Fluorochemicals used in waterproof clothing to repel rain are unnecessary, damaging, and should be removed, textile researchers have argued.
New research by academics from Leeds and Stockholm has found that waterproof clothes using fluorochemicals are over-engineered, providing protection against oil and other stains when they need only resist rainwater.
The findings, published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, said that manufacturers can easily make use of alternatives used in durable water repellents, which also offer long-term ecological benefits.
Dr Richard Blackburn, head of the Sustainable Materials Research Group at the University of Leeds’ School of Design, said: ‘Environmentally-friendly and biodegradable solutions are available, but are being resisted by some manufacturers and retailers.’
The researchers do not know the reason why manufacturers are ignoring these alternatives, but have speculated that it is due to a lack of information and research, as well as a lack of engagement with consumers.
A survey of 300 outdoor clothing users conducted as part of the study found that most consumers only look for clothing that is water-repellent and are less concerned about stain resistance.
While fluorochemical repellents remain essential for clothing worn in hazardous occupations, such as medicine or the emergency services, the study’s co-author Philippa Hill said there is still room for new ideas.
‘Currently, only fluorinated chemicals can provide the high levels of protection needed from other types of liquids such as oils, chemicals, and bodily fluids, so there is a major opportunity for future innovation in that area,’ Hill said.
The researchers applied different waterproof finishes to fabric before measuring their resistance to a range of fluids including water, orange juice, olive oil and synthetic blood.
Fabric treated with non-fluorinated repellents were found to be resistant to water-based stains but was less effective with oil-based and medicinal fluids, highlighting that there is still work to be done.
Ultimately, the researchers stressed that all fluorinated chemicals damage the environment while some are associated with health problems, hence why the industry should look to phase them out.
‘We want to help textile producers and retailers to develop better garments that also have minimal environmental impact,’ said study co-author Professor Ian Cousins from Stockholm University.
‘It is important to look into the necessary functionality and durability, otherwise people won’t buy the greener alternatives.’
The textile and clothing industry uses a quarter of all chemicals produced globally and is a known contributor to environmental pollution.
Fluorochemicals often find their way into the environment during their production, as well as during the life of a garment and after they are thrown away.