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Water-resistant down doubters: Non-adopters question marketing, environmental aspects of technology

Not all outdoor companies are on the water-resistant down bandwagon. At Outdoor Retailer Winter Market, we found plenty of reasons from brands why they have yet to adopt the technology. Are they late to the game, or rightly skeptical?

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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show Jan. 23-26. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives.

Water-resistant down has been touted as a total game-changer since it debuted to much fanfare at last year’s Winter Market, and the buzz only has grown since then.

This breakthrough in insulation technology — which significantly reduces one of down’s biggest weaknesses, its dip in performance when wet, with a polymer treatment — is a shoe-in for market domination.

Or is it?

More than a dozen manufacturers are enthusiastically embracing one of the several types of water-resistant down available, with brands like Sierra Designs, Sea-to-Summit and Mountain Hardwear completely phasing out untreated feathers in their sleeping bags and jackets. But skeptics remain.

Outdoor Research is one of them. “We tested it, and we felt that we had a better solution,” said Melanie Sirirot, product manager for outerwear. “We didn’t see a strong benefit [to water-resistant down].”

Sirirot said Outdoor Research tested the treated feathers with the intention of introducing the technology into its line of puffy jackets. But field and lab testing returned lukewarm results. “The DWR that goes on the down reduces fill power,” she said, requiring manufacturers to, say, purchase 850-fill down for an 800-fill item. Plus, “It’ll still eventually get wet.” Instead, the company is taking a different tack with its new Floodlight Jacket (MSRP $375). The 800-fill regular down puffy employs bonded (not sewn) quilting channels and taped seams for full waterproof protection.

Western Mountaineering also is sticking to untreated feathers. Company owner Gary Schaezlein said he’s not yet convinced on several key questions about the new technology, Namely: How long does the treatment last? Does it eventually wash into the shell fabric? Will the chemical treatment ever make the down clump? “When you’re adding an additive, you just don’t know,” he said. “Higher-grade down is more water-resistant anyway.”

While proponents often ask, “Why not use water-resistant down?” the question for Westcomb is: “Why?”

“What is the situation that [water-resistant down] is actually being used for?” asked the company’s spokesman Drew Simmons. “Where’s your shell?” Simmons adds that Westcomb’s Canadian-sourced down works just fine without the treatment. “Canada is very proud of its down. It’s like France and champagne, or Vermont and maple syrup. It’s a wonderful, pure, naturally spectacular material by itself.”

Other manufacturers are cautiously dipping a toe into the water-resistant world. Marmot debuts its Down Defender formulation this season in several puffy jackets and in children’s apparel, and plans to introduce several Down Defender sleeping bags next spring — but most of the line remains untreated. “It’s untested waters,” said spokesman Jordan Campbell. “We’ve been leaders in down, and we don’t want to rush to failure.”

Campbell also questioned the need to switch insulation on jackets that already feature a highly water-resistant shell fabric. “It’s kind of redundant,” he said. Plus, higher fill power water-resistant down is more expensive to source. That’s why Marmot is limiting its use to jackets at the 700-fill level for now: the Guides Down Hoody (MSRP $225) and the Ajax (MSRP $165), along with the kids’ line.

For Columbia, the decision to skip treated down is more about its customer base. “Our customers are weekend warriors, not on expeditions,” said Scott Trepanier, senior manager of public relations and promotions. “For the ultra athlete, yeah, there’s a good case for [water-resistant down],” he said, pointing to sister brand Mountain Hardwear’s new Q. Shield water-resistant down technology in a few of its jackets. “But I don’t think [regular] down is going anywhere.”

Finally, some questions remain about the environmental impact of the polymer treatment used to make feathers hydrophobic. “Adding another chemical to a chemical-filled world doesn’t make a lot of sense,” said Westcomb’s Simmons. “We don’t know how it’s going to work or where it’s going to end up.”

Concerns like that pushed The North Face to develop its new, proprietary Pro Down. “We wanted to see if we could use a treatment that’s best in terms of the environment,” said Neil Munro, director of the Summit Series line. He said the company’s goal was to reduce the PFOAs (a type of fluorosurfactant) released. Its formula uses a chemistry that is not known to bioaccumulate.

TNF introduces two Pro Down puffies this season — the 950-fill Supernatural (MSRP $349) and the 800-fill Catalyst Micro Jacket (MSRP $299) — but doesn’t plan to ditch its untreated down offerings in favor of the new insulation just yet.

For all their skepticism, the down doubters aren’t completely writing off the water-resistant craze. “We’ll keep an open mind about it,” said Outdoor Research’s Sirirot; the company will continue testing treatments as formulas evolve. “We’re going to look at it,” added Western Mountaineering’s Schaezlein. For now, regular feathers still fly.

–Elisabeth Kwak-Hefferan