Waterproof, Breathable, and Toxin-Free

Patagonia is upping its own environmental ante with a $1 million investment in Beyond Surface Technologies, a Swiss company that’s pushing petrochemicals out of the gear closet

Outside Online
April 21, 2015patagonia-fabric-detail

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.

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