Sam Fortescue looks at the latest clothing developments making technical marine clothing more eco-friendly
Back in the days when togging up for a sail meant donning a stout Guernsey and some tightly woven gaberdines, sustainability was barely on the agenda. Wool and cotton were the main fabrics of choice, with perhaps a latex or wax coating to offer a modicum of waterproofing.
Today there is an astonishing array of technical fabrics and clothing to keep us dry inside and out without cramping our range of movement. Garments keep working in the Southern Ocean, in the Arctic Circle and under intense activity. But alas, there is a cost to progress, because we rely almost exclusively on man-made synthetic fibres and coatings whose chief precursor is crude oil.
The problem with wet weather gear is in fact several fold, because these are composite garments built in several layers. The outer layer of fabric will typically be polyester or nylon, and it is treated with something called a Durable Water Repellent (DWR) coating – a chemical which makes water bead off. Then there is a vanishingly thin synthetic membrane sandwiched between the inner and outer layers of the garment, made of a polymer.
Until recently, DWR has been manufactured from a chemical family known as perfluorinated compounds, or PFCs. These are related to Teflon and are described as ‘forever chemicals’ because their key characteristic is not to break down in nature (they wouldn’t work very well if they did). They’re toxic substances, and research suggests that they are carcinogenic and interrupt the reproductive cycle. Many waterproof membranes, including Gore-Tex, are made from sheets of extended PTFE (aka Teflon), which belongs to the same family of chemicals.
Sailors are drawn two ways on this, because the instinct to preserve the elements on which we rely is strong. At the same time, nobody wants to go back to the dark days of sodden woollens and chattering teeth.
Fortunately, yarn manufacturers, chemical giants and garment makers are all pulling in the same direction (and will be regulated to do so) and there are interesting developments in the pipeline.
In terms of unintended home goals, this is a big one for sailing. Most brands relied on long-chain C8 (with eight carbon atoms) chemistry until long after the PFC health scandal broke around DuPont in the US. Now there is growing regulatory pressure to eliminate all PFC treatments, with the EU mulling a ban for 2027 and California a step ahead in 2025. Only ocean racing and security forces are exempt, so companies are scrambling to develop ‘green’ alternatives.
Most have already made the step to short-chain C6 chemistry, which breaks down more readily in the environment. “We did a big trial with the GB Sailing Team coaches – they put ridiculous hours on their kit, took it offshore, and they didn’t see much of a difference,” says Musto product technologist Suzanne Baxter.
Musto has already formulated a PFC-free treatment, known generically as C0, which it uses in its second-tier BR2 line of foulies. But one of the problems with C0 treatments is that they don’t repel oil. “If oil can start to get through to the membrane, then it pushes the holes open and in time it can start to leak,” continues Baxter. “We’ve added more into the mechanical finish but one of the problems when you do that is it reduces the breathability. We ended up changing the membrane to make it more breathable to counteract the extra chemistry we had to put into the fabric. We moved to a bi-component membrane with hydrophilic membrane on the inside.”
Gore, which certifies the fabric used in MPX and HPX gear, is also working to eliminate toxic DWR at its end too. The company says it is on track to transition to a PFC-like chemical that is not of environmental concern by the end of 2025, including the Gore-Tex Pro products that go into the marine sector (including Musto and North Sails Performance gear).
Gill has got there already, switching all its wet weather gear to its plant-based XPEL treatment and believes it’s the only marine brand to offer this level of water-repellency through a plant-based DWR coating. Louis Burton and Conrad Colman have put the finish through its paces in the Southern Ocean and on the Route du Rhum.
Zhik has also formulated a ‘green’ DWR treatment, which it markets as XWR. It is super stretchy and only appears on some of the lighter-weight tops at the moment. “It is currently not on our range of OFS [offshore gear], but as those ranges get refreshed and made in future, all the lines will be moved across to the PFC-free coatings,” says Zhik’s head of design and production, Drue Kerr.
Henri Lloyd is migrating all but two of its lines over to a non-PFC based treatment over the rest of this year, but it is the pinnacle M-Pro and O-Race products which are sticking out. “We’re working on that,” says CEO Graham Allen.
Not currently in the sailing world, chemical specialist Archroma has developed a water-based treatment called Smartrepel hydro which lasts for at least 20 washes – more, probably, than most of our foulies will undergo!
But some argue that the whole DWR approach is flawed. And Allen at Henri Lloyd is one of them: “It’s not about repelling moisture chemically, it’s about not absorbing it in the first place,” he says. “We’ve seen a new polymer C0 from Japan that doesn’t absorb moisture in the first place. The weave of the fabric is really fine, so there’s less place for moisture to get into.” The fabric could be in products by 2025.
Rucksack brand Fjällraven uses a polyurethane spray for its waterproofing. And Musto is looking into the possibility of switching nylon and polyester for more hydrophobic polypropylene yarn, as well as infusing the yarn itself with a water-hating treatment.
Recycling and more
It is becoming easier and cheaper to collect waste plastic and turn it into virgin yarn for a new generation of clothing. Nylon is typically spun out of discarded fishing nets, old carpet and post-industrial waste fibre, while polyester is manufactured from old PET drinks bottles. And the benefits are huge, keeping billions of items of waste out of landfill, consuming less than half the energy of virgin material.
Recycled and virgin yarn are indistinguishable, so there is no difference in performance. No wonder, then, that sailing brands are incorporating more and more of it into their products. In the space of just 12 months, Helly Hansen has switched its wet weather gear and almost every other line to 100% recycled yarn in its Ocean Bound scheme. Many of the products in Musto’s top HPX and MPX clothing lines incorporate around 50% recycled polyester, all concentrated in the shell. Gill’s OS2 uses recycled nylon for the shell and recycled polyester fleece lining, adding up to a 98% recycled jacket. Slam also includes a high proportion of recycled yarn in its gear.
At the other end of the chain, Henri Lloyd works with a not-for-profit organisation called Worn By Us so that British customers can recycle end-of-life garments. If the clothing is still usable, it goes on sale and the owner receives 40% off the price. “The worst-case situation is the old clothes get shredded and used as building insulation,” says Allen. “They have another life afterwards. Nothing goes to landfill.” Zhik and Finisterre also offer recycling schemes.
But true recycling would be circular, allowing old sailing jackets to be turned back into new ones, and here there are some problems to overcome. One of these is the way in which fabrics and materials are mixed in a laminate – a nylon face, PTFE and polyurethane membrane, polyester inner mesh – not to mention adhesive, plastic zips, reflective patches, thread and seam tape. Disassembling this into its constituents is currently impossible.
One solution mooted by Musto is to use the same plastic throughout. Its One Single Material line includes dozens of products from puffers and beanies to polo shirts and shorts – all made from polyester. But you won’t find any of its frontline waterproof jackets and trousers in the range, because the performance isn’t there. Helly Hansen also has a limited Mono Material Line.
Zhik sounds a note of caution about the true sustainability of the single material products. “Currently [they] lose performance and degrade quickly in a saltwater environment,” says Drue Kerr. “It’s our belief that this is not sustainable practice; if a product is not appropriate for its end use, it simply won’t last and will have a more detrimental effect to the environment.”
A wafer-thin question
Membranes are the final element in the sustainability conundrum. This is the secret ingredient which gives the garment its main waterproof and breathable characteristics, without which we’d either get wet in a storm or hot and sweaty on the inside.
The two common approaches are to sandwich an incredibly thin layer of ePTFE or polyurethane between the shell and lining of a garment, and many manufacturers combine the two into a so-called bi-component membrane. The PTFE is extremely breathable, while the polyurethane protects it and enhances waterproofing.
But PTFE is still derived from damaging forever chemicals and polyurethane is another oil-based polymer. So clothing companies are also experimenting with bio-based alternatives that could have a lower carbon footprint. eVent is the manufacturer behind the membrane in Zhik’s OFS800 gear, and has come up with a membrane that’s 50% based on castor beans. Meanwhile, Japanese technical fabric specialist Toray (which supplies Henri Lloyd and Helly Hansen) also offers a 30-50% plant-based product.
Pinch of salt
Once again, Zhik is more circumspect: “Zhik is experimenting with many non-virgin sourced membrane materials, different manufacturing methods as well as novel membrane composites,” says Kerr. “In our opinion, truly ‘sustainable’ performance waterproof membranes that are suitable for extreme saltwater environments are not yet available.”
The words ‘saltwater environment’ really are key here – lots of promising developments from other sectors sink on the high seas – such as Polartec’s Neoshell membrane made of polyurethane, used in ski and mountain gear. It’s extremely breathable, thanks to a novel production technique called ‘electrospinning’, which gives much closer control over the structure of the membrane. While Neoshell itself doesn’t like salt, electrospinning could still offer promise.
Amphico is pursuing another route, using an unnamed polymer (not PTFE) to create a novel microporous membrane. In combination with a tightly-woven hydrophobic yarn that needs no DWR treatment at all on the face fabric, Amphitex can achieve results well within the envelope for sailing gear. “We believe our Amphitex material is suitable for the marine environment,” says a spokesperson. “But it hasn’t been tested yet in sailing jackets.”
Sail Racing meanwhile has incorporated the first chemical-free, fast drying down insulation in its latest Vectran range. This ExpeDRY technology uses non-ionic gold nanoparticles in the down cluster to evaporate water away quicker at a molecular level, so garments potentially dry twice as fast.
Gore is currently testing a PTFE-free membrane with Musto in the Ocean Race, based on expanded polyethylene (ePE). It has performed well in other sectors, and is already available in sports and outdoor wear.
“We are confident that the new Gore-Tex membrane will be suitable for water application,” says Gore’s Devan la Brash. “Extensive field testing to date shows positive experiences for the wearers and final conclusions will be made in the coming months.”
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