A couple weeks ago we attended the Spring Functional Fabric Fair in Portland, OR. It was a great show with lots of information and insights into the future of soft goods and apparel. We wanted to share some of our thoughts and observations from the show.
First off, what is the Functional Fabric Fair you ask? It’s an industry trade show (closed to the public) dedicated to performance fabric and trim sourcing along with education sessions from industry experts. This is where performance fabric mills and trim producers come from all over the world to display their latest and greatest materials. And viewing these materials are design teams from some of the world's leading performance brands (think lululemon, Arc’teryx, Nike, Adidas, The North Face, Patagonia, etc.) looking to find new performance fabrics and trims for upcoming collections.
It’s good to remember that this is the Functional Fabric Fair - so it only really covers sport and performance apparel and soft goods, not fashion and apparel as a whole. It’s also good to remember that the design teams all work very far in the future (usually 1.5 - 3 years in the future) so most of this info applies to the 2024/2025 seasons.
So now that we’ve covered what the fair is about, let’s dive into some of what we learned!
This is a big trend I’ve noticed across the industry for a few years and I think it rings true now more than ever - sustainable is the future.
Customers are no longer okay with purchasing goods without the transparency as to how something is made (or at least it’s moving in that direction). More than ever people want to know how something has been made - that people on the other side of the world weren’t exploited to make it, and that the materials to manufacture it didn’t poison the earth in the process.
Sustainability has been a huge trend in the outdoor industry and it continues to grow (most now realize that to have an outdoor industry there needs to be, you know, an outdoors). It’s a necessary trend, and I’m very excited by some of the sustainable materials we’re starting to see. So much in apparel nowadays focuses on how the apparel industry is destroying the planet, and while there is still a long way to go, there is some real progress being made, and it’s being made because customers are demanding it. So let’s cut the doom and gloom for a second and focus on some of the sustainability progress that’s being made.
This section could be multiple articles unto itself so we’ll keep it as brief as possible!
This seems to be one of the most common fibers in development. There are a few different methods to create recycled yarn:
Pre-consumer recycled - Fibers (mostly synthetic) made using waste yarn, factory cutting scraps, and overstock fabric. This is the easiest method to create recycled fabric and only modestly affects its CO2 emissions, but it does divert waste that would otherwise go to landfills.
Post-consumer garment recycled - Fibers (mostly synthetic with a notable exception for wool) made from post consumer waste garments. Synthetic fibers are chemically broken down and re-spun into new yarn. Wool is separated and shredded via proprietary methods and re-spun into new yarn.
Post-consumer waste recycled - These fibers (nylon and polyester) are developed from post consumer waste like water bottles, fishing nets, and for the first time - nylon from end of life tires. The tire company Michelin is even creating a processing facility for end of life tires and partnering with fabric mills for recycled nylon.
Recycled yarns are very exciting, and are rapidly catching up to the performance and cost of virgin materials. Expect a lot of technical garments in the coming years to feature recycled fabrics.
Recycled fabric is great but brands and suppliers are already thinking ahead to a fully circular system where garments being made are fully recyclable as well. Fabric mills are using things like mechanical stretch (think a stretchy knitted sweater but on a microscopic scale) so that fabrics don’t need stretch fibers like elastane. This means the fabrics are single content (100% polyester vs a blend) so that the fabric can be recycled. Pair that with new recycled polyester zippers from YKK and recycled polyester snaps from Duraflex and you could have a 100% recycled garment that’s also 100% recyclable. You could literally make this garment which would have been science fiction 10 years ago, right now.
Carbon Capture Yarn
This is definitely one of the most exciting new fiber technologies that is being released. Carbon emissions are captured in factory exhaust and used to make polyester fabric. This makes the polyester yarn carbon negative, meaning it actually removes more carbon in the atmosphere than is emitted during its production (now that’s pretty amazing!) This technology is new but it is hitting the market and is available to order so expect to see it in finished garments soon.
Even though natural fibers like cotton and wool aren’t usually associated with technical sport and outdoor apparel, they still play an important role. In some circumstances they perform even better than synthetics, and they haven’t been left behind when it comes to sustainability. Recycled wool is becoming big, it’s made from recycled garments and the garments are selected and sorted based on colour before being shredded so the fabric doesn’t require dying (I believe the only mills capable of doing this at the moment are in Italy).
Fibers from cellulose (lyocell, hemp, cotton, linen, bamboo, etc.) are making great strides in sustainability. Lenzing’s Tencel is CO2 neutral in its undyed state, and organic cotton from ReGenerative Agriculture can actually be CO2 negative. Finally all natural fibers are all fully compostable as well.
A great new development in textiles is fabric with Anti-Microfiber properties. You may have heard of microplastics, which are microscopic plastic pieces that are suspended in water. They are in nearly every water source on the planet now, they bioaccumulate in fish, and are even in our own drinking water. The bulk of microplastics come from polyester (synthetic fabrics are plastic after all) particularly when tiny microscopic pieces of polyester break off during washing. New technologies like Polartec’s Shed Less reduce laundry fragment shedding by 85%, and there are even new biodegradable polyesters.
There are a slew of new fabrics coming out that have been developed from unique raw materials - recycled coffee residue, pineapple leaves, castor plants, and cacao shell waste, among others. This is always exciting as I love seeing literal waste be made into brand new fabric. This means that something that typically ends up in a landfill or incinerated, can now become fabric to make a brand new jacket.
This is just a very brief summary of some of what’s being developed. We didn’t even touch on bioplastic synthetics, biobased polyester membranes, graphene embedded fabrics, or incredible new fabrics like a waterproof breathable fabric developed from 100% cotton.
Remember most of these are new technologies just made available to industry so expect a couple years before some of this hits the consumer market. But the pace at which these new sustainable alternatives are being developed is truly incredible. Five years ago there were a few sustainable options but most still focused on performance. Now we are seeing incredible progress and customers are demanding both performance and sustainability.
Now let’s address another sustainability initiative that has thrown a great big wrench in the outdoor industry:
This is a huge topic, one that could be several articles itself, but we’ll try to sum it up as quickly as possible. This is a very big deal in many industries at the moment and especially the outdoor industry. First off, what are PFAS you ask?
PFAS (also called PFOAS, PFOS, or PFC’s) stands for perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances - which is a group of chemical compounds. Originally developed in the 1940’s, PFAS were considered inert, however there’s a catch. PFAS have been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down or degrade. The carbon fluorine bond that makes up the backbone of PFAS is one of the strongest bonds in organic chemistry. As a result PFAS take thousands of years to degrade, which means that they bioaccumulate in animals (and humans). So while it was initially thought to be inert, because they build up in humans over time, studies have shown PFAS to cause cancer, thyroid disease, pregnancy complications, fetal development complications, reduced response to vaccines, inflammatory disease, and many more health issues.
So banning these chemicals is a good thing, the issue lies in how prevalent PFAS are. PFAS were originally developed by Dupont and 3M and branded as… Teflon. Yes, the non-stick cooking Teflon. Then in 1969 Bob Gore found that if you heated and stretched Teflon rods quickly, you could make a fiber from it. That fiber later became… Gore-Tex. Since then PFAS have become incredibly prevalent due to their durability and ability to repel almost anything. PFAS are in everything from food packaging, cosmetics, guitar strings, ski wax, surgical instruments, fire fighting foam, etc. Most importantly though PFAS are used in waterproof breathable materials, stain resistant fabric, and DWR (Durable Water Repellent). Almost every piece of fabric in the outdoor industry has DWR on it, from shoes and boots, pants, jackets, tents, sleeping bags, chairs, hats, etc.
PFAS are amazing in performance for apparel, and most alternative DWR’s and waterproof breathable materials can’t compete on performance or price at the moment. So what we’ll see in the next few years is likely more expensive and worse performing gear. But it’s a healthier and safer alternative for humans and Earth.
With California banning the sale of anything treated with PFAS by Jan 1, 2025 - that is a very big deal, especially for the outdoor industry. (Also note that other states are banning PFAS as well but California is leading the way) So what does all this mean?
If you are selling clothing or any type of soft good, make damn sure it doesn’t contain PFAS!
You need to sort out your supply chain now because this is going to get tricky! This is a new law so there are a lot of unknowns and it has not been enforced yet so no one knows what enforcement will look like. Does it cover ecommerce and items being shipped to California? Will there be a minimum allowable threshold for PFAS? What will the fines be? Who knows! But here are some things we do know:
Enforcement will be on a per item basis - Which means each item containing PFAS will be a violation and subject to a hefty fine. If REI orders 1000 jackets from your brand and they contain PFAS each one is a violation, and each one gets a fine.
There is no current minimum allowable threshold - This means that the tiniest traces of PFAS are in violation. If the zipper on your jacket has PFAS on it, or the snap manufacturer used PFAS as a mold release, you’re in violation. Also being a “forever chemical” means that even if a mill or factory makes your PFAS free fabric but that mill uses the same equipment to make PFAS treated fabric for others - the use of the PFAS fabric could contaminate the equipment and thereby your fabric.
People will be looking for payouts - A simple test confirms whether or not fluorine is on a product, so you can bet there will be individuals and companies buying up products at the local REI, testing them for fluorine, and if they fail, looking for a payout. Science backed laws are very expensive to fight and people know this, so they know that most companies would rather pay someone off for $25K then spend $200K trying to fight it.
But the industry is moving quickly to catch up and it’s all for the best. So if you’re selling products here are a few things you can do:
Use Bluesign, ZDHC, or Oeko-Tex 100 certified materials - All three companies are updating their certifications to ban PFAS, so if you use a Bluesign certified, ZDHC certified, or Oeko-Tex 100 certified fabric (like the fabric we use for our waterproof breathable blanket project) it will be PFAS free.
Use reputable trim suppliers - Reputable trim suppliers are always a good choice since they supply large brands that will have to comply with this new law. YKK offers PFAS alternatives in their zippers, and Duraflex does not contain PFAS in any of their products.
Use C0 (that’s C-Zero) DWR, not C6 and definitely not C8! - C8 DWR has been banned for a while now, C6 DWR is what’s commonly used now but will no longer comply in 2025. C0 DWR will comply along with other sustainable alternatives.
Ask your suppliers, and get it in writing! - Ask all of your suppliers (fabric, thread, snaps, zippers, etc.) if they use any PFAS, PFOAS, PFOS, or PFC’s in any of the products you’re ordering and ask what alternatives they’re using - and get it in writing! Then if something does happen down the line you can show you’ve done your due diligence. In the words of my law professor - “Ignorance is not an excuse”
So it’s not all doom and gloom, there is real change being made in terms of apparel sustainability. If you’re a designer you have the ability to choose amazing new sustainable materials that can change our impact on our environment.
As a consumer you have the ability to drive change through what you purchase. Purchasing a jacket made from recycled polyester (or any of the other amazing materials we mentioned above) tells the brand that there is demand out there for more sustainable alternatives, that people will spend a little more if it means it’s more sustainable. That fuels future decisions for brands and design teams, fabric mills, and the industry as a whole.
Sustainable is the future, and it’s a future I’m excited to be a part of.