How Green Is Your Jacket? | The Quest For Eco-Friendly Outdoor Clothing
We investigate whether a coat can be waterproof and ok for the environment
Words by Sam Haddad
How green is your outdoor jacket? And I don’t mean is it “Lush Meadow" one of this season’s on-trend shades according to the Pantone Fashion Colour Report for Fall 2016. Yes such a thing exists. And that’s part of the problem, more on which later.
I of course mean how environmentally-friendly is your jacket? Or is any outdoor jacket for that matter? Earlier this year Greenpeace produced a seminal report on the “hidden hazardous chemicals in outdoor gear". They tested 40 products including 11 jackets for PFCs (polyfluorinated chemicals) and only two jackets from the test were PFC-free.
This matters because a Greenpeace Germany report showed that: “These [PFC] pollutants are found in secluded mountain lakes and snow from remote locations…[and] can accumulate in living organisms such as the livers of polar bears in the Arctic and human blood. [These] volatile PFCs can evaporate from [outdoor] products into the air."
A bitter pill to swallow for those of us who love being outdoors, and hate the thought that our clothes could be harming the pristine, fragile environment we were so keen to escape from our cities to. And it’s also a big surprise, as outdoor brands always seemed to “get" the importance of protecting the planet more than fast-fashion high-street brands. Their staff and in many cases owners always appeared to possess a genuine zeal when it came to caring about the environment.
To make sense of it all I called up Peter Webber, CEO of bluesign technologies, a science-driven Swiss company that works with companies including Patagonia, Burton, Haglofs and Helly Hansen to make their textiles more sustainable. Webber is a scientist who has worked on the “chemical side of the textiles industry for 48 years". He was motivated to set up bluesign from seeing “lots of not-nice things in factories in the 1980s. The industry was dirty and used a lot of resources."
“But for me it was clear that everything was chemistry, so if we wanted to talk about a more sustainable product we had to start with chemistry. We had to make the same products with no compromise in functionality, quality or design using less resources and so the product has a longer lifetime."
"These pollutants are found in secluded mountain lakes and snow from remote locations…[and] can accumulate in living organisms such as the livers of polar bears in the Arctic."
His company bluesign audits brands and gives them advice. If a brand follows their directives they can become a bluesign partner. Some brands baulk at the cost of the changes bluesign suggest. Have you ever had a brand say we can’t afford to do what you ask? “Of course. Brands are really marketing-driven, especially if they’re accountable to shareholders."
“But in the outdoor industry we have many family- owned companies and then it’s easier. If the owner decides, ‘Yes I’ll do it’ and then it costs a little bit more, they’ll still do it because they want a sustainable product. In the early days, we worked with [family-owned] Patagonia and that helped us get momentum in the industry. We work with a lot of good brands. Burton, Haglofs, Helly Hansen, Mammut, and even Adidas do a lot of good stuff. We are not interested in brands that only want window dressing."
I asked Webber what makes a jacket either good or bad for the environment?
He said: “A jacket is a very complex product because there could be as many as 50 items in it. A t-shirt is simple but with a jacket some parts might be made from textiles, others fleece, then there’s the buttons which could be plastic, the zip which could have heavy metal in it, a membrane, some logos, a care label…and what makes a jacket good or bad depends on knowing the chemistry of the production process for each of those items at every stage from the start to the end of their life."
"The most environmentally, sustainable jacket is the one that’s already in your closet…"
“It means you don’t use a chemical process that has a negative influence on the environment and you have to manage what we call ‘end of pipe’, which means the wastewater and the emissions. The workplace has to be managed in a perfect way. It is important to use the least possible resources and also that the product has a long life. This is when a product is good for the environment."
The long-life sentiment is echoed by Patagonia’s Chief Product Officer Lisa Williams, who tells me: “The most environmentally, sustainable jacket is the one that’s already in your closet…If you need to purchase a new jacket, the best one is the one that is durable, repairable and multi-functional."
Debbie Luffmann, Product Director at Finisterre, agrees: “Durability and enduring style are the most important things. How long is it going to last? What is the capacity to then repair it?"
But there’s also a tightrope to walk between functionality and environmental-friendliness says Luffman: “It’s a balancing act because you have to make the best possible jacket that you can as there is no point making a waterproof jacket that isn’t waterproof."
If a jacket doesn’t do the job you bought it for, it could end up landfill, with the brand deemed permanently untrustworthy in your eyes. I ask Webber if that’s why PFCs were so widely used? “Yes. For years you had to focus on function and PFC gives a fantastic water-repelling function and it’s durable and very easy to apply to a fabric. You can be PFC-free, we’ve had alternatives since 2000 but it’s a challenge for the brands as the alternatives are not as good. So it’s taken some time with this kind of chemistry to deliver a performance that is good enough for brands. And it will take a bit of time to be adopted."
“They also don’t fulfil the highest, highest criteria, so if we have people exploring the North Pole or the Himalayas and they need high performance they will still need this technology. The same goes for hospitals and some military wear. But for 90 per cent or more of people the alternatives that the industry has adopted will be fine. And I can’t see why any fast-fashion brand would need to use PFCs."
UK brand Paramo are one of the few companies who have never used PFCs to waterproof their jackets and their founder Nick Brown has long spoken out against their use. The Greenpeace testers even wore Paramo clothing while collecting their samples in the report mentioned at the start of this piece.
The fallout from Greenpeace’s anti-PFC campaign must have shaken many brands, especially those who were working with bluesign and behind the scenes trying to do the right thing for the environment, such as Patagonia. Williams says: “We’re on an urgent journey to develop a fluorocarbon-free DWR (Durable Water Repellent) alternative that does not degrade our products prematurely. We have completely switched from a C8 fluorocarbon-based treatment to a shorter-chain C6 treatment, also fluorocarbon-based, but with by-products that break down faster in the environment and with less potential toxicity over time to humans, wildlife and fish. We have adopted the C6 DWR as the finish for all of our outerwear."
“For the past decade, we’ve carefully researched and tested every available fluorocarbon-free alternative. Many finishes—including waxes and silicones—will lower the surface tension of a fabric enough to cause water to bead up and disperse rather than saturate. But they are easily contaminated by dirt and oil and rapidly lose their effectiveness, reducing the effective lifetime of a garment. If the garment is to be replaced more frequently, it constitutes its own environmental problem."
Adrian Gunn-Wilson, a director at the Welsh brand howies, tells me he’s glad Greenpeace raised the issue. He says: “I’m pleased Greenpeace finally highlighted the problem of PFCs from outdoor chemicals. Their shaming will push the commercial market to look at different methods. We’re a tiny brand, we might make just 300 of one type of jacket, where as a big brand such as North Face might make 30,000. They can command the market and affect real change."
He admires Patagonia for their constant efforts to reduce their environmental impact. “They’re are a big inspiration. They way they care more about the environment than their profits. We would love to be able to do more of what they do. To have their clout…"
For Julien Durant, co-founder of French brand Picture Organic, the recyclability of their products is paramount. He says: “It’s one of the biggest preoccupations of our design team. We launched the “2020 100 per cent recyclable" project two years ago. Our most sustainable jacket is the Welcome jacket, which is the starting point for that. It uses the RPET 100 per cent recyclable membrane composed by the same internal and external fabric (polyester) so made with one single fabric, which allowed the product to be recycled. That innovation has been transferred to more than 40 per cent of our products."
“But the biggest obstacle we face is usually the price because making everything organic and recycled makes the products 15 per cent to 30 per cent more expensive."
Howies encounters the same problem. “Times are hard, people are getting relatively poorer, and there’s the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. People are having to think about how they shop but the clothes you buy have a massive impact on the planet, and we have to work towards what we believe in."
How important is style in all this? Fast-fashion, that is the constant churn of new clothes released from high-street brands that end up in landfill months later as they’re too poor-quality to even be sold on again in charity shops, is one of the biggest environment problems the clothing industry faces. But then unfashionable clothes don’t sell either.
I ask Gunn-Wilson if style is important? “Massively. People don’t buy clothes that look shit. We’ve made some classically shit pieces at times…" We talk about how in the past it might have been enough that a product was eco-friendly. How sometimes something ugly but eco could be an anti-fashion fashion statement in itself.
But today Gunn-Wilson thinks non-stylish eco clothes can be an environmental disaster. “If people don’t buy them they can end up on clearance market." But, he warns, the outdoor market can’t pander to seasonal fashion either. “A lime green jacket that’s fashionable one season but not the next is no good. We want people to use our products for as long as possible."
"People don’t buy clothes that look shit."
Durant from Picture Organic also said: “Usually ethical clothing is seen as being ‘uncool', old fashioned or hippie-style. But to break the rules we came up with an original eco-friendly design thanks to Jeremy and his team. People think that eco-friendly products can only be brown or green. But we proved that it is not the case by using a vast number of bright and interesting colours."
When I asked Luffman from Finisterre about the importance of style, she made this interesting point about the psychology of purchasing. “Style is hugely important because people don’t buy based on ethics, that comes later. People buy what they see, whether it’s the look, the cut or the fit of something; those things are of prime importance to the consumer and then if they find out that it has recycled content, organic content and all those types of reasons, only then does that bolster it or help to push over the purchase and help justify the price tag."
"Style is hugely important because people don’t buy based on ethics, that comes later."
I ask her how can we help people more generally to the break the habit of fast-fashion? “We have to encourage them to buy better. We want them to look at product stories, the background of the product, where is it made, who makes it, what is it made of, and to investigate; by romanticising and visually bringing that to the consumer through product stories, you’re then engaging with the consumer through social media, photography, photo exhibitions and talks. It’s galvanising with a customer, getting them interested in the first place and then getting them to understand that if they buy something of quality, then it will last longer, you can pass it down. The adage buy cheap, buy twice rings true."
For Williams at Patagonia we need a change in public consciousness. She says: It requires a shift in mindset – from consumption, to ownership. As owners we care for and repair our gear, rather than disposing of it and buying new things when we don’t truly need it. Keeping our stuff in use for as long as possible is the simplest, most effective way all of us can have a positive impact on the environment."
"Repair is a radical act…"
“Fixing something we might otherwise throw away is almost inconceivable to many in the heyday of fast fashion and rapidly advancing technology, but the impact is enormous…repair is a radical act."
For Webber we also need to change the designers’ mindset. He says: “Designers are more or less the bad guys. Their decisions influence the resources, the supply chain and the end of life for a product. The industry has certain technologies available and designers have crazy ideas of what they like to use, the materials, the colours, the fancy extra bits…"
Is it not up to us as consumers to look at a jacket with lots of bells and whistles and question how easily it could be recycled? “I’d say that’s too complex for the consumer. Most people don’t understand that and [when they buy something] it’s an emotional decision, mostly about style, colour and the brand."
“In the future the qualification of a designer has to be different, they need to consider the environmental impact of the clothes the create, and especially the end of life. It’s unsexy, chemistry is not sexy but you have to see it in another way. It’s a new challenge and a new dimension for a designer." Here’s to the chemists and the outdoor clothing-brands on a quest towards a future of sustainable, and super-slow-fashion. I hope they make it.