This may seem like an outrageous claim, particularly if you live in a place like the rainy Pacific Northwest and are used to switching out your rain jacket every four years (or even sooner!). Exposure to water and general wear degrade the water repellent on your outdoor gear. The more you use your jacket, the faster it degrades, until you find yourself standing, damp and unhappy, on some distant mountaintop with a useless tarp sticking to your skin.
That’s because for decades, gear manufacturers have used a substance called Durable Water Repellent (DWR) to repel water off sleeping bags, jackets and other wet-weather items. And as a waterproofing agent, DWR has a number of problems.
It’s made from a class of chemicals known as perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs. As we reported earlier this year, studies of PFCs have shown that exposure is linked to adverse affects such as cancer, neonatal toxicity and death and hormone disruption. And PFCs migrate from your gear into the environment. They don’t stay on your jacket, keeping you dry. Instead, they travel into groundwater, the earth and into the air, and even into human blood streams and breast milk.
Seeking an Earth-friendly solution
So for Woody Blackford, Columbia’s VP of design and innovation, removing PFCs from the jacket’s design was as much a practical problem as an environmental one. Traditional waterproofing systems layer three materials, a DWR-impregnated textile over a breathable membrane over a wicking fabric. When the DWR wears off, you can either purchase a new jacket, or impregnate the old jacket with more DWR—which, besides releasing more chemicals into the biosphere, can also render the wicking layer useless. The process is also time-consuming and inconvenient. Why not just make a jacket that will work the way it’s supposed to?
“I don’t like selling Band-Aids,” Blackford said when we met him at Columbia’s headquarters in Portland, Oregon. “’Here’s the product, here’s the Band-Aid to fix it,’” he said, pantomiming holding two items side by side. Why sell two items, when one would do?
The resulting two-in-one solution culminates in the strikingly pure OutDry Extreme Eco jacket, available today at REI with greater availability in 2017. The jacket layers a proprietary membrane developed in Columbia’s PIT Lab over a soft wicking fabric. The wicking fabric is made from 21 recycled bottles, and although the formulation of the membrane is secret, it is entirely dye-free, which saves over thirteen gallons of water compared to a conventional dyed fabric. The labels, toggles, zipper pulls, thread and eyelets are also recycled, and its minimalist, bright white design is as eye-catching as a space suit. It thus addresses several Columbia customer concerns—not only outstanding technical performance, but also environmental sustainability and aesthetic appeal.
Internalizing product tech
Hired in 2005, Blackford is the man largely responsible for Columbia’s gradual pivot from sturdy, sensible, moderately-priced outdoor gear made for “a 35-year-old family person—a mom or dad who likes taking the kids outside for hiking and camping,” as described by CEO Tim Boyle, to producing an array of unexpected, creative outdoor solutions. Examples include Omni-Heat Reflective technology, a material that looks like thousands of silver dots designed to reflect body heat, that can now be found in everywhere from jacket linings to gloves; summer apparel that reacts with moisture to lower the temperature of the fabric so you feel cooler; and now, a revolutionary approach to rainwear.
“When you buy a computer, you end up buying components from other companies—software from Microsoft, chips from Intel. I didn’t want to buy Gore-Tex or Thinsulate.”
“Our approach to product tech is to internalize it,” said Blackford. “When you buy a computer, you end up buying components from other companies—software from Microsoft, chips from Intel. I didn’t want to buy Gore-Tex or Thinsulate. We wanted to learn to create our own platform.”
Blackford and his team cook up creative solutions in Columbia’s Performance Innovation Team (PIT) Lab, which Blackford started in 2007 and publicly launched in 2012. After an idea has been refined, an extensive team of beta tester athletes takes the products through their paces. At the time of this writing, Blackford and public relations manager Andy Nordhoff estimated that around five hundred testers had been wearing versions of the OutDry Extreme Eco in extreme conditions all over the world for two to three years.
“It’s part of our process to engage with people who are pushing the limits,” Blackford said. Once the technology has been refined and launched to the public, it can then trickle down to more moderately-priced items in the line in subsequent seasons.
But how does the jacket perform?
If you’re used to a traditional DWR jacket, two attributes of the OutDry Extreme Eco will catch your attention. The first is the jacket material, which is thick and almost rubber-like to the touch. Unlike traditional DWR jackets, the jacket’s material does not make a gentle hiss-hiss-hiss as you walk. Instead, you rustle loudly, as if you were wearing a suit of heavy wax paper, but it’s not at all obnoxious. Also, the jacket has no zippered vents, which, in combination with the jacket’s thick material might lead you to believe that the jacket will trap heat and sweat. However, your fears are unjustified.
Over three weeks of rainy dog-walking, hiking and running errands, the jacket upheld its function admirably. The fit was generous enough to layer underneath, and the capacious hood and brim were big enough to protect the face. We never noticed the lack of armpit zips; open, the large mesh pockets along the jacket’s body also provided additional ventilation. While mud and grime was very noticeable on the bright white exterior, it easily wiped off.
“It’s visibly different for a reason,” Blackford said. “It’s like the first Prius. We want people to notice it.”
As a matter of fact, the jacket is so striking that Columbia filmed Seattle hip hop star Macklemore wearing it out and about in the Pacific Northwest—an eminently suitable star who, on one hand, epitomizes the trope of the thirty-something parent taking the kids out camping, while also subverting that trope entirely.
“From an innovation perspective, we’re not nearly as comfortable outside as we should be. It’s been 170,000 years and we still use the same stuff!” Blackford said, referring to traditional waterproofing materials like wool and animal hair. “It’s time to advance.” Columbia is doing just that, one set of tiny silver dots and proprietary membrane at a time.