In early 2017, Columbia released one of the most environmentally-friendly and high performance rain jackets on the market. At the helm of the company’s innovations department is Woody Blackford, a Halifax- born inventor that’s behind Columbia’s pioneering technologies and designs. Here, he discusses the new OutDry Extreme Eco jacket and the problem with using PFCs in waterproof clothing.
On the innovations of the OutDry Extreme Eco jacket
The goal was to make Columbia’s first truly high-performance and highly efficient, in terms of sustainability and impact to the environment, product. The key word being high performance. We wanted a jacket that would perform as good or better than our other OutDry products, but without PFCs (perfluorinated compounds: a common rain-repelling technology that leaches out of the fabric into the environment). The second thing we did was look at every other aspect of the product to try to make it as environmentally friendly as possible. We didn’t use any dyes (which is why the jacket is white), which saves about 49 litres of water from being essentially polluted during the process of dying. Also, every textile element as well as every toggle, zipper, button and snap is made from 100% recycled materials, which saves around 21 plastic bottles per garment from being put into the landfill. So, we’re pretty proud of it.
On the problems with PFCs
Basically, I look at PFCs as a multi-tiered issue. The compound, in the form of a durable water repellant, is used to keep the fabric exterior of a garment from acting like a sponge. Nothing repels water more aggressively than fluorine. But it doesn’t actually work as well as it seems. When you first apply the PFCs, it’s kind of like a magic trick. If you put water on the treated fabric, you can roll the droplets around like mercury. But if you put your finger on the treated surface, you can still press water into the voids of the fabric.
Another issue is that PFCs don’t really like to stick to anything, even the textile, so they start to come off into the environment. When the garment is washed, PFCs are also washed down the drain and enter the environment. And they’re in the environment, PFCs don’t break down and begin to bio-accumulate.
On how this jacket stands up to the other OutDry products?
We were cautious at first about saying it’s the same, because it didn’t seem possible. But it has pretty much turned out to be the same. We’ve tested the Eco jacket extensively now and gotten feedback from a variety of skeptics, and they’re impressed. The best way to test the jacket is in the field. Labs are nice and you can get kind of an idea, but you’ve just got to get it out there in a variety of conditions. Field testing also helps us learn other things about the Eco jacket. For example, when you put out a white jacket on the market, a lot of people are skeptical because it will get dirty. But our testers found that if you get mud and dirt on this piece, it just wipes off. That reduces the need to wash the jacket over and over.