The green movement has been around for as long as minimalists boycotted shopping malls and transcendentalists have disappeared into nature, but it only really started gaining traction in the surf industry in the past 10 years or so—which is sort of ironic, since surfing is pretty much as minimal and transcendental a pursuit as one can have.
After all, it’s just a person, the ocean, and a board—short of skinny-dipping or walking around naked in the forest, there isn’t much in the way of experience that is more natural than surfing. But, as simple and nature-based as our obsession is, the few tools that we use—and the closets full of branded clothing that we buy and wear to assert our “surfyness”—are disturbingly, environmentally unsound and largely petrochemical dependent. From surfboards, leashes and traction pads to wax, board shorts, and rashies, our toys drip crude oil like our sinuses drip salt water—and perhaps none as much as the neoprene wetsuit.
A “green” wetsuit has long been the holy grail of environmental surf technology, one of two advances that could best assuage our collective guilt and turn surfing into a sport that is actually as environmentally aware as its reputation suggests. The sad reality, of course, is that we might never see a suit that is completely green—there will likely always be some carbon footprint involved in making rubber suits. But finally, after a decade of refinement, we are getting pretty damned close.
When Patagonia released its first line of wetsuits, it incorporated a number of innovative elements that made them greener than the normal monstrosity.
The focus turned to finding an alternative to neoprene, rather than simply minimizing its use Not “green,” but “greener”—Patagonia was quick to point out that using limestone-derived neoprene and lining wetsuits with organic merino wool was probably “less bad” for the environment than the standard wetsuit, but it still wasn’t “good” for our planet. It was a matter of compromise. We want to surf, and most of the oceans are cold, so wetsuits are a necessary evil—but if we could make them a little less evil, at least we’d be doing something.
As the green movement began to gain traction and more people started eating organic, shopping local, and finding other ways to lessen their environmental impact, most of the other major wetsuit companies also released “green” models. But the wetsuit and product responsibility divisions at Patagonia were not satisfied. Despite the fact that their suits—and the suits of many of their competitors—were now marginally less damaging for the environment, they felt that improvements could still be made. So the focus turned to finding an alternative to neoprene, rather than simply minimizing its use.
Natural rubbers have been around for a long time—much longer than synthetic rubbers made from petrochemicals—but they are more labor-intensive and expensive to produce. The added expense is worth it, however, since natural rubbers also tend to perform better than synthetic ones. In 2008, Patagonia started experimenting with Yulex, a company making plant-based rubber, to phase neoprene completely out of their wetsuits. At first they worked with guayule latex, even though rubber from the Hevea brasiliensis tree is more readily available.
The reasoning behind this decision was that they couldn’t source hevea rubber that was sustainably produced and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified by the Rainforest Alliance. And why is that important? Well, that’s where things get complicated.
Organic has become the mantra of the green revolution, but “organic” in and of itself does not necessarily mean environmentally friendly. For instance, some organic foods are still crop dusted with sulfur and other chemicals—they simply use forms of these compounds that don’t permeate the skins of the plants, and that theoretically don’t make their way into the fruits and veggies that we consume.
Yulex is able to create a non-petrochemical rubber that Patagonia can use to replace neoprene in its wetsuits But planes powered by jet fuel still dump these chemicals into the air, onto the ground, and into the watershed to produce these “organic” foods—and that’s not exactly good for Mother Nature. Likewise, “organic” palm oil might be healthier than non-organic brands or other types of oil such as canola, but the huge market for palm oil has resulted in massive deforestation in places like Sumatra and Borneo that is not only destroying local flora and diminishing biodiversity as a whole, but has also become the greatest threat to the survival of the orangutan species.
In the same way, the idea of a plant-based rubber wetsuit might sound very “organic,” but the unfortunate truth is that the hevea rubber industry is almost exclusively based on unsustainable practices like clear-cutting forests, slashing and burning endemic species, and then replacing them with lucrative rubber trees. This is why Patagonia’s early Yulex wetsuits utilized sustainably produced guayule rubber instead of the more widely available hevea—what is the point of using a plant-based rubber if its production is just as bad for the environment as that of petro-based rubber?
A few years ago, Patagonia and Yulex were able to find a consistent source of FSC-certified hevea rubber, and this would prove to be a game changer. With a workforce of local Guatemalan picadores (rubber tappers) who work under fair labour conditions in a socially beneficial sub-industry to collect natural latex in a sustainable manner (all required under the FSC certification), Yulex is able to create a non-petrochemical rubber that Patagonia can use to replace neoprene in its wetsuits.
Because this latex is produced in trees and then refined through a clean, water-based process, the rubber that goes into the Patagonia suits results in up to 80 per cent less CO2 emissions than neoprene. In other words, not only is the rubber produced from renewable materials, but it is also substantially better for the atmosphere and issues surrounding the greenhouse effect.
But what about performance? Well, it has long been known that natural rubbers are superior in nearly every way to their synthetic cousins,
The crew in Ventura are phasing out neoprene for good—and they are inviting everyone else to do the same and those who have used the top-of-the-line Patagonia models that previously utilised Yulex rubber have confirmed this fact. But now, everyone can decide for themselves, because starting this season, Patagonia’s entire fullsuit line will be made from Yulex hevea rubber. In other words, the crew in Ventura are phasing out neoprene for good—and they are inviting everyone else to do the same. As Patagonia prepares to take its wetsuit line neoprene-free, the company is encouraging their competitors to utilize the same technology. “We don’t want to be the only company making wetsuits with sustainably sourced natural rubber—our hope is that every company, especially the ones bigger than us, will start shifting away from nonrenewable materials.”
With such a huge accomplishment poised for public release, you’d think that Patagonia would be content to sit back and rest on their laurels. But in keeping with their “greener is good but you can always do better” ethos, Patagonia’s wetsuit division continues to look for more ways to reduce our impact when surfing in cold water. “There are still other ingredients (besides rubber) in wetsuit foam that are synthetic or petrol-based,” says Hub Hubbard, Patagonia’s wetsuit development manager. “Looking at more responsible alternatives to those is the next step.”
We may never have a 100 per cent green wetsuit—neoprene only makes up half of the materials used in normal conventional suits, and as of yet no one has found a sustainable replacement for the other petrochemical products involved. But from the sounds of it, Hub and his crew aren’t going to stop trying.