Chemical Change

As chemical technologies change, so should our products. But substituting, replacing or phasing out chemicals can be challenging. What does it take to make the change? A panel of chemical management experts breaks it down.

By Nikki Hodgson October 18, 2017

Functional chemical finishes provide valuable performance to outdoor products such as apparel, but when the opportunity to move to a new chemical technology arises, what does it take to make the change?

During the OIA Sustainability Insights Conference at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market, a panel of chemicals management experts representing a retailer (MEC), a brand (W.L. Gore), a supplier (Chemours), a test lab (Hohenstein Institution) and a supply chain management system (bluesign Technologies) discussed the challenges of accomplishing the substitution of a functional finish from their respective viewpoints.

A company might pursue a chemical substitution for any of a number of reasons: changes in the marketplace, regulations, safety concerns, product differentiation, and/or cost reduction. Whatever the reason for the substitution, it should equal or—better yet—reduce the impact of the finished product while retaining or improving its performance. To determine if a substitution will be effective, you need to know which questions to ask when assessing existing and new technologies’ implications across the supply chain.

As our industry learned while phasing out PFCs, even when the “why” is clear, the “how” can be complicated and requires significant collaboration among business partners seeking industry-wide improvement. It requires a consistent dialogue between brands, chemical suppliers and materials suppliers that includes an evaluation of the chemical’s performance, impacts and cost.

There are also implications for both chemicals suppliers and material suppliers that should be considered.

Brands should consider some of the following implications for chemical suppliers:

    • R&D costs
    • Registration costs of new substances (including testing)
    • Raw material availability globally. (Are there restrictions in some regions?)
    • Toll manufacturing
    • Patent costs
    • Product safety and sustainability. (What is the Globally Harmonized System [GHS] of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals classification or bluesign rating?)
    • New manufacturing process/machinery needs
    • Balance costs, price expectations and performance
    • Cost of introduction, not just marketing/sales – on-site tech support if ‘sensitive’ processing

Brands should consider some of the following implications for material suppliers:

    • Cost (process) – trials, additional equipment, training
    • Brand requirement/demand
    • Functionality and performance
    • Sales and marketing costs
    • Registration costs
    • Sourcing availability globally

Effective chemical substitution is best accomplished when organizations are able to break out of silos, when brands are open with suppliers about their performance needs, and when factories are looped into conversations early. Effective chemical substitution requires champions at all levels.

To learn more about best chemicals management practices and join in on industry sustainability conversations, join the OIA Chemicals Management Working Group. Contact sustainability@outdoorindustry.org for more information.