$15 million to research more environmentally friendly durable water repellents (DWR). Other brands such as Patagonia are also doing their own research in this area.
I’ve watched this space for several years now, wondering when a breakthrough to replace PFCs – a solution which can provide clothing with water, stain and oil repellency without damaging the environment and at a competitive price – might arrive. I’ve seen nothing that ticks all these boxes, however, it is fair to say that the offering of Green Theme International is bringing something new and radically different to the table.
Green Theme International is a US B-Corporation (for profit entity) which might – and I emphasise that word for reasons which will become clear below – be onto something significant. This B-Corporation has developed a technology which imbues textiles with special properties – the most obvious being water repellency – without using water. This latter point is telling given the textile industry’s ongoing battle with chronic excess water-use at all stages of production.
“Our technology uses a patented process that hyperfuses the chemistry directly to the individual fibres of the fabric,” Brian La Plante, director of marketing with Green Theme told us. “It’s permanently fixed to the fabric so it wouldn’t wash or wear off. The process drives the chemistry to coat the entire surface area of the fibre which gives it super hydrophobic properties. This process is very different than conventional DWR treatments which use a liquid bath to apply the DWR treatment to the fabric. The process has no effect on the appearance, hand feel, or colour of the fabric.”
Green Theme was established by a group of industry veterans in 2016. Headed by Martin Flora, with Mike Costa, and Ryan Chen they worked to commercialise technology which had been initially developed by Dr Gary Selwyn. “Martin first became aware of the technology when he was head of design at Sierra Designs,” says La Plante. “He was so amazed by its performance he left Sierra to create a company to commercialise it.”
Green Theme will be launching its first product – Aquavent – in conjunction with outdoor brand Marmot in February 2018, with further styles to follow in Fall 2018. There will be additional brand launches starting in spring 2019, and La Plante tells me there are currently 26 brands trialling its technology; this is a market which is moving fast.
“Traditional DWR finishes have a number of challenges,” he says. “The traditional C6, C8 chemistry have toxicity issues and the new PFC-Free DWRs have performance problems. Our process and chemistry eliminates all those issues. It performs better, is far longer lasting, and is eco-friendly.
“Operationally we function on the OEM model where mills send us their fabric, we treat it and send it back to them. It operates just like a dye house or laminator. We are in the process of setting up facilities in the major textile regions in the world. Our first facility is open and operational in Taiwan, and we are working establishing our next facility in Italy.”
Green Theme’s technology also opens up other technical options in textile production for brands. La Plante explains: “Not only do we solve their problems with regards to water repellency but the technology also gives them the ability to create new and different garments that was previously not possible. We can give properties to textiles never seen before – for example, wool blazers that can repel water like a rain jacket, or mesh inserts that water rolls off.”
So where’s the catch? That was the question I found myself asking when I first heard about Green Theme’s work in summer 2017. What about the chemistry it uses to treat fabrics? Are there any potentially hazardous chemicals? La Plante tells me no and, for extra reassurance, explains that Green Theme is in the process of receiving the highly vigorous Hohenstein Eco-Passport certification.
But what about oil and stain repellency? In fact, oil and stain repellency have been the stumbling blocks for many of the PFC-free DWRs that have entered the market in recent years, and perhaps a big factor in explaining why none have gained major traction.
Addressing this, La Plante tells me: “While we don’t have what is considered true oil repellency – the ability of oil to roll off the fabric – we do have excellent stain release so most oil stains just wash right out. The way our chemistry coats the fibre there is nothing for the oil to grab on to. This has not been a stumbling block for adoption by apparel brands.”
Price is another issue. Like other PFC-free solutions entering the market, Aquavent comes at a premium above fluorinated DWR finishes although, as La Plante points out, this is not necessarily comparing like with like. “Our treatment does cost more than traditional DWR finishes but that is not really a fair comparison,” he says. “We don’t consider Aquavent a DWR as that is too limiting to the qualities that it imparts on fabric. We call it Breathable Water Protection as that is more in line with its hyper-breathability and super hydrophobic qualities.”
La Plante also suggests there are broader issues to consider from a sustainability perspective. How long a garment will serve its intended purpose is an issue the outdoor sector is placing increasing focus on, and rightfully so. “It’s hard to compare the cost something that works and is permanent to the price of something that doesn’t perform and doesn’t last,” La Plante points out. “This is the paradigm that the apparel industry needs to break as brands start taking sustainability seriously. Are we just creating landfill or garments that are going to perform and last?”
This really is the crux of the matter. Apparel retailers – and outdoor brands in particular – have talked a great game on sustainability in recent years. And yet some continue to use highly questionable chemistry in their products when there are some fantastic alternatives out there. Green Theme’s is certainly the most interesting we have seen, but this new market segment is moving at a rapid pace.
As sustainability challenges go, eradicating the use of PFCs in production could be seen as low hanging fruit for brands and retailers. Many brands talk of waiting until 2020 in line with Greenpeace Detox commitments. But if they are genuine about their concerns for the planet, why wait until then when the solutions are here now?