There is something coming, some people call it climate change, and some the Greenhouse Effect. In fact it has been called many things, but one thing is for certain, we, as a race, are having a horrific impact on the environment, and one day soon the planet will have it’s say. We congratulate and applaud ourselves should we have moment of conscience, recycle, go organic, but what we do is a drop in the ocean.
Enough now, of the depressing but true facts, this is not some brow beating article about doing your part to save the fluffy planet, but instead celebrating a company that has, at inception and through out its existence, been trying to help solve the human pollution equation. I am of course talking about Patagonia.
Many of you might have heard of them, many may even have Patagonia products and they have been around for a while. Let’s keep this awkward bus without power steering of a conversation on the road by talking about what has brought them again to the forefront of the battle in a way that involves our passion. Surfing.
Patagonia released it’s new line of wetsuits in 2016 that take the battle against pollution and ecology to the next level. They have done away with conventional neoprene which, as we know, is manufactured using naughty petrochemicals. Instead they have milked a natural latex from haeva trees that are FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified and partnered with a company called Yulex who refine and remove 99% of the impurities that can cause sensitisation and allergies. The result is said to be a truly renewable elastomer that performs better than traditional neoprene. As an extra bonus Patagonia found that the manufacturing process for this wonder compound produced 80% less climate damaging CO2. I know, cool, right?
What is the Forest Stewardship Council and what does it mean? - It means that the forest has to be sustainably grown and harvested, and is irrigated only by ambient rainfall. The process has to protect the social and economic well being of forest dependent communities and is processed with a recycled and recharged water supply aquifer during manufacturing. Not more than 0.5% of natural rubber produced worldwide is done so to these strict standards.
What’s so bad about neoprene? Naughty neoprene is most usually created by polymerizing and chlorinating a substance called butedine which you get from refining crude oil. Yuck. As well as having a not so great oil based source, it is also non renewable and costs the planet again to manufacture into the end product we find in our wetsuits. Neoprene has been the main ingredient in wetsuits since the 1950’s.
So far so good, sounds like an amazing solution to a problem that we as surfers might need to investigate. Patagonia have an amazing reputation for doing the right thing as regards to the ball of green and blue we call home and we had some questions about their decision, ethos and what they saw for the future. Luckily for you guys Hub from Patagonia was more than happy to get back to use with answers to a few questions we had.
SB: Hey Hub, thanks for sparing Surf Bunker some time. How stoked are you guys to be able to offer the world’s first neoprene free wetsuit?
Hub : Super stoked! It’s the coolest project I’ve ever personally worked on. I think it’s one of the most monumental turning points to happen in the surf industry since there’s been a surf industry.
SB: Was it a long journey to arrive at this stage? Were there any other paths that you considered to achieve this goal?
Hub : 2018 will mark 10 years since starting this project with Yulex. They had been working with the guayule plant to create surgical products for people who suffer from latex allergy. They came across a blog posting we did about there being no such thing as a green wetsuit and a lightbulb went off.
At the very beginning they came and showed Patagonia a piece of rubber about the size of a scrabble chip and that’s where the idea began.
SB: The price of Patagonia products are relatively expensive, is the reason for this that the manufacturing process is more labour intensive ?
Hub : We definitely go the extra mile and make sure there are literally no loose (thread) ends. Ha.
Patagonia uses the best manufacturers, construction techniques, fabrics, trim suppliers, social and enviro organizations, etc.. Yes, it costs more to do it this way, but it’s offset by a longer lasting product. Also, we have the iron clad guarantee which is the best in the industry. However, with our new Yulex wetsuits we are able to offer competitive price when you compare to the neoprene alternative.
SB: If more wetsuit brands started incorporating a similar process would this drive end costs to the surfer down?
Hub : For sure it would. There is plenty of raw material out there to supply the entire wetsuit industry. The higher price comes from the manufacturing of the rubber buns. Every time they produce natural rubber, they have to shut down, clean all the machinery, produce the FSC rubber, shut down, clean again, etc.. So they’re running very small batches with a lot of extra labor.
SB: What is at the end of the road as far as Patagonia is concerned, where do you go next and putting reality aside for a second what would you most like to achieve as a company?
Hub : I’m probably not the person to speak for the whole company, but high-level means using less energy, more recycled and regenerative materials, more social and enviro programs. We are really getting into food - Patagonia Provisions. Also, investing in companies with parallel interests through Tin Shed ventures.
SB: As we see it, the transportation of products has a massive impact on the environment, do you have any views or remedies for this?
Hub : Of course, it would be ideal if you could produce everything locally but that’s not realistic. We do try to keep this in mind in our supply chain; using raw materials that are produced close to the manufacturer, and always use shipping method with the lowest impact. Our wetsuits are actually carbon negative.
SB: It is without doubt and amazing achievement to have made this step in wetsuit manufacturing, what sort of feedback have you had from the surfing community?
Hub : It hasn’t been completely without skepticism, but for the most part it’s been extremely positive. I like to tell people that I if gave you a suit and didn’t tell you it wasn’t neoprene, you’d have no idea.
SB: Again, a huge thanks to Hub for his time, he actually suggested we have a chat on Skype in case I had any more questions. Now that's service, I thought. Here is an honest review of what a surfer thought of the R2 Yulex wetsuit.
Hub has a relaxed and easy going conversational nature and it was easy to keep asking questions. His answers were more than enough to reassure me of the brand's unwavering commitment to being at the 'pointy end' of changing the surf industry for the better. There are many projects in the offing that are, to say the least, exciting and inspired.
When I quizzed Hub again on the price of Patagonia wetsuits which has always been a sticking point for me (I am a cheapskate), he told me that Patagonia wetsuits are now actually cheaper than they were when they first arrived on the market over a decade ago. Hub also told me that Patagonia are more than willing to share their neoprene free technology with the other wetsuit manufacturers for the good of everyone. This would also help drive overall costs to us surfers down, and still save the planet a bit at a time.
It seems very much like this could be a very big step for the wetsuit market indeed, and maybe we should get on board and, to quote the late Michael Jackson, 'Help make that change'.