Gore-Tex: The new membrane and what Greenpeace has to do with it
When the first products with the new, more sustainable ePE membrane from Gore-Tex hit the market in autumn, the world leader for waterproof functional fabrics and with it the entire outdoor industry would have made a real U-turn. Or wouldn’t it?
PTFE is Gore-Tex’s main module
To understand that the development of this new, more sustainable ePE membrane is a revolution for US company W.L. Gore & Associates, one has to go back in time a little. The story of Gore-Tex begins in the 1950s, when Bill Gore quit his job at the chemical company DuPont to devote himself entirely to the polymer polytetrafluoroethylene, or PTFE, in whose new possibilities he firmly believed. But it was his son, Bob Gore, who made the decisive discovery in 1969. He discovered by chance that PTFE can be stretched or “expanded”. That was the beginning of Gore-Tex. However, it took another seven years before the microporous, water-repellent and vapour-permeable material was actually used to laminate and sell clothing fabrics. It was not until 1976 that the first rain jacket made of Gore-Tex came onto the market.
To this day, PTFE is and has been Gore-Tex's most important raw material and thus the cornerstone of this company's global success story.
Gore-Tex: godfather of modern functional clothing
The importance of Gore-Tex for the entire outdoor and sports market can hardly be overestimated. Without functional specialists like Gore-Tex, the outdoor segment of the clothing industry and the outdoor boom of recent years would probably never have happened. No performance-oriented outdoor brand can ignore the feature “waterproof” any more, and fashion brands are also integrating more and more function into their outerwear.
What W.L. Gore & Associates achieved back then revolutionised the clothing sector. This is one of the reasons why Gore-Tex belongs to the select small circle of brands whose names are representative of an entire category: If you want a waterproof jacket, you ask for a Gore-Tex jacket. Yet Gore is merely an “ingredient brand”, i.e. only a supplier of fabrics and not the manufacturer of the jacket. Gore-Tex is also not the only laminate manufacturer.
Greenpeace accuses outdoor industry of destroying nature
However, this strong position began to falter in the 2010s. With the “Detox my Fashion” campaign, Greenpeace launched a campaign against the use of hazardous chemicals in the clothing industry in 2011. The group of chemicals known as PFCs played a prominent role in this campaign because they cannot be broken down in the environment and can now be detected even in the most remote regions of the world. They are considered carcinogenic and have hormonal effects. This brings us back to Gore: PFCs are used as auxiliary agents to produce PTFE. In addition, PFCs were needed to make textiles water-repellent, which is necessary so that laminated fabrics, such as those from Gore-Tex, are permanently waterproof and breathable, i.e. vapour-permeable.
Outdoor industry opens parachute
Greenpeace ignited a flurry of activity: Worrying studies were published, brands were pilloried, protest actions were organised in front of shops, and lectures and press conferences were held at the sporting goods fair Ispo accusing the outdoor industry of destroying nature. Of all things, the nature-loving outdoor industry had to be berated as the biggest environmental offender. The pressure on the entire industry was immense, and more and more brands came to the conclusion that they no longer wanted to use PFCs. In the field of durable, water-repellent finishes (DWR ), this has largely been achieved today.
It was also a turning point for Gore: in 2017, W.L. Gore's fabrics division committed to phasing out hazardous PFCs in its general weatherproof laminates by the end of 2020, and in its specialty laminates by the end of 2023. In addition, Gore would develop new and more environmentally friendly processes and publicly document that no harmful PFCs would be released into the environment during the lifetime of its products. Greenpeace announced all this in a press release with the headline: “Success for the environment - Gore gives up dangerous chemicals / Largest outdoor clothing supplier will change industry”.
The new ePE membrane – polyethylene instead of PTFE
The question remains: What happened to PTFE, the production of which requires PFCs? Gore has actually set out to find an alternative to PTFE. The new ePE membrane, which will be launched for the first time this autumn with selected partners such as Patagonia, is no longer made of PTFE but of polyethylene. The lowercase “e” in the name ePE does not stand for ecological - which one could easily think - but for expanded, i.e. stretched. Gore, which produces all its membranes itself, has found a way to process polyethylene in a similar way to PTFE, which is also expanded. But: with ePE, Gore gives up its status as “inventor”. Because Gore is not the only manufacturer and also not the inventor of stretched polyethylene membranes. However, Gore undoubtedly has enormous know-how in all these processes.
No more PFCs
But in what way is ePE more sustainable? The new ePE membrane and the laminate's water-repellent finish are free of ecologically harmful PFCs. In addition, the membrane reduces the fabrics' carbon footprint. Its better strength-to-weight ratio means that the fabrics can be thinner and lighter. At the same time, it needs less material, which has a positive effect on resource efficiency. Nevertheless, ePE is as durable as the PTFE membrane. Anything else would be neither sustainable nor in line with Gore's brand essence. In addition, Gore wants to rely more on recycled fabrics and new, more sustainable dyeing processes such as Solution Dye for the laminates’ outer fabrics. However, more information on the sustainability of ePE is not yet available, for example on topics such as recyclability or disposal.
Why “ecologically questionable PFCs?”
According to Greenpeace, Gore is keeping its promise with the development of ePE. Greenpeace commented on the announcement of the first ePE products in October 2021 in a press release entitled: “Detox success: Gore-Tex without hazardous PFCs”.
What remains surprising is that Gore is always very careful to use the term “ecologically questionable PFCs”. And this is where opinions differ. Because Gore does not say that it manages without all PFCs, only the ecologically questionable ones. The issue is indeed complex. The class of PFCs comprises more than 5,000 chemical substances, which in turn have an enormous range of properties. These range from volatile substances, which have rightly come under criticism in recent years and are now being eliminated from supply chains, to large, stable molecules, which ultimately include PTFE. It seems that with ePE Gore wants to offer a PFC-free product, but without discrediting all PFCs, which apparently still include PTFE. According to Gore's definition, however, the PFCs here are not of ecological concern. The fact is that much is still uncertain about the effects of these substances. Greenpeace therefore supports a proposal by five EU member states (Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden) to regulate all PFCs as a group, while the US state of Maine has already enacted a ban on all PFCs.
Is Gore dropping PTFE now?
Which brings us to the last question: What is happening with PTFE now? Will Gore now change all its processes and rely completely on ePE? No. For the time being, ePE is nothing more than another product in the large Gore-Tex portfolio. PTFE membranes will continue to exist. There will also be DWR finishes with PFC, namely for workwear for the fire brigade and police, for example, because no equivalent alternatives have yet been found.
When the first selected outdoor brands (including Adidas, Arc'teryx, Dakine, Patagonia, Reusch, Salomon and Ziener) will start selling ePE products next autumn, further development will depend on how the new membrane is accepted. This is then very much in the hands of brands and consumers.
This article was originally published on FashionUnited.de. Edited and translated by Simone Preuss.