Unless your skin is about a foot thick, swimming and surfing in the Pacific Ocean for hours at a time requires a wetsuit to stay warm and comfortable. That comfort, however, comes at a price as the vast majority of wetsuits are made from petroleum-based neoprene. The material is durable and does the job, but its manufacture is a carbon-intensive and toxic process. Now Patagonia is aggressively promoting its plant-based wetsuit technology with the goal to have it become a game-changer in the surf industry.
The quest for more sustainable materials within its wetsuit product line started almost 10 years ago. In 2005 Patagonia decided to make a move into the wetsuit business, and after researching the process by which neoprene is made, rolled out a line of wetsuits made from feedstock based on limestone. That was a step in the right direction, since the world’s quarries are not going to be depleted from making wetsuits for surfer dudes. But the company understood that environmentally, limestone was only a more responsible step up from petroleum.
To that end, Patagonia introduced a plant-based wetsuit in late 2012. Working with the biomaterials manufacturer Yulex, Patagonia designed wetsuits made for the most part from guayule, a shrub that grows in the southwestern U.S. and Mexico. According to Yulex, guayale’s advantages are that it requires little water to grow, needs no pesticides, and the process churning the plant into resin is far cleaner than producing neoprene sourced from petroleum. For now, these wetsuits are 60 percent guayale-based, though both companies say a 100 percent plant-based product is both companies’ ultimate goal.
The first such wetsuits were only sold in Japan, but Patagonia aims to scale production ... throughout the entire industry. In a boost to allow this technology to catch on while decreasing the need for petroleum-based products, Patagonia will offer this material to other companies within the surf industry. Analogous to what is going on with Tesla Motors and the battery technology, Patagonia says higher volumes will lead to lower prices and in the end, less environmentally harmful suits. The company isn’t being shy about it, either: Cheeky ads touting “The Best Weed in Town” will appear in various publications for Fall/Winter 2014.
As with other companies including Nike and The North Face, Patagonia is nudging its competitors within the apparel industry to use more sustainable materials, share its innovations — or both. The road towards more responsible and ethical clothing will be a long one. After all, while guayule shows potential as a viable source for biofuel as well as biomaterials, it still for the most part grows wild—advances have been made in domesticating this plant, but large-scale production is still not a safe bet. But even if Patagonia or any of its competitors can never produce a 100 percent plant-based wetsuit, this development will help spark even more innovation within the apparel industry. And considering the textile and fashion industries’ enormous impact on the planet and the ongoing food versus fiber and fuel debates, more creativity like that of Patagonia’s is welcomed and necessary.
Image credit: Patagonia
Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.
Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.