Avaunt speaks to Patagonia’s wetsuit development manager about their innovative and renewable approach to a half-a-century-old design.
Neoprene, a form of synthetic rubber derived from crude oil, was developed in 1930 and by the 1950s a foam version of the material led to the development of the wetsuit. Elastic and unreactive to temperature change, the use of neoprene was a revolution, insulating the wearer and vastly increasing the time that divers, surfers and rescue workers could spend in the water. Such was the success of the design that it has changed little in over half a century since.
However, the production of neoprene – relying on polluting and non-renewable processes – has been identified as a major problem and for Patagonia, an American outdoors clothing company founded by rock climber and environmentalist Yvon Chouinard, it motivated a search for greener and more responsible materials. Though this initially involved reducing the amount of neoprene used and using more responsibly produced neoprene, they soon realised it wasn’t enough and in 2008 partnered with a company called Yulex to develop a renewable, plant-based alternative.
This autumn, eight years after they first began working on the project, Patagonia announced that all their wetsuits would be made from Yulex natural rubber from Forest Stewardship Council certified sources. With the new material performing better in some situations than traditional neoprene, Patagonia found that they were also cutting the CO2 emitted in the production by around 80%. Here, Avaunt speaks to the company’s wetsuit development manager, Hub Hubbard, to discover how they came to break with 60 years of wetsuit tradition.
What motivated you to develop an alternative to neoprene?
The reliance on petrochemical and limestone based neoprene is the biggest foundational problem we have in wetsuits. Every wetsuit is built from an unsound environmental standpoint and ends up being a product that is near impossible to recycle. It goes without saying that we should do everything we can to keep the places we play in pristine. It’s not just about the materials and products we use but also the health and well-being of every person along the supply chain.
How long has this project been in development?
In 2008 Yulex saw a post we did on our company blog where we stated that there is no such thing as green neoprene. They then came to us with a little piece of foam the size of a scrabble chip and that’s where the dream began. We are now in a position where we have produced our 4th generation Yulex suit, have gone neoprene free and have reduced our CO2 footprint on production by 80%.
Could you run through the process of developing the wetsuit?
It takes around half a kilogram of natural latex rubber to make a suit. The Hevea trees can produce rubber for around 30 years and sequester carbon and new trees can also be grown from existing tree off-cuts. Once the latex rubber has been processed and purified by the Yulex Corporation, it is coagulated into a solid. The wetsuit production then literally swaps out the neoprene chips with our natural rubber. From that point on the process is the same.
As a designer what were the specific challenges of using this new material?
From a design standpoint there was no specific challenge as the material is indiscernible from neoprene. If I gave you a suit and didn’t tell you it wasn’t neoprene, you wouldn’t know. From a product manager perspective, however, it was a full mission to finalise all the logistical details and make sure we had chain of custody in place for FSC certification. Also getting everyone on the same page to switch our entire wetsuit range to natural rubber required some hoop-jumping.
How important is it as a brand to be reducing your carbon footprint and use renewable and Forest Stewardship Council-certified materials?
Part of our mission statement is to ‘do no unnecessary harm’, so the chance to replace neoprene with natural rubber is part of our DNA. But of course, there’s still room to improve. Our goal now is to start looking at alternatives to the other ingredients in the rubber, like carbon black which is derived from petroleum.
Zero impact is a tall ask but who knows. As supply chains become local and carbon footprint is offset we could get pretty close. So hopefully by drawing a line in the sand with our wetsuit line, and going fair trade on our entire board short and swimwear line for Spring 17, the surf industry will take notice and start to turn the ship in a positive direction.