Patagonia is pushing forward with their fourth generation naturally-grown rubber wetsuit and in turn bringing about the demise of neoprene.
Every surfer is aware that tradition petroleum neoprene just ain’t great for the environment. Patagonia say they have the answer and it’s a plant. Is their product the step environmentalists have dreamt of or simply another surf industry white elephant?
Drift spoke to wetsuit manufacturers large and small to garner their thoughts on Patagonia’s promises and the future of wetsuit technology.
With much fanfare the Californian company announced their latest range of suits as a ‘Massive step forward’. The range will grow from just two suits in 2015 to a whopping 21 suits this year and the phasing out of neoprene should be complete by as early as 2017. A courageous step in an industry know for its conservative use of new materials.
On paper the idea is nothing short of genius. Neoprene is a petroleum-based product that isn’t particularly energy efficient to manufacture. So imagine if you had the chance to move away from crude oil drilling and transportation into sewing a few seeds to create your rubber. It’s a done deal, right? Everyone wins.
The general barriers that Patagonia have previously faced range from the simple ‘Is the product good enough?’ to the more fiscal ‘How much extra is this going to cost?’
Patagonia have an answer for all these questions and Drift spoke to Gabe Davies, European Surf Manager, to get the lowdown on the new range and to find out if this iteration really does cut the mustard.
“This is a new formula which is Hevea plant based rather the previous versions which were Guayule based” Gabe told us.
“This suit really is like to like to our neoprene gear if not better”.
“At the moment it is more expensive to manufacture but we are holding the prices as tight as possible to our existing range to make it affordable, as soon as other manufacturers get involved the prices will come down” He added.
The Yulex product is open for all and as more producers get involved the prices will come down so the claim goes yet other brands have already been involved and they still aren’t bringing their own natural rubber product to market, why is this?
One significant player who sits exactly in this box also happens to be one of the biggest manufacturers of wetsuits in the world, O’Neill.
The American brand are constantly pushing boundaries in suit technology and design so where do they sit with the homegrown rubber?
“We have actually been working with the Yulex products for a number of years” Joe Turnbull, European Product Manager, told us.
“But it has never been right for us. The stretch wasn’t quite up to our quality control and at this stage we would just not be happy to bring it to market”.
“We will continue to work with it and as soon as we are happy it is at least equal to our existing range we will be able to produce it. It still remains an expensive alternative but it is getting better with every batch and in time I could see it getting cheaper and becoming more viable, especially with the latest Hevea rubber which is without doubt the best yet.”
Turnbull suggests working on ways to recycle the neoprene might be a better solution, but added.
“I know many have tried and failed including that flip-flop programme that never really worked”
Yet O’Neil is keen to move forward positively “Alongside our continued work with Yulex we are also working on other unique environmental ideas which include our products being delivered in biodegradable cornstarch bags and with cardboard hangers.”
So while Patagonia’s Yulex appears to be possibly game changing not everyone is prepared to throw their full weight behind the science right now.
One of the newest entrants to the wetsuit market is Cornwall’s Finisterre. With little under half a year under their belt since their inaugural wetsuit launch we spoke to head honcho Tom Kay to try and look behind the reasons why an environmental conscious company like Finisterre opted for Neoprene.
“We worked with Mat D’Ascoli with the view to making the best wetsuit we possibly could and this was based around three main factors. Length of time in the water, fit and durability. At the time of the initial design we didn’t want to introduce another unknown factor with Yulex.” Tom told us.
“This was without doubt the toughest products we have ever made with all of the factors that go into the design. I don’t think you often realise what goes into a wetsuit”
“That said, what Patagonia are doing is exciting and fantastic. We will continue to develop and improve our product and as a brand. We are always open to technological advances so the Yulex rubbers could definitely be the future, but it isn’t our focus right now.”
I think it is safe to say that the jury is out on Yulex’s products… There is absolutely no question that the idea could be game-changing, now it just boils down to deliverability and practicality of working with the naturally grown rubber.
It certainly can’t be said that Patagonia are short of balls and it is truly awesome to see them take on this colossal challenge and bring it to the fore. But with some viewing their 2015 range of Yulex suits as a ‘prototype’ we will have to wait to see if their chrysalis can metamorphose into a unique yet robust butterfly.
All 21 full suit styles will be available in July 2016 in North America, Europe, and Japan so keep your eyes peeled…