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New Research on Outdoor Gear Could See Toxic DWRs Outmoded

Designing apparel with the specific end user group in mind could curtail the overuse of environmentally toxic chemical textile treatments like polyfluoroalkyls (PFAs), new research shows.

Textile makers seem to take a scattershot approach to solutions for protective apparel, whether that’s a consumer raincoat or on-the-job uniform for industries like healthcare and oil and gas. However, the highest-grade durable water repellants (DWRs) tend to be the most toxic, and research shows their stain repelling properties might not be necessary for the everyday consumer out for a hike or a stroll.

A new paper published in the Journal of Cleaner Production details research led by a team at the University of Leeds looking into non-fluorinated substances as replacement for their more harmful PFA counterparts when it comes to their inclusion and utility in both consumer performance apparel and protective garments for professionals across sectors.

Given that the apparel sector consumes 25 percent of the worldwide chemical production coupled with growing consumer awareness of fashion’s sketchy track record with environmental stewardship, textile treatment suppliers could benefit from knowing where people want and need their products.

The Leeds paper highlights a 13-question survey of 300 outdoors aficionados that seeks to understand consumer sentiment about desirable attributes for outdoor apparel. The group, 84 percent of whom mostly climbed or roamed the hillside on average weekly, described stain repellence as a low priority in outdoor garments, coming in a distance fifth behind fit, cost, water repellence and durability. Two-thirds (67 percent) of regularly active people, those outdoors daily or more than thrice weekly, claimed their active apparel designed for use in the elements should be “fully waterproof,” the paper said.

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When asked how well their gear should fight stains, many found the topic almost comical. The paper said “many” respondents expressed an interest in their garments’ performance rather than appearance, and 57 percent dismissed the idea that clothing to be enjoyed in nature mustn’t be sullied by dirt and oil. In individual feedback, survey takers pointed out that stain resistance isn’t “crucial to preventing hypothermia on the mountains” and “I don’t get oily when walking.”

Despite being clear on what they want in their gear, outdoors-oriented consumers were notably under informed about the controversy surrounding polyfluoroalkyls, the liquid-repelling substances favored by chemical manufacturers. More than 59 percent admitted being oblivious to the firestorm surrounding PFAs while a scant number—5.7 percent—claimed to be fully up to speed on the harms these chemicals pose. Echoing general consumer interest in corporate transparency, more than 61 percent felt brands should be more forthcoming about the chemicals used to make their products—and any issues those materials might present.

With insight into what consumers prioritize in outdoor apparel, the researchers compared the performance of non-fluorinated substances in resisting the kinds of stains everyday people might encounter (orange juice, wine, olive oil) and those similar to what healthcare professionals deal with (simulated blood, cough medicine, gastric fluid). The biodegradable, non-fluorinated DWRs handled orange juice and wine pretty well on the consumer front, and synthetic blood on the medical front. Fabrics treated with the environmentally friendly substances didn’t pass muster when it came to the cough syrup or gastric fluid, however.

“Repellency to bodily fluids is an essential requirement to avoid the transmission of diseases, but non-fluorinated DWRs evaluated within this study did not show sufficient functionality to be used in this end-user sector,” the paper said.

Professionals like first responders, those in the armed services and oil and gas field reps who rely on protective apparel as a life and safety measure need high-performance PFAs that are resistant to many types of liquids in their gear, according to the paper. On the other hand, consumers who are primarily preoccupied with keeping garments dry from rainfall or routine water encounters do not. Selecting non-fluorinated substances for use in consumer outdoor garments over PFAs could significantly improve environmental sustainability.