Over the last few months I have regularly found myself in the company of people who know a lot about the outdoor industry and about gear manufactures. Nearly all of these conversations end up touching on Gore Tex in some way or another.
Gore Tex is a bit like Marmite, you either love it or hate it. I’m suspicious of anything that is simply that big. Many manufacturers will tell you that they have to have Gore Text in their products otherwise they simply won’t sell. But is this a reflection of quality and effectiveness or is it simply a reflection of market monopoly?
I can remember taking a pair of Berghaus boots to the Pyrenees years ago. These were lined with Gore Tex. The boors were very comfortable and I was told that the Gore Tex liner really worked well. In warm weather they were dreadful as the sweat off my feet simply couldn’t escape effectively enough. I would take my boots off at each stopping point and marvel at my feet which looked as if they had been in the bath fir several hours. I also remember a pair of street shoes which had a Gore Tex lining. This made them waterproof and it worked to some extent. The lining kept the water out — until a hole quickly wore into it. Worse though was the smell of my feet! I learnt to be a little critical through sheer experience!
Gore Tex have gone from strength to strength. Why oh why does a company like Inov-8 use it in some products? Not because it is better? Does this not run against the whole philosophy of Inov-8? Sadly, the public know Gore Tex. They will try the boots, love them and then ask whether they are made with Gore Tex. It is simply no good telling people that the water can get in over the top of the shoe and that once the water is in there is no getting it out! Gore’s global brand awareness is simply too great.
What I hadn’t realised though was how Gore has built its empire and effectively used its monopoly to kill off competition. A condition of the Gore license is that you cannot use any other competing waterproof fabric. This is why many brands only seem to deal with Gore Tex. If you want to deal with us you have to just forget everyone else. Is this to be benefit of the consumer? It certainly is to the benefit of Gore.
Critics of Gore also point out to their stipulation that any garment design that uses Gore Tex must be approved by Gore themselves. Gore keeps an iron-like grip on the use of their technology. Some are suspicious of this although others see this in a more positive light — it is ho Gore has lifted the quality of design and the market.
Last week I was told by an industry rep that Gore are producing a new version of their shell fabric next year but that this version will be 30% more expensive. Expect a hike in the price of high end Gore Tex products.
The industry seems buzzing with talk about Gore Tex and its competitors. One of the reasons for this is the new fabric from Polartec, Neo Shell. Neo Shell might just be the first real competitor to Gore-Tex. Neo Shell is a high performance fabric, the first real competitor to be produced by another global giant. Perhaps, people say, Polartec might be the first company who can take on Gore properly. Will Gore be able to effectively forbid their customers to not consider fabric from Polartec?
It would appear the industry is beginning to fight back. Columbia — through its Italian subsidiary OutDry — has launched a complaint to the European Commission which alleges that “W.L. Gore and Associates engages in unfair business practices, intimidating footwear and glove licensees into loyalty and violating antitrust laws by excluding the competition”. Gore, they argue, are preventing customers from exploring the merits of other goods. AT the same time Anti-Trust action has been taken in the US following complaints to the Federal Trade Commission.
This all seems fascinating to me and I’ve heard similar complaints for years.
I have been recently pointed in the direction of an excellent article by Mike Kessler in Outdoor magazine which I thought it would be good to share with you.
This article is a tour de force. Kessler explains the development of the breathable membrane industry and looks in depth at both Gore Tex and its many competitors. Kessler argues that, for the first time, Gore is under siege and he has produced a comprehensive and — I think — fair handed feature that looks at all of the issues involved.
If you are at all interested in gear and future developments you will no doubt appreciate this article.