We mentioned in our previous blog that the outdoor industry has lately had to address two major environmental issues. We’ve already talked about the microfibre problem. The second matter relates to durable water repellent (DWR) finishes - chemicals applied to the surface of water-resistant, breathable fabrics to prevent them becoming saturated. Until recently, the majority of DWR finishes were based on perfluorocarbon (PFC), and particularly perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), chemistry. Increasing concern across the sector regarding the environmental and health impacts of PFOA, combined with pressure from NGOs and a changing regulatory landscape has seen brands looking for alternatives.
Now, we have to confess that when we hear that brands are making changes to their products to address a specific environmental problem, we get a bit concerned. If there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to send a shiver down an ecodesigner’s back, it’s focusing on a single issue. We were concerned that the publicity surrounding ocean plastics and PFCs might lead brands to do just that, potentially shifting the environmental burden to other parts of the product life cycle. We’re not saying that they definitely haven’t (there’s only so much that you can find out at a Trade Show), but we were heartened to see the number of companies adopting the Sustainable Apparel Coalition’s Higg Index, and other life cycle thinking and assessment tools. We particularly enjoyed listening to Giulio Piccin describing the journey Aku took to secure an Environmental Product Declaration for the Bellmont Plus shoe - and his willingness to share information with other brands. We share his view that collaboration is the key to accelerating the transition to a more sustainable footwear sector.
Amongst other things, effective use of life cycle assessment can help designers: to decide on the best strategies to lower the overall environmental impact of their product or service; to see which stages in the life cycle they can have the most influence on; and to decide what trade-offs they should make to achieve their objectives. We can illustrate the concept of trade-offs when we consider DWR finishes. In general, unless a completely different approach to fabric engineering is employed (like in the case of Paramo, for example, whose biomimetic Analogy fabrics and garments have always been PFC free and also come with a great social backstory), moving away from PFOAs means compromising on the durability of water and oil/stain repellency. Some brands (such as Arc’teryx and, until recently, Patagonia) elected to continue using PFC finishes on the basis that they offer oil-repellency, unlike non-fluorinated finishes. In this case, there is a trade-off between the environmental impact of the finishes and the potential environmental benefits of durability afforded by improved oil/stain repellency.
Most LCAs conducted on outdoor apparel and footwear indicate that the biggest environmental impacts in a product are associated with the raw material extraction and production phases of the product life cycle, and it is generally accepted that extending the active lifetime of clothing can reduce carbon, water and waste arisings. Research conducted with retailers by the European Outdoor Group has also shown that consumers associate durability of garments with better environmental performance. It’s not surprising, then, that so many brands were keen to emphasise the durability of their products at ISPO.
There’s always a ‘but’, isn’t there? Existing models for user behaviour used within industry standard tools are not well-defined, and the actual impact in the use phase is highly context-dependent. There are some caveats that need to be taken into account, then, when designers use product longevity as a basis for environmental trade-off.
Firstly, the full environmental benefits of a product designed for longevity are only realised if that product totally displaces another - i.e. if it remains in active use for its whole life. Otherwise, it’s a resource sink. A supposedly durable jacket hanging unused in a wardrobe is not helping resource-efficiency or offsetting the environmental impact of the manufacturing stages of the product life cycle. The performance of a waterproof, breathable jacket is highly dependent on consumer behaviour in the use phase. Dirt, oil, moisturiser, sunscreen and detergent residues from washing are amongst the contaminants that can lead to jackets ‘wetting out’. Whilst brands provide information regarding washing and reproofing of jackets, most acknowledge there are consumers who don’t follow it (the first question we were asked after our presentation on user-centred design at Outdoor by ISPO was ‘How do we get consumers to read the swing-tag?’). Moreover, many consumers aren't great at keeping their washing machines in good working order - build-p of detergent can materially affect the effciency of the reproofing process. If the consumer experience of a product is not in line with their expectations, then there is a much bigger chance that the active lifetime will be shortened. The PFC finishes that have replaced PFOAs require more frequent washing and reproofing; that means that user behaviour becomes an even more critical determinant of durability. All this to consider, and we've barely touched on the emotional and physiological factors that affect durability...
Secondly, the environmental benefits of durability are based on the premise that the environmental impact of the use phase is much less than the production phases. That’s likely to be true for many products; but it’s worth bearing in mind that increasing the lifetime might also increase the impacts associated with the use phase (for example, through washing, reproofing, logistics associated with repair and maintenance etc.). As actions are put in place that reduce the environmental impact of the production stages, then the use phase increases as a proportion of the overall environmental performance.
Interactions between a person and their clothing are highly individual and it’s unlikely that we’ll ever be able to completely predict them. However, combining user-centred design with lifecycle thinking and assessment can help designers to design products and services that are practically durable – or even determine whether durability is the right strategy for their users right now. Research has also shown that there are some aspects of user behaviour that vary systematically with design decisions and these could be built into tools for designers to get a better idea of how choices they make in the product design stage have the potential to influence user behaviour.
One thing is certain; if the industry is seriously going to adopt design for durability as a strategy to lower environmental impact, then they will need to pay much more attention to user behaviour on and off the hill during the design stages. Further, brands will have to seriously consider how they create value from longer-lasting products. We’ll pick up on this in our next ‘blog, where we discuss how durability could really become a business model for the industry.
Header image: "München Messestadt" by Metro Centric