When it comes to environmental impact, most surfers can’t exactly claim a clear conscience. Polyurethane boards are swathed in polyester resin and fiberglass. Wax is brimming with petroleum jelly. And wetsuits are a patchwork of glues, solvents, and neoprene.
Over the years, some surfboard and surf-accessory manufacturers have tried to chip away at the use of these less-savory ingredients by delivering gadgets like recycled-urethane leashes and organic surf wax. Now Patagonia is dipping a toe into the green wetsuit genre and hoping the entire industry will follow, um, suit.
After four years of searching for neoprene alternatives and fiddling with different recipes, the Ventura-based company settled on a bio-rubber called Yulex that’s made from the flowering shrub guayule – a long-time alternative to rubber latex. That’s right, a wetsuit made from plants. This month Patagonia began selling its first batch of new suits in Japan, and by next fall it expects to offer them in the U.S. and worldwide.
The Yulex suits look and feel like old-fashioned neoprene wetsuits, according to Patagonia’s Surf Director, Jason McCaffrey. “We have a crew of underground guys that live at Ocean Beach, San Diego, Japan, and the East Coast,” McCaffrey told Transworld Business. “The funny thing is we just said, ‘test this’, we didn’t say much else and hardly anyone could tell the difference.”
Yulex suits smell like eucalyptus or pine — which is a pretty serious upgrade from the rubbery scent of traditional neoprene get-ups.
That is, except for the odor. Yulex suits smell like eucalyptus or pine — which is a pretty serious upgrade from the rubbery scent of traditional neoprene get-ups. “Yulex rubber is harvested from the bark of the plant, and that sap gets mixed in with it during the conversion process,” McCaffrey explained, adding that production requires very little water and no pesticides.
But as of now, the suits aren’t neoprene-free: They use 60 percent Yulex bio-rubber and 40 percent neoprene. Patagonia’s eventual goal is 100 percent Yulex — not just for its own wetsuits, but for the entire industry’s. “We’re not locking people out on this, we want other companies to embrace this change and incorporate it into their lines,” McCaffrey said.
There are already a few neoprene alternatives on the market – BodyGlove’s EcoFlex wetsuit, made from calcium carbonate, and Matuse’s limestone-derivative suit. But this is the first with a botanical bent.
The question of course, is whether there’s wide-enough interest among surfers, and more specifically, whether they’ll pay up for it. Patagonia’s plan is to charge no more than $100 above what surfers now shell out for the company’s wetsuits.
“We want to roll this out like we helped roll out organic cotton; we want to prove to the industry that people will pay a little extra for something built responsibly,” McCaffrey said. “If all surfers demand it, I can guarantee the industry will deliver.”