The latest research from Leeds University, UK, concludes that waterproof outdoor clothing is over-engineered in the view of most of the high-end consumers that wear it. A significant majority (82%) of 575 outdoor enthusiasts (regular hikers, trekkers, mountaineers and hill walkers) surveyed in this work said water-repellence was the key factor, and the majority were indifferent to the garment’s stain- and oil-repellence.
Will consumers turn their backs on waterproof fluorocarbon finishes?
The same research rated the water-repellence of fabrics treated with non-fluorinated or fluorinated finishes and concluded they were similar across a range of textiles tested. The principal difference is that the non-fluorinated finishes do not provide oil- and stain-repellence.
Widespread concerns over the effects on human health and damage to the environment caused by using fluorinated chemicals suggest a simple outcome: switch to the alternatives technologies. Given the scale of the use of such treatments and being an advocate of the precautionary principle, I would have to agree, but with a few reservations.
Generally, alternative treatments are more expensive and consumers’ behaviour, particularly that of the wider public (outdoor enthusiasts have a reputation for having more concern for health and environmental issues than others), has been known to contradict opinions in surveys when faced with such realities. As such switches take hold, it is reasonable to expect that production costs will come down as the benefits of economies of scale are realised by the alternative treatments. However, this is not the sole reason for any differences in total costs to the consumer. The effective lifetime of the treatment is a crucial factor, and the Leeds researchers are now comparing the effects of laundering, abrasion and ageing on the two types of finish.
Further, it would be prudent to assess fully the effects on health and the environment of the non-fluorinated technologies before concluding that the problem has been solved. Even then, there are specialist garments that require stain- and oil-resistance, some of which are safety critical (such as clothing for petrochemical workers). There is much work left to be done, but happily the textile industry has on many occasions proven itself to be up to the task of reinventing solutions to the trickiest of problems.
Alternatives to fluorocarbon technologies and their relative merits will be key topics of debate at the forthcoming Textile Coating and Laminating conference to be held in Berlin, Germany, on 8-9 November 2017. Early bird registration is now open.