“I remember standing in front of a group of stakeholders from the plantation, and Ramón [Navarro] and Otto [Flores] held up a wetsuit,” said Hub Hubbard, Patagonia’s wetsuit development manager. “‘You can make this out of natural rubber,’ they said. And the people were amazed.”
Since Patagonia announced earlier this year a shift from neoprene to plant-based natural rubber in their entire fullsuit line, many have applauded, some have tested performance to see if the material is as flexible as neoprene, and other wetsuit manufacturing departments of competing surf brands have (probably) grumbled.
I found myself in the applaud camp, but wanted a deeper understanding. What was Yulex? And how exactly did it mean making wetsuits in a more sustainable way.
As it happens, the whole thing comes down to a choice between synthetic and natural rubbers. The industry standard since wetsuits first burst on the scene in the late 50s has always been neoprene – a synthetic, petroleum-based rubber. The process to manufacture neoprene is energy intensive, and nonrenewable.
When I spoke with Hub Hubbard about the impetus for switching over to a different material, he explained that Patagonia had always been about disrupting the status quo. In this case, representatives from a natural rubber company called Yulex approached folks at Patagonia in 2008 with a radical idea – to replace the neoprene in wetsuits with natural rubber. Hub explains that after seeing just a small square of the material, Patagonia went all in on Yulex, an incredible demonstration of the company’s ethos.
Ironically, natural rubber production is not new in the slightest. It predates synthetic rubber by almost four millenia. Scholars say the Olmec were the first to make balls out of rubber for play as early as 1700BC.
Natural rubber is definitely a less toxic, more sustainable material insofar as it comes from trees and not petroleum. And yet, as Hub discovered, the natural rubber industry has its own challenges – namely certain practices that contribute to deforestation.
That’s why he joined a team including brand ambassadors Ramón Navarro and Otto Flores to see the rubber plantation Yulex sources from with their own eyes. Tucked away in the Guatemalan highlands, the plantation is certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for adhering to strict social and environmental standards. The crew met with stakeholders to discuss the possibility of making wetsuits, something they had never thought possible. Seeing where the material was being produced with his own eyes was an incredibly affirming experience, says Hub. “This is the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of.”
With the surf world trending green, Hub predicts that other companies will jump on board the natural rubber train boasting a more sustainable option. But the FSC certification is important, and not all will have that. “Natural rubber is certainly better than neoprene,” he says, “but the FSC certification our wetsuits have means its the most sustainable wetsuit we can make.”
But that’s not to say that Patagonia is guarding production methods and sources for the sake of economic gain. Quite the opposite, in fact. Patagonia has chosen to share Yulex technology with the rest of the industry, according to a company press release. The mantra, “There’s no business to be done on a dead planet,” promulgated by environmentalist David Brower, has and continues to be a guiding force in the company’s trajectory. The Yulex wetsuit, while a paradigm shift for the industry at large, for Patagonia is simply the next step.