Biobased Wetsuits Present Opportunities and Challenges

A recent article from The Guardian explores how companies like Patagonia are using plant-based materials to replace neoprene in wetsuits.

Patagonia’s Yulex® natural rubber wetsuits offer a green alternative to conventional neoprene wetsuit construction.

Neoprene is the go-to material for surfing wetsuits.

But it’s also a material with significant environmental downside: it is petroleum derived, energy intensive to produce, and non-biodegradable.

Alternatively, Yulex corporation, based in Arizona, produces a 100% plant-based rubber with similar if not superior performance and comfort properties to conventional neoprene.

The natural rubber is sourced from FSC® Certified Hevea trees, also known as “rubberwood”.

Patagonia has been able to use this natural rubber to make wetsuit products with vastly improved sustainability profiles that also meet the performance needs of their active consumer base.

And, as the article notes, Patagonia’s relationship with Yulex is not exclusive, so this technology is available for other outdoor brands to incorporate into their new and ‘greener’ product designs.

However, as with any new material, particularly in the biobased world, finding a niche in an established market presents a challenge.

First and foremost, there is increased cost.

As surfers typically evaluate wetsuits and other equipment based on price, performance and, lastly, sustainability, finding surfers that are “willing to try a new wetsuit out and pay a high premium is a real challenge”.

The green wetsuits are also not completely sustainable. They still contain approximately 15% synthetic material.

Other critics point out that sustainable wetsuit design should focus on durability rather than renewable materials, as the most important goal is to reduce consumption and waste.

Finally, other brands are looking to maintain competitive pricing and enhance sustainability profiles by using new versions of neoprene sourced from limestone, a non-renewable resource with supposedly better overall environmental attributes when compared to petroleum sourced neoprene.

It’s an interesting article that highlights some very exciting developments in biobased materials, while noting the underlying challenge of introducing these innovations to price sensitive markets and skeptical consumers.

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