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Patagonia’s New Plant-Based Wetsuits And Goal To End Neoprene’s Use Across Surf

Scroll through the gallery to learn more about Yulex and Patagonia’s new wetsuits:

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Imagine if the back of your truck smelled like Eucalyptus instead of rotting rubber. Now imagine that your petroleum wetsuit was not only an air freshener in your board bag, but was made of plants, was 30% stretchier than your top of the line neoprene suit, dried faster, and kept you warmer. Winter surf trips are sounding better already.

In mid-November, Patagonia announced that after a four-year search for a material that would reduce the environmental impact of its wetsuits, it was officially releasing suits made from Yulex, a bio-rubber made from the Guayule plant.

The suits, which are a partnership with Yulex Corporation, are being rolled out on a limited custom basis starting in Japan, but Patagonia has much larger plans for the material. First they’re planning to make Yulex suits available in the States next fall, and then they’re hoping to make them available in the suits of every other brand across the industry.

“Patagonia doesn’t plan on making any money on this initially, it’s never been about that but rather it’s always been trying to use business to implement and inspire change to the environmental crisis,” says Patagonia Surf Director Jason McCaffrey. “We saw an opportunity to do that, and this is just us letting everyone know what is possible. For us a perfect world would be to see everyone switch all or a large part of their wetsuit production to Yulex.”

We caught up with McCaffrey to learn more about the material and the mission.

Patagonia Director of Surf Jason McCaffrey

Patagonia Director of Surf Jason McCaffrey

How did you connect with Yulex on this project and what properties of the guayule-based substance showed promise?

Our Director of Advanced research and Development [Tetsuya O'Hara] found Yulex, and met with Jeff Martin its CEO. The company produces agricultural-based latex allergy-friendly biomaterials for the manufacturing of medical, consumer, industrial and bioenergy products. Right off the bat the properties of the material showed great promise. It needed very little water and no pesticides to be produced. It also had great stretch, recovery, UV resistance and durability. It also doesn’t have the super sensitizing proteins that a lot of people are allergic to in synthetic rubbers. We always knew traditional neoprene was the dirtiest part of what we were making. We added wool to make suits warmer, so we used less neoprene, but it wasn’t a solution, it wasn’t good enough. In a perfect world we knew the best solution would be a completely different product that replaced neoprene.

The technology involves homogenizing the entire hedged guayule shrub. Rubber is found primarily in the bark and must be released in the processing. Branches are ground, releasing intact rubber particles and creating an aqueous suspension. The suspension is then placed in a centrifuge for separation. The rubber portion of the mixture is culled off the top, much the same way that cream is skimmed off milk, and purified.

We immediately knew the rubber produced from Guayule was good, but it wasn’t formulated to perform as far as wetsuits were concerned. We saw potential in the finished product and we knew there would be challenges but we couldn’t turn our back on the opportunity to find a material solution to the dirtiest part of every wetsuit on the planet.

Sounds like an amazing substance. Give us a little background on the trials and tribulations of this four-year process.

I lost track of how many trials we went through years ago, I think I would be conservative in saying hundreds? Every time we solved one problem we would find another, but eventually after four long years we got to a place where we were happy with stretch, performance, durability, and warmth. We used our best-selling R2 front-zip suit as the benchmark—we figured if we could match that then we could confidently claim a viable alternative while continuing to improve and innovate on what we had. It turned out that the material performed better than expectations. In fact, lab tests show that it has 30% more stretch than the neoprene we use in our current R2 suit. Needless to say we are pretty happy hence the announcement, but this is just the beginning. Our goal is to continue working until we get a formulation that is 100% Yulex and eliminate neoprene from our wetsuits altogether.

Funny story: Phil Edwards was called the Guayule kid. Apparently the government grew guayule as a rubber alternative during the war in the fields of South Carlsbad where he used to search for surf when he was a grom. I guess it’s just like Pipeline, he was on it first!

You guys are rolling this out with suits that contain 60% Yulex. How do the suits compare with neoprene suits as far as fit, performance, and durability?

I’ve slipped people suits and haven’t told them about the Yulex. Some people don’t notice anything, some people just say, this suit fits great. What people notice more than anything is the smell, the rubber smells like eucalyptus or to some people pine trees. It’s pretty wild. I asked the Yulex guys on our trip to Japan why that was and they said it was from the plant sap. The Yulex rubber is harvested from the bark of the plant, and that sap gets mixed in with it during the conversion process. It’s pretty wild because once you notice it the smell stays in your head. Regular wetsuits smell like the floor of a gas station in comparison.

Sounds like a game changer for the back of trucks and garages up and down the coast.Why aren’t you making them entirely from Yulex? Is this a proprietary deal with Patagonia?

That’s the goal. This is just the first step, hopefully people will see that this is possible and demand to see it from other companies. We’re not locking people out on this, we want other companies to embrace this change and incorporate it into their lines. We want to roll this out like we helped roll out organic cotton; we want to prove to the industry that people will pay a little extra for something built responsibly. If people will buy it, then competition takes over with a byproduct being a cleaner truly more environmentally friendly product.

You guys are taking a very measured approach to the roll out, launching in Japan first and then doing custom orders out of your factory. Is that primarily due to production capacity and material availability? Why Japan? 

Japan has a very large custom wetsuit market that is very receptive to new and innovative products. This particular material innovation is such that launching there made perfect sense to us. Next spring we will import the same material to our wetsuit facility here in the States and begin a custom built wetsuit program with every suit being made here on campus. Next fall we will have a selected style or styles available in all of our surf retail stores globally, as well as with key dealers that have interest. We will begin seeding suits here in the sates as soon as possible to show people what we are talking about. Once people can see, feel, and smell these suits I think they will understand where we are coming from.

How do you plan to ramp up production over the next couple years to make these more widely available?

We are partnered with the biggest wetsuit manufacturers and suppliers right now with our current production, and we have introduced them to the people at Yulex. As I said, our ultimate goal is to  have a wetsuit that is 100% Yulex and we’ll keep chasing that goal, but as of now the current 60/40 formulation should be online for everyone to manufacture with by late Fall 2013. This project doesn’t do anyone any good if it’s too expensive to be implemented at an affordable level; change will never be effected if only the top 1% can afford it. We need consumers to demand to see this product from the competition. We need the competition to try and meet that demand and get that business. When that happens volume goes up and cost goes down, it’s pretty simple but the power of making this happen lies in the surf population itself. If all surfers demand it, I can guarantee the industry will deliver.  This is just the beginning, I hope this starts a race to find an alternative to neoprene, in my opinion the world will be a better place if that happens.

How much will they sell for when they launch? What price do you hope to achieve by the time you make them more widely available in the States?

It’s looking like we will be able price these suits very close to what the current custom wetsuit pricing is in the US for high quality Japanese brands. We are hoping to have the stock suit we launch next fall be within $100 of our current pricing, with the goal, through competition driving up volumes and driving price, to eventually convert our entire line the way we did with organic cotton back in 1995. I think it’s  a really exciting time in the wetsuit industry, and all manufacturers have the opportunity to make a big change in how we do business. This spring, we want to get a round table together and introduce the industry to Yulex and vice versa. Let them see the material, test it so that they can introduce it to their line plans. Everyone needs to get behind this if it is going to work. We all have our strengths and weaknesses and particular philosophies about how a wetsuit should be built and that’s awesome, that is how it should be and it will never change. So if we all agreed to want to use a new, less environmentally harmful material, really nothing would change, we would just be filling landfills up with less of a bad thing.

How much does using this affect the footprint and impact of a traditional wetsuit?

That’s in with the lab now, they are working on all that data, but we know for sure there are significant improvements during production and processing.

Who has been helping you test it and what’s the feedback been?

I have orders in for ambassadors right now, a few have them and have already tried them. We also have a crew of underground guys that live at Ocean Beach, San Diego, Japan, and the East Coast…the funny thing is we just said, “test this” we didn’t say much else and hardly anyone could tell the difference. I know I’m going to get a bunch of emails from the crew if they got one and that’s what is awesome, aside from the few who noticed how good their suit smelled, nobody noticed a difference.