For the last few decades, the type of "performance" rain gear that you can buy at outdoor stores has had one thing in common: It's made with PFCs, the same category of chemical compound that makes Teflon pans slippery.
The coating makes rain bead up and roll off. But like nonstick pans, the PFCs in waterproof jackets pose potential environmental and health risks. Now, a redesigned rain jacket has eliminated PFCs completely.
It's as good as repelling water as a standard waterproof, breathable jacket, but just doesn't have the same chemicals.
"You can make a jacket that doesn't have PFC easily, out of nylon or polyester or whatever you want—but what you're going to have is a lot of water absorption into the textile," says Woody Blackford, VP of design and innovation at Columbia Sportswear, the company that designed the jacket. "These really function at the highest level of the industry in terms of performance in the field." (Older rain jackets, made from rubber, also might not have used PFCs—but they weren't breathable, and clammy to wear. Others used PVC, which poses its own problems.)
The idea for the jacket began when the company wanted to solve another problem—standard rain gear tends to stop working as well over time as the coating comes off. "If you put it on a textile, when the textile is brand-new, it will bead up and it will keep it from absorbing water," Blackford says. "But unfortunately PFC is a lot like Teflon, which unfortunately—nothing likes to stick to Teflon, but Teflon also doesn't like to stay stuck."
A typical rain jacket would have a layer of fabric on the outside, coated with a water-repellant finish, and a membrane with tiny holes (for breathability) on the inside. As the coating wears off, the jacket starts to get wet in the rain. By flipping the membrane to the outside—and getting rid of the fabric—the company was able to make a jacket that's structurally less likely to get wet.
"It really set us up to make a PFC-free version," he says. "So with some tweaks in the chemistry we've now achieved that . . . It's basically a waterproof sheet that can breathe." The jacket uses an environmentally friendly compound, which they're in the process of patenting, to repel water.
The company looked at every aspect of the jacket—from production to what happens when someone wants to throw it away—and tried to make it as sustainable as possible. It's undyed, eliminating water and energy used in the dyeing process. The fabric lining, along with zippers and other trims, is made from recycled plastic water bottles.
Though the impact of PFC on the environment and health isn't fully understood yet, studies in animals have shown that it can disrupt endocrine activity, affect internal organs, and cause developmental problems. In the environment, the compounds don't break down. In fact, they're so common that Columbia can't guarantee that trace amounts might not show up in the jacket—not by design, but because they can be anywhere.
"We know that it's not good for the environment to become loaded with a chemistry that really won't break down and won't reverse," says Blackford.
The company now hopes to scale the new process up into other products in its line. "We had limitations on how much we could make the first season," he says. "Often, with any new technology, that's the case. But basically we have no reason to not want to expand on this platform."
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All Photos: Columbia Sportswear