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Why This Outdoor Founder Says a PFAS Ban Will ‘Force a Lot More Innovation’

Many people who enjoy the outdoors aren’t aware of how their gear affects the environment.

The shells and jackets frequently worn during outdoor adventures are commonly made with PFAS-based weatherproofing technology, though these per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances are coming under fire by regulators and industry insiders alike.

Trent Bush, a veteran of outdoor industry brands including Mountain Hardwear and Black Diamond Equipment, co-founded Artilect in 2020 to revolutionize the outdoor apparel industry’s decades-old technologies and processes. Not only are chemical compounds like PFAS harmful to global ecology—they’re out of date, he told Sourcing Journal.

The industry has been “stagnant” in innovating to meet the performance needs of new outdoor athletes with “a very high level of athleticism,” from back-country skiers to mountain bikers and trail runners, he said. Having worked with traditional solutions, from durable water repellant (DWR) coatings to temperature control PTFE membranes, since the 1980s, Bush said these “older technologies have not kept pace” with the ways the outdoor consumer has evolved.

“Innovation hasn’t been as much of a driver as it has been in other industries, like cars, phones, electronics or software,” he said. “The analogy is if you’re starting to car company in 2023, you’re not going to start with a gas engine.”

DWRs—derived from PFAS chemicals—aren’t as durable as their name would suggest. “Any DWR is basically taking a polymer and gluing it to fabric using water,” Bush said. “So you’re taking a hydrophobic polymer, and then trying to get that to stick to fabric using a wet process.” This might be effective at keeping water from permeating the fabric, but not for very long. People reactivate the finish on DWR-coated outerwear when they toss the laundered garment into the dryer. Traditional DWRs aren’t good for breathability, as the coating doesn’t leave space between the fabric fibers for air to escape.

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Artilect founder Trent Bush believes PFAS is the technology of the past.
Artilect. Courtesy

Artilect’s “High and Dry” waterproof breathable three-layer fabric includes a shell, a membrane and a liner fused through lamination. But instead of coating its surface fabric with a market DWR, the company is using Empel, a PFAS-free finish that claims to deliver 10 times more water repellency through a waterless application process.

Developed by Green Theme Technologies, Inc., Empel uses a monomer fabric coating that is polymerized around each fiber using heat and pressure. “What you’re getting is a super hydrophobic chemistry that is permanently fused to individual fibers,” Bush said. “So it’s significantly more powerful than any of the long-chain carbon DWRs that ever existed.”

“Empel does not wash off, change the hand of fabric, or the breathability,” founder and vice president of business development Martin Flora told Sourcing Journal. Unlike most chemistries that rely on water as a solvent, and wash off over time, “it lasts essentially for the life of a garment,” he added.

With federal and state governments mulling PFAS bans and retailers including REI and textile producers such as Milliken scrubbing the substances from their portfolios and product lines, Bush said the outdated chemistry is on its way out. “This has been brewing for years, so I’ve known that there was an issue whether or not it was going to be recognized [by the industry,” he said. “It’s going to take something like a PFAS ban to shake everybody out of their business-as-usual way of doing things, and it’s going to force a lot more innovation and progress in a very short period of time.”

The main barrier to change, Flora said, is brands and mills’ unwillingness to “re-tool their supply chains.”

“Brands are focused on profits to their owners and shareholders, and adding development costs to implement PFAS alternatives reduces profits,” he said. “Fluorine is the only chemical compound that repels both water and oil based materials, was easy to apply and had an exceptionally low cost.” Because brands aren’t helping mills invest in new technology, that lack of collaboration has hampered advancement.

“A lot of big brands are just not set up to be true innovators,” Bush said. Because he was able to start from from scratch with his young brand, Artilect was free to focus on prioritizing new technologies and solutions that achieve higher performance. Bush pointed to a new class of textile innovators “out there pushing the envelope.”

“It really just takes somebody to believe in it enough to put in the work required to vet it out, and make sure that the promises of these technologies prove to be real and beneficial,” he said.