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Gear trends: Insulation and fabric technology

The materials and fills that make up our outdoor arsenal keep getting better and greener with each season.

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When recreationists shop for outdoor gear, the sustainability of a product—from farm to factory to shelf—is becoming as important as the quality. The majority of U.S. consumers expect companies to act on social and environmental issues, and outdoor brands are moving that needle, as shown by the industry’s first-ever sustainability report that was recently released by the Outdoor Industry Association.

According to the sustainability report, all company sizes indicated that design and material sourcing, as well as the product end-of-use, are on their radar as top priorities. Looking ahead, essential apparel, like sleeping bags and jackets, will introduce new fabric and and insulation technology that’s more comfortable for sweaty, endurance activities, but also responsibly addresses animal welfare and environmental standards.

People in puffy jackets stand around a fire
Downlite and Cocona Inc. recently developed the ClimaSMART Down Blend.Downlite

Better moisture transfer

Even down—a “superhero” component for outdoor apparel—has an Achilles: its lack of moisture transfer. But companies are working to change that weakness.

One innovative partnership: Downlite and Cocona Inc. recently developed the ClimaSMART Down Blend, a mixture of down and polyester fiber that’s permanently embedded with the naturally derived 37.5, a patented technology that is made from volcanic sand and the activated carbon of coconut shells, which attracts and releases moisture vapor. DownTek also plans to partner with 37.5 to create a new insulation that mixes hydrophobic down and 37.5 technology.

The goal? To achieve a down layer that is worn for higher intensity activities or longer durations without the user overheating.

PrimaLoft, a synthetic and water-resistant insulation that offers a down alternative, has salvaged more than 84.7 million plastic bottles from landfills to manufacture PrimaLoft fibers since 2015. That’s 4.7 million pounds of recycled content that’s been used in outdoor apparel, sleeping bags, footwear and home goods. Growing on its success, the insulation company recently set a goal to incorporate at least 50 percent post-consumer recycled (PCR) material in 90 percent of the brand’s products by 2020. For summer and fall 2019, a handful of outdoor companies are already on board to feature 100-percent PCR PrimaLoft including Rossignol, Topo Designs, and Vaude.

“Hydrophobic down is great, because the down doesn’t compress…however, hydrophobic down doesn’t handle moisture vapor coming off your own body,” explained Gordon Wright, Outside PR president and DownTek spokesperson. “Your jacket might be a great insulator, but you don’t use it for a run or cross-country skiing because you’d over-heat. This blend with 37.5 helps dissipate that moisture,” he said. DownTek is unable to confirm brand partners at print but the blend will be on the market by 2019.


Responsible sourcing on the rise

In a huge win, the Responsible Down Standard (RDS) certification has become ubiquitous in the outerwear industry in North America and Europe—and not only in the outerwear industry, said Chad Altbaier, VP outdoor for Downlite, which manufactures down that is used in consumer and hotel bedding, sleeping bags, and outdoor apparel. “When it comes to traceablility and animal welfare, down certifications continue to be important for retailers and end consumers,” he said.

To celebrate the RDS sustainability standards, the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) recognized Allied Feather and Down, The North Face, Downlite and other brands—along with Northeastern Minnesotans for Wilderness, American Hiking Society, and African American Nature & Parks Experience—with the 2018 “Together We Are A Force” award (which includes three categories in sustainability, policy, and participation) at the Outdoor Retailer Summer Market.

Allied Feather and Down and The North Face partnered with Downlite, Textile Exchange, and Control Union Certifications to develop RDS, which launched in 2014.

Allied Feather and Down likewise manufactures down for bedding products in retail and hospitality, as well as outdoor industry apparel. In an effort to steer the global industry standards for down, Allied Feather and Down launched the Track My Down program in 2015, which has now grown to include 90 brands. Track My Down serves as an educational tool and adds more consumer-facing transparency to the down supply chain via hangtags on registered products, which include a lot number that allows consumers to learn more about the down in their jacket or sleeping bag. Allied supplied over 2.6 million pounds of RDS-certified down in 2016 alone—the equivalent of filling more than 4 million parkas.

In less than four years, the RDS standard has been adopted by industries worldwide. The initiative has grown in part due to consumer-facing hangtags, which help to educate consumers on the standard and help fuel its popularity, which is why more folks in Europe and in the U.S. are asking for apparel that features the certification, explained Altbaier.

Woman shown smiling in a cloudy, lakeside setting, wearing a red Marmot Aquavent EVODry jacket.
Green Theme Technologies (formerly known as Green Theme International) creates 100-percent PFC-free, environmentally-friendly finishes for fabrics.Matt Shaw

PFC-free is becoming a reality

A wave of eco-focused leaders are battling PFCs (perfluorocarbons): the manufactured chemicals that have long been used to create waterproof and water-repellent finishes for outdoor industry apparel. PFCs are also used to treat down fill. Unfortunately, PFCs contaminate the environment and never biodegrade.

“We all know that PFCs are just bad—even short chain PFCs are not good for the environment—and the entire industry is looking for a way to get rid of PFCs. The down industry is no different,” said Wright. “The problem is that PFCs work really well. DownTek had an early iteration of non-PFC that performed but not as well as down treated with PFC.”

Then, in a groundbreaking discovery, Samantha Lee, now associate at W.L. Gore, created a PFC-free DWR treatment in 2017. The then 21-year-old was an intern at bulk down supplier Sustainable Down Source, which produces hydrophobic down under the name DownTek. Lee’s new DWR treatment performs to withstand 33 hours of constant rain compared to DownTek’s original formula, which could only block 16.7 hours of rain. Now, DownTek will produce only PFC-free down filling with the treatment.

Beyond down fill, brands that manufacture fabric and fabric treatments are also making headway with PFC-free solutions.

To combat harmful chemicals, Green Theme Technologies (formerly known as Green Theme International) creates 100-percent PFC-free, environmentally-friendly finishes for fabrics. Green Theme Technologies also developed a water-free process: Any chemicals are applied to fibers on a molecular level, meaning there is zero waste added to the water stream.

More outdoor brands are hopping onto that green ship. Marmot partnered with Green Theme Technologies to introduce an environmentally-friendly production line, Evodry, which reached consumers in February 2018.

“Marmot started working with us a year ago and wanted to take a lead on removing PFCs from production supply chain by 2020,” said Martin Flora, president of Green Theme Technologies. “Evodry does two things: The dye process is eliminated and it adopted [the GTT] process to add water repellency to rain jackets. The water repellency is five times more durable than anything on the market and there is zero waste added to water,” he said.

Black Diamond likewise partnered with Green Theme Technologies for the creation of PFC-free apparel in the spring 2019 technical outerwear wind collection. BD plans to expand the eco-friendly DWR to the ski, alpine and rainwear collections.

Gore—which also has a goal to eliminate PFCs from the majority of its consumer fabrics by 2020—also announced at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market a PFC-free breakthrough in Gore-Tex 2-layer jackets, which, in addition, utilize face-textiles that are made from recycled materials.

Finding new, sustainable options to replace PFCs is an ongoing, time-intensive process. From responsibility-sourced down to eco-friendly treatments and endurance-friendly blends, consumers are likely to be excited about what’s next in the world of insulations and fabrics.