Room for improving the environmental sustainability of waterproof breathable fabrics, despite progress made

Magazine for Textiles, Clothing, Leather and Technology

Significant progress has been made in the development of environmentally sustainable waterproof breathable fabrics but much remains to be explored, according to a report in Issue 67 of Performance Apparel Markets from the global business information company.

Waterproof breathable fabrics have become extremely popular in a number of applications — including athleisure apparel, outdoor apparel, workwear and sportswear — because of the levels of protection and comfort they provide.

As a result, many players have entered the market, competition has become fierce, and the range of waterproof breathable fabrics now available is diverse.

Several manufacturers are experimenting with the fibre compositions of waterproof breathable fabrics, and are utilising natural fibres — including organic cotton — and fibres derived from recycled waste materials.

However, the market faces some challenges — notably those associated with environmental sustainability.

Public interest in environmental sustainability is at a high level, and brands are under increasing pressure to demonstrate that their products are ethical and have not been made using processes or materials which could cause harm to animals, marine life or human beings.

Materials used in the manufacture of waterproof breathable fabrics include membranes and durable water repellent (DWR) finishes. These are essential to the manufacture of waterproof breathable fabrics, and are required to impart waterproof properties — especially in the outdoor apparel sector.

However, many are associated with chemistries which are considered to be harmful to human health and the environment, notably perfluorinated and polyfluorinated compounds (PFCs).

As such, there has been significant pressure on manufacturers to develop waterproof breathable fabrics which incorporate membranes and DWR finishes made using safer chemistries.

Several companies have risen to this challenge, and have employed bio-based ingredients or taken inspiration from biomimicry in the development of waterproof breathable fabrics. One of these companies is W L Gore & Associates (Gore) — a leading provider of waterproof breathable fabrics and products based in the USA. In fact, Gore has set a milestone of completely eliminating PFCs of environmental concern from its products by 2023.

Equally, some progress has been made in the development of environmentally sustainable membranes which contain recycled materials, such as the FENC TopGreen Membrane produced by Far Eastern New Century (FENC) — a company based in Taiwan with operations in petrochemicals, polyester and textiles. In particular, the membrane is made from recycled polyester polymer derived from post-consumer polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles. 

However, there remains much room for improvement in the development of waterproof breathable fabrics which are environmentally sustainable.

Also, much work needs to be done to improve understanding regarding the environmental sustainability credentials of materials made using alternative chemistries, especially as the hazards associated with some of them — such as those incorporating dendrimers or nanoparticles — are not widely documented.