When we started making wetsuits in 2005, we had a simple purpose in mind: We wanted to apply our expertise in technical product design to build durable, high-performing suits in a less harmful way.
As we began our research into how conventional wetsuits were made, we found that neoprene, due to its complex and highly energy-intensive manufacturing process, was the most environmentally damaging component of a suit.
Neoprene, or polychloroprene, is a substance developed in 1930 that’s most commonly made by chlorinating and polymerizing butadiene, a petrochemical refined from crude oil. It’s been the base material for surf and dive wetsuits since the early 1950s, and there were no viable alternatives when we designed our first generations of suits.
To reduce the amount of neoprene we were using, we lined our suits with innovative fabrics that incorporated chlorine-free merino wool for additional warmth. We also switched to neoprene that was made with acetylene derived from limestone, instead of petroleum-derived butadiene—but it too was non-renewable and required significant amounts of energy to produce, not to mention the effects of mining and transporting it. Compared to petroleum-based neoprene, there wasn’t much difference, and we realized we needed to keep searching for a better solution.
In 2008, we partnered with a company called Yulex to develop a renewable, plant-based replacement for neoprene. Originally avoiding hevea—the world’s main source of natural rubber—because of its association with deforestation in the developing world, we introduced the first wetsuits made with rubber from the guayule plant. But when we discovered that hevea was being grown on Forest Stewardship Council certified plantations in Guatemala, it changed our thinking—hevea rubber was the best-performing alternative to neoprene, and it could be sourced in a way that didn’t contribute to deforestation.
As of Fall 2016, the Yulex® natural rubber in our wetsuits comes from sources that are Forest Stewardship Council® (FSC) certified by the Rainforest Alliance. After being tapped from hevea trees, the raw latex is refined by our partners at Yulex in a proprietary process that removes over 99% of impurities—including the proteins that cause latex allergies—and results in a stronger, non-sensitizing natural elastomer.
We were excited to find a renewable material that performed as well, or better, than traditional neoprene. Our environmental assessments revealed another benefit that was just as encouraging—because the polyisoprene polymer was produced in trees instead of factories, using solar energy instead of generated electricity, up to ~80% less climate-altering CO2 was emitted in the manufacturing process when compared to traditional neoprene.
Still the material of choice for a wide range of products with demanding performance requirements, such as airplane tires and medical gloves, natural rubber is both stronger and more flexible than its synthetic substitutes. Its strength, elasticity and consistent stretch transfer superbly into wetsuits—meaning that not only are we not contributing to deforestation, Yulex natural rubber is a step forward for performance, too.
Most importantly, since only 0.5% of the world’s rubber supply currently comes from FSC certified sources, we hope our choice will motivate other businesses to incorporate more sustainable practices in their supply chains.