When W.L. Gore & Associates, the Newark, Delaware-based maker of the Gore-Tex membrane, recently announced plans to invest $15 million in alternative durable water repellent (DWR) solutions over the next five years, it wasn’t part of a newfound commitment to environmental activism.
Rather, it was the latest step in the company’s ongoing responsibility journey, albeit a more publicized one.
“This is not something that has a specific beginning or end, nor is it something that we’re looking at as an obligation. For us, it’s a responsibility because it helps define who we are as a company,” said Matt Schreiner, a Gore product specialist, speaking at a press event in October.
Recognizing the ongoing debate regarding per- and polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs) and their presence in DWR treatments, Gore’s goal is to find new waterproof finishes with a reduced environmental impact that still provide durable comfort at or above the performance level of existing fabric technologies on the market today.
Schreiner added, “This isn’t something that we just started; we’ve been doing it all along.”
A snapshot of Gore’s sustainability journey
1986: Gore pioneered the use of solvent-free adhesives for manufacturing garment laminates
1993: The Gore Balance Project was adopted, making the company the first manufacturer of performance fabrics to introduce a high level recycling system for high-performance garments
1996: Gore began working with the Öko-Tex 100 Standard for textile product safety
2011: Gore-Tex apparel made with two-layer laminates that are Bluesign-approved fabrics to be available at retail after September 2012; Gore switched its DWR treatment for its consumer fabrics from C8-based to more environmentally friendly alternatives
2012: The Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC), of which Gore Fabrics is a founding member, unveiled the Higg Index, a new tool for measuring a product’s sustainability performance across the industry value chain; Bluesign offerings increased to about 50 percent of the total Gore-Tex laminate volume supplied for making consumer garments for the Fall/Winter 2013 retail season
2013: Gore published the Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) results for the first time for functional outerwear; completed the elimination of perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA) from all raw materials used in the manufacture of its weatherproof functional fabrics
2014: Gore published the LCA results for a Gore-Tex hiking boot
It all adds up
“It’s a long history of working proactively and very effectively in this area, something we’re very proud of,” Schreiner noted.
Proactively being the key word here. In 2013, seeing certain regulations emerging in Europe, Gore took preemptive steps to remove all PFOA materials (or long-chain PFCs) from its supply chain, including from some of its more demanding applications—despite scientific studies disproving some activist organizations’ claims that laundering weatherproof outerwear is one of the main sources of the release of PFCs into the environment.
“By doing that we effectively switched to short-chain DWR systems and we found that we could still maintain a high level of durability and the performance level that we needed for our products,” Schreiner explained. “So we were able to make this change without sacrificing performance and durability. And we did it with some pretty innovative work, some really solid knowledge of manufacturing and process control.”
Remember when Patagonia took out a full-page ad in The New York Times in 2011 telling customers not to buy its bestselling sweater? Gore was taking a similar stand in 2013 when its fabrics division released the LCA results of a durable waterproof, windproof and breathable Gore-Tex jacket used for five years—a tool it had been using since 1992 but had never before shared with the public.
The main findings of the study pointed out that production and distribution account for around two-thirds of the product’s Global Warming Potential (GWP), while consumer care (defined as washing and drying the garment over that time period) at 35 percent of total GWP, also had a significant impact. But the jacket’s disposal had less than a 1 percent impact.
In other words: the longer a Gore-Tex jacket lasts, the smaller its annual environmental impact will be.
“We’re all in an industry where we want to sell more and retailers want more turnover but at the end of the day we can’t deny, from a scientific point of view, the impact of longevity of the product and durability of the product,” Schreiner said.
What’s next for Gore?
One technology that’s coming soon is carbon dioxide dyeing, a method that uses gas rather than water to infuse fabric with color.
“That offers huge energy and chemical savings by not having to use water, not using a lot of dye fixatives and dye carriers,” said Tom Cabaniss, a product range manager at Gore.
Another upcoming innovation is a solution-dyeing process (the color is manufactured into and throughout the fiber), a technology that Cabaniss said is “advancing, it’s making a bigger impact and people are improving their techniques.”
Gore customers utilizing these two technologies will have garments at retail in 2016.