New research from the University of Leeds suggests that the use of fluorochemicals in the manufacture of waterproof garments may be comprising these garments’ sustainability and leading to products that are over-engineered

Sustainability is a growing concern within the textile and clothing industry, which uses a quarter of all the chemicals produced across the globe to alter fabric properties such as feel, flame-retardancy and water-repellency, as well as colour.

Dr Richard Blackburn, head off the Sustainable Materials Research Group at Leeds University, which has researched the use of flurochemicals in coating s used on outerwear, said: “We concluded that the use of fluorochemicals in outdoor apparel represents over-engineering, providing oil repellency that is in excess of user requirements.

“Significant environmental and toxicological benefits could be achieved by switching outdoor apparel to non-fluorinated finishes without a significant reduction in garment water-repellency performance.”

According to Dr Blackburn, the chemistry used to repel rain from fabric has raised concerns from European legislative bodies, academia and environmentalists. As well as posing potential risks to the environment, fluorocarbons have also been associated with health problems in humans.

He adds that some clothing brands have responded to these concerns by switching to alternative chemistries, but many have claimed it is challenging to meet other repellency requirements – such as stain resistance and oil repellency – without the use of fluorochemicals.


82% of outdoor enthusiasts considered water repellency to be the most important factor when choosing outerwear

Leeds University’s School of Design uses world-class in-house clothing testing facilities

The research, from Leeds’ School of Design, published in the journal Chemosphere, compared the performance of fabrics with newer, alternative finishes alongside those treated with fluorocarbons. In addition to subjecting samples of 22 different fabrics to extensive chemical analysis and testing, the Leeds team surveyed 575 outdoor enthusiasts who regularly participate in hiking, trekking, mountaineering and hill-walking, about how they used such clothing.

“Most studies just look at technical aspects or environmental pollution, but we wanted to see what consumers considered the most important factors in choosing outdoor clothing,” said Philippa Hill, whose PhD research is the subject of the paper. “We found that 82% of people considered water repellency to be the most important factor, but the majority of people were indifferent to levels of stain resistance and oil repellency – one participant even said ‘I don’t get oily when walking’,” she added.

Performance clothing lecturer Dr Mark Taylor, also from the School of Design, said: “We found water repellency ratings were similar across the range of all finished fabrics tested. Non-fluorinated finishes provided no oil repellency, as expected.”

Dr Blackburn added: “It’s very important that sustainability should be about better chemistry. Consumers don’t need to compromise on performance for the sake of the environment. However, for all products and processes we have to weigh up if the requirements we are aiming for are fit for purpose.”

Once economies of scale kicked in, he said the relatively new-to-market non-fluorinated fabrics were unlikely to be more expensive than their counterparts.

The team’s conclusions are being explored by further research into the effects of laundering, abrasion and aging on the various fabrics.

Pamela Ravasio, head of corporate social responsibility and sustainability with the European Outdoor Group, which represents the sector, said: “The European Outdoor Group welcomes this new research, which adds scientific insight and data to this complex and multi-faceted issue. One of the key challenges we encounter as an industry is that there is very little reliable, scientifically-based data available. This limits understanding of the long-term environmental and health impacts of the new chemistries – such knowledge is also critical to avoid new chemistries being introduced which turn out to be even more harmful than those they replace. We look forward to further research that will increase knowledge and contribute to better technologies.

The University of Leeds is a top 10 university for research and impact power in the UK, according to the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, and is The Times and The Sunday Times University of the Year 2017.

Leeds’ School of Design has a long-standing relationship with the outdoor industry. It compared the performance of fabric samples supplied by various manufacturers and brands, which were finished with either fluorochemicals, non-fluorinated chemistry, or were untreated.