Textile and apparel manufacturers are feeling the pressure to end the use of perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFAS), commonly referred to as “forever chemicals.”
California has banned the manufacture distribution or sale of apparel and textiles that have these chemicals effective Jan. 1, 2025. New York State has also enacted a ban effective end of this year, and other states are likely to follow.
Retailers area also joining this movement. In February, outdoor retailer REI announced that it would ban PFAS in all textile products from its suppliers. Outdoor footwear specialist Keen has also banned the chemicals.
The movement to ban these chemicals is creating opportunities for companies like aptly named Green Theme Technologies (GTT), an Albuquerque, N.M., company, which is developing “clean chemistries” and water-free processes targeting the textile industries. GTT is producing these products under the Empel brand.
The textile industry is experiencing rapid change in terms of chemicals, said Martin Flora, GTT’s vice president of business development.
“With the changes in legislation in the U.S. and Europe, the mills are very serious about it. It has created a tsunami of engagement to find a solution. It’s great to be on the front end of it. We are scrambling as hard as we can to keep up with the opportunity.”
Flora described Empel technology as a platform for applying an array of characteristics into textiles and apparel. Empel can apply a wide variety of finishes, including Durable Water Repellent, Anti-Wicking, Durable Stain Release to a wide variety of textiles.
“What we have is a way to affect fibers without using any water. We have more than just a water repellant product,” Flora said. “We have a stain product, we have a product for shoes, to keep them from absorbing moisture. We have a new project we are working on called No Melt, which is a big project for the military. The technology is a platform, and we are getting a lot of big brand adoption now, globally.”
Founded in 2016, Green Theme operates a laboratory in Albuquerque, where the company conceives and develops technology ideas. The company also owns a commercial center in Taiwan, where products area scaled, to make sure they work in volume. When that is accomplished, Green Theme licenses the technology to mills around the world.
“We are having really great adoption from major brands like Nike, and super high performance outdoor brands like Black Diamond,” Flora said.
Other brands using Empel in apparel include TREW Gear, Stoney Creek and Artilect.
Green Theme’s technology, Flora said, is completely different from traditional wet finishing, where a manufacturer takes chemicals, dissolves them in water, and then dips fabric into that water and then dries it. As the fabric dries, the chemicals stick.
“The problem is, it is very inconsistent coverage, and anything that you wash on with water can be washed off with water, so it is not very stable,” Flora said. “With our products, we print the chemistry, so to speak, or roll it onto the surface, so there is dipping of the fabric into water, so you don’t contaminate or dilute the chemistry. At the end of the day, when we are done rolling it onto the fabric, we take it and put it back in the barrels, because it is not contaminated. In a typical process, you are contaminating the water with the fabric and the chemicals. Even if you don’t use it all, you still have to get rid of it.”
Flora said one of the major advantages of Green Theme’s technology is that pressure is used to evenly distribute the chemicals throughout the fabric roll.
“Essentially, what the vessel does is act like a pressure cooker,” Flora said. “It very quickly heats up and changes the chemistry from a liquid to a solid at a very fine level, at the fiber level. You cannot feel it. It does not impact the breathability of the fabric. It sticks, but there is no visual change.”
Historically, the best non-fluorinated products on the market touted an 80 percent effectiveness rating after 30 washes. But Empel remains 100 percent effective after 50 washes, according to Flora“It is fundamentally different,” Flora said. “Once the chemistry is polymerized onto the fiber in this way, it doesn’t come off. We are very durable up to the life cycle of the garment. That durability is the best form of sustainability. Our business model is radically different from what is going on in the marketplace, in that we don’t promote sustainability. What we promote is the highest performance globally.”
Flora said he believes 2023 will be a turning point regarding efforts to eliminate PFAS chemicals in textiles. The California legislation is a major catalyst. The state will ban fluorinated chemicals in textiles by 2025, and violators will be liable for a fine of up to $2,500 per garment.
“If you put a line of 10,000 garments out there, you are responsible for each one,” he said. “The mills know they have to change. The brands are liable, and they have to make sure the mills they use are following through.”
Green Theme Technologies has licensed mills in Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam and the U.S., and plans to expand in Asia. Flora said Green Theme will soon announce a partnership with a major footwear manufacturer. Mill partners include The Haartz Corporation, YKK, Labtex and ISKO.
“We are focused mostly on Asia and the U.S.,” Flora explained. “What’s interesting is the mills we work with are the most technologically forward, and they have the capability of testing our claims. Once they go in and test them, they become convinced.”
The Empel technology works with all synthetic fibers, and GTT is working on a process for wool and silk with good results. However, Flora refers to cotton as the “final frontier” for the product.
“We haven’t cracked cotton yet, because it is a short fiber that tends to break down,” he said, “but that is something we do see happening in the future. We are still a small company with about 25 employees, so we are scrambling to complete our current projects.”