‘Green’ wetsuits: surf brands looking to renewable materials over neoprene

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Source: theguardian.com

‘Natural’ rubber, limestone and corn are some of the sources for more sustainable surfing wetsuits – but are brands missing a fundamental flaw?

For two decades, Byron Bay-based surfer Dave “Rasta” Rastovich has been living the dream. A little house near the beach, growing his own fruit and veg, and – of course – out riding the waves whenever the fancy takes him.

Making eco-friendly wetsuits is a difficult, and expensive, business. Photograph: Picture Organic
Making eco-friendly wetsuits is a difficult, and expensive, business. Photograph: Picture Organic

These days the former Junior World Champion and outspoken advocate of marine conservation is the face of minnow surf brand Patagonia. It seems an appropriate choice for Rastovich, who had been a stalwart in Billabong’s star-studded stable for the last 20 years.

Rastovich is not your usual surfer, eschewing professional competition for the joys of free surfing. Nor is Patagonia your usual surf brand. Best known for its alpine and outdoor clothing, the US firm holds to the principle of “cause no unnecessary harm”. That ethos has led it to create the first wetsuit using sustainably-certified plant-based rubber.

Patagonia’s ‘green’ wetsuits use renewable natural rubber from hevea trees grown in compliance with Forest Stewardship Council standards. According to Patagonia, the breakthrough material creates 80% fewer CO2 emissions than neoprene, the oil-based synthetic rubber used in most conventional wetsuits.

Neoprene is nasty. From its dependency on oil and the energy to make it, through to its non-biodegradability, everything about it is harmful, says John Hubbard, Patagonia’s product manager for wetsuits. “The first versions of neoprene were actually used to line the bottoms of landfills, so what that tells you about its biodegradability is that it’s the worst.”

With high-profile surf celebs such as Rastovich behind it, Patagonia hopes other wetsuit brands might start ditching neoprene once and for all. The company has no exclusivity agreement with Arizona-based Yulex, which supplies the plant-based rubber material, and is actively encouraging other brands to follow suit.

To date, however, the Billabongs, Rip Curls and Quicksilvers of this world have shown little interest. Price is a big barrier. Patagonia’s range of Yulex full suits will set you back anywhere from AUS$599.95 to $899.95, putting them out of reach of your average Joe.

Australian Dave Rastovich free surfing. Photograph: Nathan Oldfield Photography
Australian Dave Rastovich free surfing. Photograph: Nathan Oldfield Photography

Consumers will need to be persuaded that ditching neoprene won’t leave them shivering in the shallows either. Durability, flexibility and fit are all considerations that surfers take seriously when shelling out for a new suit. And most surfers are people of habit: once they find a brand that works for them, they’re reluctant to change.

“As a surfer, you tend to stick with a brand that fits you. So being willing to try a new wetsuit out and pay a high premium is a real challenge,” says Neill Thompson, UK distributor for niche French wetsuit brand Picture Organic.

Patagonia is hoping the sustainability credentials of its neoprene-free alternative will give it an edge in the market. It’s a reasonable assumption. Given how much time surfers spend in the water, they have good reason to care about pollution. But reason doesn’t always translate into reality. From toxic surf wax to litter-laden coastlines, the world’s wave-riding community is guilty of its share of “environmentally dubious choices”.

“For surfers, it definitely goes price, performance, sustainability, in that order,” says Hubbard. “That’s one thing we’re really trying to crack the code on [so] we can shift that paradigm.”

Yet even if every surfer turned into a wealthy, eco-conscious consumer tomorrow, Patagonia would still have its work cut out. For starters, its wetsuits aren’t 100% sustainable. They may be neoprene-free but they still contain a 15% mix of petroleum-based synthetic rubber polymer. Finding a bio-based alternative that combines with natural rubber is proving “difficult”, says Hubbard.

Nor does Patagonia have a monopoly on natural rubber wetsuits. Taiwan-based wetsuit material manufacturer Sheico recently launched its own hevea-based material called NaturalPrene, although unlike Patagonia’s Yulex version, Sheico’s hevea (sourced from Malaysia) doesn’t come with an FSC certification stamp.

Sheico is, however, gaining traction with those looking for an alternative source, so the company appears to have beaten Yulex to a petroleum-free synthetic alternative to mix with the natural rubber.

Picture Organic recently announced a new FirstStretch wetsuit that is made of 15% chlorine-free rubber made primarily from corn, in addition to 85% NaturalPrene. “Many brands are doing lots of greenwashing with sustainability. So for us, the most important thing is to be transparent with sourcing – where the raw material comes from, how the fabric is made, by whom. This is all something we tell to our consumers,” says Julien Durant, the brand’s co-founder.

Other small brands are turning to NaturalPrene too. French surfware brand Soöruz, for instance, went from making wetsuits from bamboo, to manufacturing them from an earlier iteration of Yulex’s natural rubber (based on the guayule plant), until shifting last year to Sheico’s plant-based solution last year.

Another NaturalPrene wetsuit maker is Vissla, whose EcoSeas wetsuit includes a water-repellant body lining made from recycled bottles. Another eco-brand from France, Vissla has also developed a water-based lamination glue that is free of solvents – a feat that Patagonia has yet to achieve.

Until the big players show interest, however, neither Yulex nor NaturalPrene stand a chance of having much of a positive affect on the planet. For now, Durant of Picture Organic doesn’t see much appetite for change: “Perhaps they will have one or two wetsuits made from this material … but they are mostly focused on pure performance, rather than sustainability.”

For others, the battle to promote natural rubber represents a distraction. In place of using oil-based butadiene to make neoprene (known technically as polychloroprene), as most wetsuit manufacturers do, it’s possible to use limestone instead.

For John Campbell, founder of US wetsuit brand Matuse, which uses Yamamoto’s Geoprene material, the main sustainability issue comes down to product durability. The biggest enemy to the environment is consumption, he argues. His answer: make people consume less by extending a wetsuit’s product life.

“Geoprene makes a longer-lasting wetsuit,” he reasons. “So until there’s a rock-solid wetsuit recycling system out there, it’s just going to be piles and piles of Patagonia wetsuits on top of cheaper wetsuits from other fabricators.”

Hubbard dismisses limestone as “no better or worse than using petroleum” and accuses anyone who says it is eco-friendly as being “irresponsible”. Still, Campbell has a point. Although Patagonia offers to patch up or recycle old wetsuits, few nationwide recycling schemes exist as yet.

Patagonia has already shipped Rastovich out to Sri Lanka to take a first-hand look at its fair trade manufacturing process. Perhaps it will get him fronting a national neoprene recycling campaign next.

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June 28, 2017 |

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