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Aspen Times Weekly: New Kind of ‘Eco’ Jacket

Stark-white and minimal in build, a jacket line from Columbia Sportswear has the potential to shake the outdoors industry with a litany of environmental upgrades when it comes to market for 2017.

The to-be-released jacket line uses no dye in its manufacturing. It's made of recycled plastic bottles. And (the kicker), the design eliminates a caustic chemical found, until now, across the industry.

Columbia Sportswear's announcement of the OutDry Extreme ECO Shell line has heretofore unseen sustainability claims. Most notably, the jackets are said to use no fluorocarbons in their materials, membranes or treatments.

Fluorocarbons or perfluorinated compounds, often shortened to PFCs, are manmade organic chemicals widely found in waterproof-breathable jackets, despite being flagged as environmental and ecotoxicity concerns.

They are seen in jacket treatments, including the common face chemicals called DWRs, as well as in Gore-Tex products and jackets from most major brands.

In nature, PFCs do not easily break down, and the chemicals can be pervasive, with trace amounts found in people and wildlife around the globe.

Brands know there is a problem. Look at Patagonia, a sustainability champion in the industry, as an example: Like its competition, Patagonia relies on perfluorinated compounds, and it notes in an article the company's designers and engineers have only discovered a "temporary solution" that is "not good enough, but it's the best option we have found so far."

Columbia released its OutDry Extreme line this spring. It eliminated a bulk of PFCs with a new construction that does not require a traditional DWR. The next evolution, the to-be-released eco jackets, which contain no fluorocarbons and are made of recycled fabrics, hit stores this coming December for $199.

I wore one of the jackets for three days in France last week for a test. Like the original OutDry Extreme, the upgrade has a smooth, almost rubbery, face. Its waterproof-breathable membrane is on the exterior, thus eliminating a fabric layer and the need for a substantial DWR treatment to make water run off or bead.

On a climb halfway up Mount Blanc, on high-altitude June snow, the jacket stood out with its all-white aesthetic. A guide commented how I might get visually lost amongst the frozen terrain.

But the wispy shell was not designed primarily for sub-freezing days, despite my test. This is a rain jacket, a lithe shell that folds up small and has few features beyond its zipper and hood.

The snow-white look is the result, as noted, of a material process that uses no dye. Columbia says the dyeless construction results in 80 percent less water used than required for color coats.

The jacket's thread, zipper pulls and cord eyelets are made of recycled materials. The fabric cut for each jacket is cited as repurposing more than 20 plastic bottles, which see new life in the form of a polyester shell.

Columbia obtained a Bluesign stamp of approval, meaning the jackets are third-party endorsed as sustainable textile products.

To be sure, the new line will register as only a tiny fraction of Columbia's total jacket sales; most of its outerwear is of more traditional design and includes the use of PFCs. But the 2017 line is a start in the right direction, and one which could affect the wider jacket world inside Columbia and beyond.

One company representative noted that when Toyota launched its first Prius hybrid vehicle most all of its cars offered that year still relied fully on gas. A shift came as the car gained consumer trust, and its popularity magnified the hybrid trend.

Columbia is not the only PFC-free option. Niche companies offer non-PFC outerwear, as do brands with waxed-cotton and other fabrics that don't need a DWR. But the Columbia line is different; it feels and functions like a high-performance waterproof, breathable shell and can compete with models from the major brands that dominate outerwear in the industry.

On my trip, rain pounded at lower elevations in the Alps. I joined a group one day to run a segment of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc route,

a famous race.

As a waterproof layer, the jacket proved solid in the storm. Its thin shell diverted wind, kept out the rain and breathed at least as good as the traditional options in my closet.

I look forward to the ECO line launch, and I'll cheer for any environmental upgrade in the outerwear world, from chemical tweaks to product design, be they vibrant colors or pure white.

Stephen Regenold writes about outdoors gear at http://www.gearjunkie.com.