Want to make the proverbial green room even greener? We were curious to know exactly how sustainable – or unsustainable – wetsuit production really was. We did some digging (and some surfing) and a few eco friendly wetsuits floated to the top.
Green wetsuits are in!
You’re probably thinking, ‘What’s this guy talking about, I’ve never seen a green wetsuit in the line-up?’
Well, ok, not that kind of green wetsuit. Black is king when it comes to colours. I’m actually talking about that metaphorical green. In other words, wetsuits have never been more sustainably produced than right now.
Wetsuit History 101
Traditional wetsuits, the kind first made in the 1950s, were constructed from non-renewable petroleum neoprenes. There’s a book titled The History of Surfing in which this breakthrough was described as, ‘better surfing through war-related petrochemistry.’ Ewww.
Then came limestone neoprene, which was theoretically better than the petroleum based stuff, but still had a similar net result regarding emissions after the carbon intensive extraction and production process.
The first to call this out was Patagonia, who wrote in 2012 that ‘green neoprene’ constructed with limestone was more marketing ‘hot air’ than it was a reality at the time. You can nerd out on that piece here.
Instead, the real a-ha moment in wetsuit production – its ‘thruster’ breakthrough to give you a surfing equivalent – came in the form of Yulex rubber, also known as ‘natural rubber’, which Patagonia first released the following year in 2013.
Maybe it’s not as significant in the scheme of surfing’s history as when Simon Anderson added three fins to a board, but its impact on the planet is far better.
Yulex is actually the company that developed a plant based replacement for neoprene made from Hevea brasiliensis – the Brazilian rubber tree. The name has since become synonymous with eco wetsuits.
This magical tree can produce rubber for up to 30 years and each resulting wetsuit emits 80% less carbon dioxide than a traditional neoprene equivalent. The best part is they now feel practically identical to the traditional material when it comes to warmth and flexibility, so there’s no compromise on performance.
A few years on from the natural rubber breakthrough and the ‘rubber tree’ is now pretty much exclusively sourced from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified farms, meaning they aren’t grown on clear-cut rainforest land.
A Step Further
But it doesn’t just stop with the rubber. Plenty of brands are also upending the conventional dyeing approach. By switching to a black dyed inner lining for example, Patagonia saves 100 liters of water per suit which equals an 86% reduction compared to conventional dyeing. In other words, a literal green wetsuit would be an eco no no.
Here in Australia, based between Sydney and Byron Bay, brands like Project Blank are’t stopping at Yulex either.
They’ve introduced evolutions like water-based glue, rubber made from recycled car tyres to reduce landfill waste, and an eco range that incorporates 45 recycled plastic bottles (P.E.T) into each and every suit.
Arguably the most eco friendly wetsuit on the market at the moment comes from Billabong. Released in March of this year, the so-called ‘Furnace Natural’ wetsuit uses Yulex and recycled P.E.T plastic but goes a step further with a proprietary enzyme added to the fibres that will break down the suit when it eventually finds its way to landfill – as all suits sadly do. From initial tests, after 18 months suits have seen around 83% biodegradation.
In the early days of Yulex, such suits carried at least a 25% dollar premium. The cost of being environmentally conscious at the time, and this was after companies like Patagonia ate most of the margin.
These days, to use Project Blank as an example – their 3/2mm Eco Ultimate Steamer goes for $345 while the regular 3/2mm High Performance Steamer (limestone neoprene, albeit including some recycled car tire rubber) is $280.
So, the gap has well and truly closed as most brands have come onboard – largely thanks to Patagonia’s heavy-lifting and open sourcing the original Yulex approach. Nowadays it’s a small premium to pay for the planet.
What’s next in wetsuit tech remains to be seen, but it’s fair to say there’s no excuses not to have a ‘green’ wetsuit anymore.
As for surfboards, that’s another story, and they’re a lot further away from being ‘green’.
Perhaps we’ll drop into those next…
Surf and lifestyle photos courtesy of @projectblanksurf