"I’m not here to tell you how to feel about the environment and I’m not here to tell you what to buy. You are all grown-up humans (mostly)…"
Yesterday, Lewis Arnold and Chris Nelson dropped the trailer for their new documentary, The Big Sea. The film links surfing and specifically, the wetsuits we wear to Cancer Alley in Mississippi.
There, the Denka Performance Elastomer plant produces chloroprene, one of the main chemicals used to produce conventional neoprene. It’s also linked to higher than normal incidences of cancer in the surrounding community.
Increasingly, there are good alternatives to conventional neoprene wetsuits. Several brands including Patagonia and the vintage-inspired women’s brand, The Seea have wetsuits made from Yulex in their lineup. Billabong, meanwhile, is using a similar natural alternative called Organiprene for their “Furnace Natural” line. A neoprene alternative, Yulex uses natural rubber harvested from tree sap. With an aim toward sustainability, Yulex meets standards from the PEFC and FSC for responsible forestry and works with farms around the world
Similarly to maple syrup, a tap in the tree’s trunk draws the sap. When dried, it’s processed into rubber. Injecting nitrogen to form air bubbles turns rubber into wetsuit insulation. That’s the basic idea, though the process is more complicated, of course.
But, are the suits any good?
A few years ago, I would have had mixed feelings about recommending that you try them out. Patagonia was the first to bring Yulex suits to market and funded the material’s development. When I tried their early generation suits, I found the trade-off between doing good for the environment and surfing happily to be pretty high. Patagonia’s previous suits typically felt too stiff and heavy and came at a premium price. So, I never made the switch.
Refinements in Yulex and in recycled fabrics more generally have changed the landscape significantly. Often, what we notice first about a wetsuit isn’t the rubber, necessarily. It’s the fabrics used on the lining and exterior of the suit. Recycled nylon fabrics such as Reprieve are now almost indistinguishable from conventional lycra and polyester knits. My bikini drawer has a mix of both these days, and I can’t tell the difference among them.
Last week, Patagonia launched a redesigned wetsuit line ahead of Northern Hemisphere winter. The new lineup is a notable upgrade from the brand’s past offerings. I’ve been wearing a men’s R2 from Patagonia’s latest release since last spring. It’s made from Yulex and recycled nylon fabrics and so far, it performs as well as my conventional neoprene suits.
Wait right there, you’ll be saying. This is supposed to be the cool, indie website. Selling out is for those other websites. We just spent like five days talking about ethics in journalism. Plainly, she didn’t learn anything. What the heck is going on?
Last spring, I received an invitation to visit Patagonia and hear about their upcoming wetsuit launch. The invitation came with no strings attached. Come check it out, they said. Of course, the brand hoped that I would write a story, and that I would write something nice. They gave me a suit to try, also in the hope that I would write about it. But, I did not make any promises, nor did they demand any.
Product reviews can be a murky business with tangled lines of influence and ad buys. You’re a saavy bunch. You know all about that. Many times, magazine gear guides were at least partly pay to play, if not entirely so. I’ve done my share of product writing over time, and I try to be straight up about it. If the product isn’t legit, I’ll do my best to tell you.
Let’s return to wetsuits. As part of the redesign, Patagonia shifted seams, reshaped neoprene panels, and said good-bye to ankle cuffs. For the lining, the brand uses a smooth recycled nylon. Patagonia constructs the exterior of the suit from a stretch nylon jersey knit from recycled threads. It feels light and flexible like any other wetsuit I’ve worn and dries reasonably quickly.
I am a princess who loves the fuzzy fabrics on the inside of wetsuits. Apparently, I am also a slave to marketing. Patagonia’s Mackenzie Warner. Mackenzie explained that the closer the Yulex or neoprene is to our skin — and the thinner the fabric lining — the warmer the suit will actually be. Science is so cruel.
Mackenzie is pretty much a rocket scientist, if rocket scientists made wetsuits. She studied at Cal State San Marcos with Sean Newcomer and Jeff Nessler, who have done extensive work on heat mapping and wetsuit design. When Patagonia hired her for an unrelated job, the wetsuit team pretty much totally stole her. Typical surfers.
I can’t tell you just yet how durable the new Patagonia suit is. I’ve only worn it since last spring in rotation with several other suits. So far, it’s doing fine.
If I do destroy it, Patagonia offers lifetime repairs. A skilled seamstress, Dulce Soto worked at a Ventura dive shop before Patagonia convinced her to move up the road to their shop. These days, Dulce leads the repair team, which also includes Buddy Pendergast and Hector Castro. She creates in-house prototypes for testing, and her knowledge of all the ways that wetsuits break feeds back into the design process.
Send a battered suit to Ventura — a repair set-up for Australia is in the works — and Dulce and her team fix seams and replace panels or zippers. I’d prefer that the seams don’t fail on my suit, but if they do, it’s nice to know I can get them repaired as long as I own the suit. Patagonia also tracks patterns in the repair requests to improve their future lines.
Obviously, nothing lasts forever. What do you do with your old wetsuits? Maybe you have a local non-profit that’ll take them. If you’re motivated enough, you can send them somewhere like Lava Rubber for upcycling into yoga mats or flip flops. Vissla has run several campaigns to collect old suits for upcycling, too. But mostly, we all know the truth. The dumb things are headed for the landfill.
Unlike conventional neoprene, Yulex can be pyrolized, which is a fancy pants way of saying that they set it on fire. When the repair team can’t revive a trashed suit, Patagonia sends it to Bolder Black, which sounds like a particularly astringent weed strain. Bolder Black uses a combination of heat and pressure to reduce natural rubber into a carbon black alternative. Because of its chemical content, conventional neoprene can’t be incinerated this way.
In the hands of Bolder Black, the used natural rubber becomes a black powder that serves a a pigment for black-colored plastics and rubber. Patagonia has begun using this dye in their product line. As part of its sustainability efforts, Vissla also uses a similar carbon black alternative in their wetsuit line
At the moment, only suits that pass through Patagonia’s repair team are recycled at Bolder Black. Hopefully in the future, we’ll see more efforts like it.
I’m not here to tell you how to feel about the environment and I’m not here to tell you what to buy. You are all grown-up humans (mostly) and you can make your own decisions about such things. I’m also not about to shame you if you buy the least expensive suit on the rack and go surf. But if sustainability is important to you, there are now legitimate alternatives to wetsuits made with chemical-based neoprene.
And I think that’s pretty cool. Over time, as I replace my suits, I’ll likely shift to more natural rubber whenever I can whether it’s Patagonia, Billabong, or another brand. When it comes down to it, surfing is play. To the extent I can, I’d like my toys to leave less of a mark on the planet and the people who live here with me. That just feels like a good way to go through life.
The suit I tested from Patagonia is available now in North America, and will launch early next year in Australia. Price for the R2: $US509. Sizing is consist when other major brands. Peruse here. Women’s suits are also available in sizes 4-12. You can find Billabong’s Natural Furnace line here