The Future of Wetsuits
This is our wetsuit f a c t o r y. There are no furnaces or smokestacks, but this small hevea plantation is where our new natural rubber wetsuits begin.
Pr i n c i pal P h o t o g raph y b y Ti m D av i s
Growing on reclaimed farmland, these miraculous trees are carefully tended throughout their 40-year lives. Irrigated by ambient rainfall, they’re managed in accordance with a rigorous set of principles and criteria that allow the rubber they produce to be Forest Stewardship Council ® (FSC) certified by the Rainforest Alliance. That means they’re raised and harvested in an environmentally responsible and socially beneficial way—a rarity in a globalized rubber industry that continues to cause large-scale deforestation in tropical countries around the world. Here in the lush green highlands of Guatemala, the plantation provides long-term employment to the local community while helping sequester carbon and support biodiversity in the surrounding ecosystem. And all the while, its trees do the quiet labor of turning sunlight, water and nutrients from the soil
into a strong and elastic wetsuit polymer—the same work usually done by energy-hungry factories of the more conventional kind. A species native to the Amazon rainforest, Hevea brasiliensis trees have long been prized for the spiraling layer of latex-bearing vessels inside their bark. Flowing most steadily in the cooler temperatures of the night, the fluid they contain becomes the raw material for making natural rubber. To start the harvesting process, the rubber tappers—known in Guatemala as picadores—set out on foot a few hours before dawn. Working by headlamp, they use curved tapping knives to scrape shallow incisions in each trunk. As the picadores move from tree to tree, the milk-white latex flows down the newly cut grooves before funneling into small metal flumes and collecting in the cups that hang below.
Natural rubber has been used by indigenous peoples of the Americas for thousands of years. Now it’s helping us craft a cleaner future for the surf industry—one drop at a time.
Time: 5:45 a.m . Elev: 3,800 ft. Th e v o l c a n i c s o i l s o f t h e S i e r ra M a d re d e C h i a p a s ra n g e h a v e s u p p o r t e d t h e l o c a l population for thousands of years. Here in t h e f o o t h i l l s , t h e f a r m t h at p ro d u c e s o u r hevea rubber also grows coffee, avocados, lim es, m a n g o ste e ns a nd m a c a d a m i a n uts .
L: Rubber tapping is skilled labor that requires a sure and well-trained hand. The knife must be held at a precise angle with the perfect amount of pressure applied. If the cuts are too deep, the trees can be damaged and become more susceptible to rot.
R: As the trees grow, the picadores continue tapping at the same height above ground, allowing scarified sections to heal as they lift upward. To protect against infection, a blue fungicide is painted onto recently exposed areas of the trunks.
The Future of Wetsuits
L: Cultivated in Guatemala since the 1940s, hevea trees are first tapped at 7 years of age. Properly treated, they can produce rubber latex for the next 30 years. As their yields diminish, the trees are cut and milled. Hevea is a dense hardwood that can be built into furniture or household goods, giving each tree another life after itâ€™s felled. New saplings are then spliced onto the stumps.
R: The principles of the Forest Stewardship Council are reflected in the careful approach of the picadores: They know their livelihoods depend on the continuing health of the forest as a whole.
“Forest management shall conserve biological diversity and maintain the ecological functions and integrity of the forest.” — Forest Stewardship Council, Principle #6
The FSC ® seal assures consumers that their purchases aren’t contributing to deforestation. Instead, they’re helping secure essential resources for the future. Industrial farming often creates sterile monocultures instead of the more diverse and resilient networks found in nature. Accordance with the 10 principles and 57 criteria of the FSC, however, ensures that our source plantation is beneficial to its ecosystem as a whole. The Rainforest Alliance—an international nonprofit dedicated to the conservation of biodiversity and sustainable livelihoods, with a focus on tropical landscapes—performs audits to confirm that the plantation adheres to the FSC’s standards on the ground. Unfortunately, on the world’s many thousands of unregulated rubber plantations, the interreliance of living things is often ignored in an attempt to maximize short-term profit. It’s no secret that the production of hevea has caused widespread environmental degradation: Rainforests have been slashed
and burned, waterways drained and diverted, and untold amounts of toxic defoliants used to remove native ground cover. In Southeast Asia, an area of native forest equivalent to 42 Manhattans was converted to hevea cultivation between 2005 and 2015; it’s estimated that up to another 8.5 million acres of additional rubber plantations will be needed to meet projected demand in the next decade, slaking the world’s increasing thirst for car and airplane tires and other manufactured goods. Hevea plantations converted from natural forest after 1994 don’t qualify for the FSC seal—so whether you’re buying wetsuits or household goods, choosing products made with FSC-certified rubber means you’re not unknowingly supporting slash-and-burn practices in threatened tropical ecosystems.
Learn more at fsc.org and rainforest-alliance.org
The Future of Wetsuits
R: A tank at the Guatemalan processing plant displays the FSCÂ and Rainforest Alliance marks. The sign above them indicates that the latex is free of tetramethylthiuram disulfide, an accelerator often used in rubber processing that can cause skin sensitivities. (See p. 21 for more photos of the plant.)
The re ’s a da rke r s ide t o t he r u bber i n dus try that fe w pe ople ev er see. Here, farmers in Laos burn slash piles on a hillside newly cleared for rubber. Only 0.5% of the world’s rubber supply comes f ro m F S C - c e rt i f i e d p l a n t at i o n s , m e a n i n g the vast majority of industrial rubber production has little or no environmental oversight. Scenes like this are what we’re striving to prevent, and we hope our choice of sustainably grown hevea will help inspire major commodity producers to adopt more transparent and responsible sourcing. PHOTO: RICHARD BARNES
The Future of Wetsuits
Seeing is believing. When we started learning about the rubber plantation in Guatemala, we knew reading a few reports wasn’t enough. To get the full story, we went straight to the source.
Last fall, we flew south from California to visit the people who earn their livings from FSC-certified hevea. Meeting with farm managers and staff from the Rainforest Alliance, we were able to walk through the plantation, perform our own verifications and watch the harvesting and processing taking place. We spent most of our time, however, in conversation with workers and their families. FSC standards require that forest management operations “enhance the long-term social and economic well-being of forest workers and local communities,” and that they meet or exceed all applicable laws covering
the health and safety of employees and their families. In contrast to agricultural operations that rely on migrant labor, the workers at our source plantation are given extended contracts, bringing steady income and generating a more skilled and stable workforce. Since the plantation is set well away from the ocean, we also brought along a sample wetsuit and a few surf magazines to show the picadores how their rubber was used. Most of them had never seen wetsuits before. “Here in Guatemala, these aren’t necessary,” one laughed, “because the water is warm.”
A farm employee teaches Patagonia surf ambassador Ramón Navarro about the harvesting process. As a passionate conservationist in his native Chile—and a dedicated cold water surfer—Ramón was keen to learn how wetsuit rubber could help promote land stewardship in another Latin American country.
The Future of Wetsuits
L: Envisioning “a world where people and planet prosper together,” the Rainforest Alliance certifies that forestry enterprises adhere to the principles and criteria of the FSC.
R: Later in the day, the raw latex is collected from the cups and backpacked to the collection point. It’s now ready for the first stage of processing.
“ We knew they mad e ti res out of this,” one worker remarked , “ b ut we didn’t know you could make a sw i mming dress.”
The Future of Wetsuits
L: For any product to be given FSC approval, the certified material must be kept separate as it progresses through the supply chain. It guarantees that the material in a finished product is the same material sourced from a certified forestry operation.
R: Containing about 70% water when it comes out of the tree, the latex emulsion is spun in centrifuges to reduce the water content before itâ€™s shipped to our partners at Yulex for purification. Roughly one liter of liquid rubber is used to make one wetsuit.
Connec te d links in the FSC Chain o f C ustody.
Ramรณn Navarro gives thanks for one of the best days ever at his hometown break. Punta de Lobos, Chile. RODRIGO FARIAS MORENO
“We knew using natural rubber would reduce CO 2 emissions in manufac turing. By going to Guatemala, we were also able to do our due diligence to verif y that the rubber is bringing real social and ecological value to the region. There were communit y facilities, tree nurseries, chemical and waste treatment, and water way protec tions in place —all of those are key elements to sustainable management that were apparent on the FSC plantation we visited. From my perspective, shif ting to hevea rubber has the potential to be a projec t that ’s both regenerative to the land and restorative to communities. Hopefully examples like this can inspire consumers to make thought ful purchases from companies that of fer responsibly produced goods and ser vices in the global marketplace.” — Eli s s a Lo ughm a n M a n a g e r o f Pro duc t Re s po n s i b i li ty at Pata go n i a
The Future of Wetsuits
Goodbye, neoprene. The material that’s been keeping surfers warm for over 60 years is an example of how little consumers tend to know about how everyday products are made.
Developed by DuPont in 1930, the substance now known as neoprene was first made by chlorinating and polymerizing butadiene, a petrochemical derived from crude oil. This process resulted in a material called polychloroprene. Correctly predicting that its new invention would find commercial success, DuPont changed the trade name from “Duprene” to the flashier “Neoprene” in 1936. Minor adjustments to the formula were made in the years that followed—but as the company notes, today’s neoprene is “basically unchanged since 1950.” Not long after—in ’51 and ’52—neoprene-based foam was sewn into the first surf and dive suits. Its insulating properties allowed surfing to expand to the world’s coldest coasts, and polychloroprene has been the main component of wetsuits ever since. But it has two inherent problems: producing it from petroleum or limestone takes a significant amount of energy, and its ingredients are nonrenewable. When we started prototyping wetsuits in 2005, finding a less detrimental alternative was our primary goal. As our R&D progressed, we learned that using renewable natural rubber could help us reduce our reliance on petrochemicals. Our work with hevea
revealed another benefit that was just as important: 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 and refining process when compared to traditional neoprene. We were also excited to find that the performance characteristics of natural rubber equaled or exceeded those of neoprene. These days, the creations of industrial science have become so ubiquitous that it can seem oddly surprising when a natural, age-old substance is still the best material available. But in that sense, natural rubber is much like maple syrup: The stuff that flows from the tree is a whole lot better than its manufactured imitations. In a recent National Geographic feature about the environmental impact of the rubber industry, writer Charles Mann explained why 40% of the world’s rubber still comes from hevea: “Synthetic rubber is usually cheaper to produce but is weaker, less flexible and less able to withstand vibration. For things that absolutely cannot fail, from condoms to surgeon’s gloves to airplane tires, natural rubber has long been the top choice.”
Thanks, neoprene. It’s been fun! Mavericks, Half Moon Bay, California. FRANK QUIRARTE
The Future of Wetsuits
L: Engineers at Yulex filter the latex using a waterbased purification process that removes over 99% of impurities, including the proteins that cause latex allergies. Yulex also produces nonsensitizing natural rubber for medical applications. Here, Patagonia’s Miranda Hudson holds a block of hevea rubber ready to be processed into wetsuit foam.
R: The performance attributes of natural rubber—such as its strength, elasticity and consistent stretch from low to high load—transfer superbly into wetsuits. To replace the neoprene content of conventional wetsuits, the Yulex® rubber is blended with a small amount of synthetic rubber that gives it additional ozone and UV resistance.
We knew our natural r ubber project would only be worthw hile if the end product performed as w ell as, or better than, what surfe r s w ere used to.
“ O u r d e s i g n p h i l o s o p h y i s s i m p l i c i t y. We f o u n d t h a t b y t a k i n g r u b b e r f r o m h e v e a t r e e s a n d t h e n u s i n g t h e Yu l e x purification, which is really clean and simple, we could cut back a lot of the process and reduce the carbon footprint. S u r p r i s i n g l y, w e a l s o l e a r n e d a l o t f r o m Formula 1 tires. They require smoot hness, g r i p a n d d u r a b i l i t y, a n d t h e t i r e m a n u f a c t u r e r s figured out a recipe that blended natural r u b b e r w i t h s y n t h e t i c . We a p p l i e d s o m e o f that concept to wetsuits and ended up w i t h 8 5% Yu l e x n a t u r a l r u b b e r a n d 15% chlorine-free synthetic rubber—a combination t hat gives t he bes t per formance in terms o f s t r e t c h , d u r a b i l i t y a n d U V r e s i s t a n c e .” — Te ts uya O ’ H a ra D i re c to r o f In n o vati o n Re s ea rc h at Pata go n i a
The Future of Wetsuits
Finding t h e w a y. Riding waves and developing technical products are complementary pursuits. They both require focus and determination—and a good dose of creativity if you don’t want to follow the crowd.
It’s only a few blocks to the ocean from the blacksmith shop where Patagonia was born. Whenever a solid swell lit up the local points, Yvon Chouinard and his friends would put down their tools to go ride waves, knowing the work would still be waiting when they got back. With surfing so tightly woven into our history, it was inevitable that we’d turn our attention to wetsuits at some point. But we didn’t want to make the same throwaway suits that were already hanging on the racks. Instead, we wanted to apply our expertise in technical product design to make durable, high- performing wetsuits in a less damaging way. Knowing that neoprene itself was the most energy-intensive component of a wetsuit, we lined our original suits with fabrics that incorporated merino wool, reducing the amount of neoprene needed. We also shifted to neoprene that was derived from limestone instead of petroleum, but we soon found that it offered only minimal energy savings. In retrospect, we were looking for a solution that didn’t yet exist.
In 2008, we started working with Yulex to develop plant-based wetsuit foam. We initially focused on guayule latex, avoiding hevea because of its links to deforestation. When we found FSC-certified hevea latex in 2014, however, it changed our thinking. It was sustainably harvested; it offered a clear reduction in energy use and carbon emissions; and it was the best-performing natural alternative to neoprene. We started building new prototypes in our wetsuit lab in Ventura, and testing them in the water confirmed that Yulex hevea rubber was superior to anything we’d used in the past. So we decided to go all in: Rather than introducing it in just a few styles, we’re using it in all 21 of our full suits this season. Producing the world’s first neoprene-free wetsuits is a radical step forward for the surf industry, but it wasn’t something that happened overnight. It’s the culmination of a 10-year effort that was guided by Patagonia’s mission: Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.
Hank Gaskell gathers real-time data on a testing trip in Chile. MARK MCINNIS
The Future of Wetsuits
L: Sheico, a Taiwanese company that makes most of the industry’s wetsuit foam, blends our Yulex rubber into finished sheets. (Both Sheico and Yulex are certified by the Rainforest Alliance to the FSC Chain of Custody standard.) After receiving the sheets in Ventura, we cut, sew and seam-seal prototype suits that we can test in the ocean the next day.
R: Dulce Soto and Patagonia surf ambassador Léa Brassy. Making suits from start to finish keeps us connected to our tradition of hands-on design, and it allows us to continually refine and improve our ideas. There’s always a way to make a product better—which means there’s always more work for us to do.
Our most focused d evelopment work takes place i n o ur wetsuit lab in Ventura, Cali fornia.
The Future of Wetsuits
Sharing our stash. After introducing our first suits with Yulex content, we shared the technology with the rest of the surf industry. We’re making the same decision today.
David Brower, one of the environmental movement’s most influential thinkers, said something that we always keep in mind: “There’s no business to be done on a dead planet.” We’re keenly aware that every product we make has an impact on the environment—and for a company of passionate outdoorspeople, that awareness causes no small amount of tension and internal debate. But we’ve learned to translate that tension into forward motion, doing all we can to make sure we’re doing our work in the most responsible way. Often, that compels us to go against standard business practice. We don’t want to be the only company making wetsuits with sustainably sourced natural rubber—our hope is that every company, especially the ones bigger than us, will start shifting away from nonrenewable materials.
“I’ve been testing the hevea suits for some time now, and they check all the boxes,” says Patagonia Surf ambassador Otto Flores. “They’re light, warm, flexible and really durable. I don’t miss conventional suits at all. But the real goal, as I see it, is to make natural rubber the new normal. If we get other companies on board, we can help change the surf industry and clean it up in the process.” We all share this planet, and when it comes to tackling the urgent challenges of climate change and resource depletion, we’re all in it together—no matter where we live, where we work or what we do. There’s a long road ahead, and the surf industry is only a minor player on the global scale—but just as a seedling grows into a tree, even the smallest changes can grow into something much bigger, and much more momentous, over time.
It’s hard to beat sharing waves with your friends, but having a firing sandbar to yourself comes pretty damn close. RYAN CRAIG
“I’ve been working with wetsuits since the early ‘90s, and being par t of the team that ’s taking a big piece of the process and replacing it with something plant-based and less carbon-intensive is the coolest thing I’ve ever done. Par tnering with Yulex to bring the projec t to fruition was a chance to invest in innovation, instead of just put ting a fanc y spin on something out of a supplier ’s showroom. In terms of technical per formance, the finished produc t is no dif ferent than its neoprene predecessor. But it ’s super impor tant to know where the rubber is coming from, so the FSC cer tification is a huge par t of the stor y. And there are still other ingredients in wetsuit foam that are synthetic or petrol-based. Looking at more responsible alternatives to those is the nex t step.” — H ub H ub b a rd We ts ui t De ve lo pm e n t Ma n a ge r at Pata go n i a
A turn that Thor would love: LÃ©a Brassy hammers the lip in icy conditions north of the Arctic Circle. Lofoten, Norway. VINCENT COLLIARD
A wor ld first. Patagonia’s entire line of full suits is now neoprene-free. They’re made with Yulex® natural rubber, covering water temperatures from 32°–75°F (0°–23°C) with styles for Men, Women and Kids.
Y u l e x® N a t u r a l R u b b e r The Yulex process removes over 99% of impurities and delivers a stronger, nonsensitizing natural material. The source trees are irrigated by ambient rainfall and a recycled water supply is used in manufacturing.
Available now at leading surf shops and patagonia.com.
F S C® & R a i n f o r e s t Alliance Certified Certified to Forest Stewardship Council® standards by the Rainforest Alliance, our natural rubber sources are compliant with strict social and environmental guidelines for responsible forest management.
Lower CO2 Emissions
Using natural rubber in place of energyintensive neoprene means up to ~80% less climate-altering CO2 is emitted in the polymer manufacturing process.
The highest possible recycled polyester content in our high-stretch exterior and interior linings lessens our use of petroleum to make virgin polyester while repurposing scrap material from the waste stream.
Unique in the surf industry, we stand behind every wetsuit we sell. If it doesnâ€™t perform to your satisfaction, weâ€™ll take it back for replacement, refund or repair. See patagonia.com/wetsuitwarranty for full details.
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hooked on neoprene s i n c e t h e 19 5 0 s ,
Pioneering the use of natural rubber in wetsuits is a story we’re proud to tell—because after six decades of neoprene dependency, it’s high time to set surfing free.
1 0 0 % R e c y c l e d P a p e r This catalog is made with FSC®-certified 100% post-consumer recycled paper. Not a single tree was cut to produce it.
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Kohl Christensen and Jeff Denholm at the opening ceremony for the Titans of Mavericks contest in Half Moon Bay, California. ryan craig
AUGUST 2016 © 2016 Patagonia, Inc.
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but it’s a nonrenewable material with an energy-intensive manufacturing process. By replacing it with Yulex® natural rubber from sources that are Forest Stewardship Council® certified by the Rainforest Alliance, we’re reducing CO2 emissions by up to ~80% when compared to conventional neoprene— causing less harm to the planet we love and the oceans that give us waves to ride.
on orders over $75*
Surfers have been
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Published on Aug 19, 2016
Introducing the world's first neoprene-free wetsuits. Our entire line of full suits is now made with Yulex® natural rubber from sources that...