We spoke to Mark Maffe to get the skinny on their latest innovation
When The North Face announced FUTURELIGHT “the world’s most advanced breathable-waterproof outerwear technology” last year, it piqued our curiosity. A worldwide marketing campaign followed the announcement, and FUTURELIGHT dominated headlines until its release in October 2019.
“We also got the opportunity to speak with Mark Maffe, The North Face’s Senior Product Merchandising Manager for EMEA”
It would be irresponsible to not meet these claims from The North Face with a healthy dose of scepticism. You have to consider the fact that it’s equipment that could be the difference between you making it back from a trip in one piece or not. Granted, that’s an extreme way to look at it, but it’s nevertheless worth bearing in mind. Besides that, who wants to drop a stack of money on something that doesn’t actually live up to its assertions?
On our recent trip to Chamonix, we got to do an on-snow product test of FUTURELIGHT and were highly impressed with its performance across the board. Our dubiety towards the breakthrough technology was suitably quashed. While we were out there we got the opportunity to speak with Mark Maffe, The North Face’s Senior Product Merchandising Manager for EMEA. He gave us the lowdown on the tech side of FUTURELIGHT and explained the journey that The North Face undertook from product development to hitting the shops.
So, what actually is FUTURELIGHT and how is it a game changer?
Mark explains “To start talking about FUTURELIGHT you really have to start with a conversation around nanotechnology… We’re now really moving into this nano-era, it’s really where we’re gonna see the next big breakthroughs happening across lots of different kinds of industries and applications. In its most basic definition nanotechonology is really just taking things in the natural world, or elements, down to a really, really small scale. One billionth of a meter, is one nano-meter- that’s how small we’re talking.”
“To form the membrane itself you’re basically taking this PU based polymer down to a really small scale. It allows not only moisture vapour to permeate through but also air, which is something that no other waterproof membrane has been able to do thus far. It’s a web of this material and it has enough porosity, depending on how we tune it, to allow moisture vapour to transmit through, like other waterproof, breathable shells but also air permeability.”
“It allows not only moisture vapour to permeate through but also air, which is something that no other waterproof membrane has been able to do thus far”
“The FUTURELIGHT membrane is not applied directly to the garment. First, it’s shot out of 200,000 little nozzles onto a film like a piece of paper behind a fully clean room environment. Then it’s applied to the fabric, how that happens they will not tell us.”
(The proprietary technology is owned by a company in Asia and they play a few cards close to their chests )
A few years back a heavy crew of The North Face staff were taken out to Japan to be introduced to FUTURELIGHT. They were given the opportunity to test out this revolutionary new technology while it was still in its developmental stages.
“All we knew was we had a completely new waterproof, breathable membrane”
“At this point, none of the people on the global team knew what the innovation lab had done. All we knew was we had a completely new waterproof, breathable membrane that was performing in test results much better than the competition.”
Despite the big claims from his employers, Mark, as he should be, was approaching FUTURELIGHT with a degree of uncertainty. In fact, the first time he tried one of the jackets the lack of pit zips made him unsure as to whether it was even a shell jacket. “I’ve been using hard shell fabrics my whole life as a skier and climber. So, I wasn’t quick to just believe that this stuff was working. I really had to just keep testing it myself, away from all the science data that came through from the innovation team.” As time went on, and Mark got more and more opportunity to put FUTURELIGHT through its paces and see for himself the results, he was soon a staunch supporter.
We’re a generation of snowboarders who have been raised on GORE-TEX products; it’s been the industry standard for decades. Several other companies survive on the market, but much like calling your vacuum cleaner a Hoover, GORE-TEX has become synonymous with the term waterproof.
“To decide to try and set a new standard with FUTURELIGHT was a huge undertaking”
To decide to try and set a new standard with FUTURELIGHT was a huge undertaking, so why did The North Face decide to take this step?
“People ask us ‘why do you need to do this?’ The truth is we really felt limited in what were the options given from suppliers. We really couldn’t get to the levels of breakthrough and performance that we wanted from them.”
Mark explained that The North Face wanted to create products that were leagues apart from the competition, so had to eschew the traditionally used membranes in favour of their own innovative one. FUTURELIGHT gave The North Face the ability to tune the breathability of each garment to a specific activity, and thus gave them endless possibilities for development.
“When you look at the broader market out there, there’s no difference between any of the shell products of all these major brands that are using these branded technologies other than their own designs.”
“With FUTURELIGHT we can get those much softer, supple fabrics with the membranes that we’re using. We don’t want to be dependent on these suppliers, can we partner with someone who can innovate? Really set a new standard to what waterproof and breathable can be.”
“There’s no difference between any of the shell products of all these major brands”
One thing we were particularly curious about with regards to FUTURELIGHT was its eco-cred. Mark was really adamant that this wasn’t a greenwashing case, and that The North Face were dedicated to bringing these products to market with the lowest footprint possible.
“Starting with the outside, like the actual shell materials are 100% recycled polyester materials and the membrane itself is 100% recycled chips and nylons. There is 0 toxicity in the membrane itself. Everyone can use PFC free DWRS, that’s quite widespread. We wanted to make sure that our membrane would be fully PFC free, zero toxicity.”
Mark was refreshingly honest about the fact despite having made some big leaps in sustainable practices, they’re not perfect and acknowledges there is still a way to go.
“There’s been some big positive steps that have been made by us and others, and there’s so much more that’s driving all that but there’s still a long way to go. The steps we’ve taken you see that come through in the actual product. Like I can tell you this is 100% PFC free, it’s all recycled but the next big challenge is everything you don’t see here. That all happens up and down stream in our supply chain at every level and there’s a lot more awareness going on around that too. The consumer doesn’t see those things.”
“If we could change the colour of this red to use a dye that actually used less wastewater coming out of our vendor bays that’s a really good thing. But again, the consumer would never see that in the product but that’s something that we’re really working on now. We’re working with all of our supply chain internally to do what’s next. I mean a lot of innovation on the sustainability side is really open to everybody but how you manage your own kitchen is our biggest challenge ahead.”
“What they don’t see is the downstream stuff, and we have a big responsibility to clean up our act there too”
“It’s not a dirty secret but a lot of brands from a lot of industries, why did they go to new countries to manufacture? It’s not just because of the cheaper land and labour, it’s because there are much more relaxed environmental laws. So, again it’s like if you’re still working in those places like a lot of us are, what comes out at the end of the line, yeah that’s important to the consumer to see. But what they don’t see is the downstream stuff, and we have a big responsibility to clean up our act there too.”
Despite the warm reception and accolades received from The North Face athletes and consumers for FUTURELIGHT, there’s actually not really any hard data out there about how it stands up to its competitors. Mark explained that rather than being secretive about tests like water column rating and MVTR, it’s actually to stop facts being misrepresented. They’re not the only brand taking this approach, Patagonia and Arc’teryx also don’t publish their results, and never have.
“It can be really misleading how you use those statistics. I mean we would love to say, in a very black and white way “Product A is better than Product B and here’s why…” But how those statistics get manipulated with water column ratings and everything, there’s not a lot of integrity to how that’s happening and it’s really hard to have a true apples to apples comparison.”
“Even if you publish a really, really high water column like some brands do, it doesn’t mean that it’s really ‘more waterproof’. Another thing they don’t talk about, is usually how you increase waterproofness is by applying more PU coatings. So whenever you do that on a piece of fabric you basically dip it in a very hot bath of Polyurethane and the more you do that the more you can actually compromise the strength of the actual fabric. So you actually lose tear strength.”
“It’s really hard to have a true apples to apples comparison”
So, what’s next for FUTURELIGHT? We can look forward to seeing it being rolled out into their lifestyle and footwear range from Spring 2020. And we can hope, as with most advances in garment technology, that we’ll start to see a trickle-down effect wherein FUTURELIGHT will eventually become the status quo for all suitable products in The North Face line.
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