Move over nylon, now there’s something greener.

There is a conundrum in the outdoor industry. People who spend a great deal of time outside, in nature, have an appreciation for the environment and tend to be conscious of their carbon footprint. They also favor clothing that is durable, functional, and protective. The problem is that the gear they buy often does not align with personal philosophies on sustainability to improve eco friendly innovation.

The quandary doesn’t only exist for consumers; a large number of outdoor gear and clothing companies are also acutely aware of the disparity between values and the technology required to produce the kinds of apparel demanded by today’s outdoor lifestyle. Innovation in functional apparel is consistently moving forward, and, increasingly, it is being driven by the need and demand for more eco friendly innovation.

Nylon: The Big Player in Fabrics

Approximately half of the material used in making outdoor clothing is synthetic and petroleum-based, with nylon making up a vast percentage. Nylon’s environmental footprint is large. Petrochemicals are necessary for the production of most synthetic fabrics, as is a significant amount of water.

Furthermore, during the manufacturing process, nitrous oxides — which are potent greenhouse gases and environmental toxins — are released. The material is also not biodegradable, thus it persists in the environment indefinitely.

Another major issue with nylon is in the shedding of microfibers. Patagonia conducted a landmark study on fleece’s propensity for shedding microfibers, and their findings indicated a serious issue with a favorite material of outdoor enthusiasts.

Microfibers are a grave problem for aquatic ecosystems that were only recently discovered. These tiny filaments are shed from clothing made from nylon and polyester and are making their way into the environment, including the world’s waterways where they are consumed by aquatic animals and then by humans when they eat fish.

In spite of nylon’s detrimental qualities, it has a number of benefits for functional clothing that contribute to its popularity and persistence in the outdoor clothing industry. The material is lightweight and durable, which makes it highly valuable for apparel designed for high activity levels in rugged environments. It is also water repellent prior to the application of weather-proofing chemicals.

Another benefit is its breath-ability, which wicks moisture away from the body. These properties make it difficult to eliminate nylon from outdoor clothes, thus efforts are being made to lessen its environmental impacts.

Textiles Made From Recycled Materials

Nylon and polyester are both polymers, meaning they are made from plastic. As such, they are recyclable and can be made from recycled plastics. Making polyester from recycled plastic is not new. The process arrived on the scene at the end of the last century. Now, however, outdoor companies are beginning to recycle nylon itself to make new gear, thus reducing the reliance on additional petroleum extraction.

One of the most recent developments in recycling comes from the ocean. The abundance of plastic in the world’s oceans is a serious issue in ecosystem health. Efforts to clean up the water are arising a variety of sectors, including, now, the outdoor clothing industry.

Certain types of plastic are amenable for recycling into clothing with the same functional properties as articles made from virgin materials. Through partnerships with fishing communities, more ocean waste is being collected for the specific purpose of recycling them to create new outdoor gear.

Textile From Materials That Shed Less

As research revealed the severity of the microfiber pollution problem from fleece and other textiles, major efforts started being poured into finding solutions. Every type of synthetic fabric sheds microfibers when washed, even when it is done by hand.

Fleece, however, is a particularly egregious source from the outdoor clothing industry. This is made even worse by the fabric’s popularity. Shedding from any garment can be reduced by not washing the article as often, but this doesn’t remove the need for research and development of material that does not create such an environmental hazard.

There has been progress in this area. While it doesn’t completely get rid of the microfiber problem, Polartec has developed a new design method that significantly reduces how much fiber comes off in the wash. The new technology encases the lofted material responsible for microfibers within a continuous fabric capsule, decreasing shedding by five times the amount seen in similar clothing types using traditional technologies.

Chemical Treatments and Coatings

Weather-proofing gear is critical for a lot of outdoor activities. Nylon is inherently water-resistant, but it is not waterproof. An additional challenge in developing clothing that can withstand the elements is to also maintain the breath ability of the material. Chemical coatings and treatments are the most common technologies used to create the desired results.

The durable water-repellent fabric uses perfluorinated chemicals (PFCs) that produce perfluorooctanoic acid during the manufacturing process, which is detrimental to human and ecosystem health(eco friendly innovation).

One promising development in reducing the environmental impacts inherent in current weatherproofing processes comes from nanotechnology. This technology is contributing to developing breathable DWR fabric that does not require PFCs to produce and can be made from recycled materials.

Through a technique called nano spinning, a fabric can be created with pores that are small enough to repel liquid water but large enough to allow the passage of air and water vapor. As another bonus, the material is also supposed to withstand washing better than traditional coatings.


Another alternative comes in the form of plant-based chemicals to replace PFC coatings. Research and development in the technology come from a single start-up company out of Switzerland called Beyond Surface Technologies. While these products are works in progress, the development has come far enough that three of the finishes are currently being used by a few major brands.

The company is continuing the work on improving product performance, particularly for a coating intended for use on waterproof and breathable shells that is a plus point for eco friendly innovation.

There is an environmental price to pay for the lightweight, durable, weatherproof, and breathable material we rely on to keep us comfortable and protected from the elements while enjoying activities out in nature. The desire to improve the environmental footprint of the industry is driving innovation in critical areas.

The outdoor clothing industry has come a long way from the days of flannel and jeans, but there is still plenty of room to grow before practices align with the values espoused by the makers and wearers great for eco friendly innovation.