“Neoprene is nasty stuff, but for a long time we had no alternative,”
Hub Hubbard, Patagonia’s Wetsuit Development Manager
Developed in 1930 by chlorinating and polymerizing butadiene, polychloroprene (known by its trade name, neoprene) has changed very little since the 1950s. It is produced from either petroleum or limestone, both non-renewable materials, in a very energy intensive process. When Patagonia entered the wetsuit market in 2008 they did so with full knowledge of the negative environmental impacts of neoprene production, and began to experiment with alternatives. They worked with Yulex, an American company who produce 100% plant-based rubbers, and by 2013 they had taken to market a wetsuit made with 60% Yulex rubber (guayule rubber) and 40% neoprene. Guayule rubber is not organic however, as growing and processing it still requires the use of chemicals.
Their latest line of wetsuits, which are completely neoprene-free, use a natural rubber sourced from hevea which is the tree known in South America as the “rubber tree”. Hevea is the primary source of latex used to make natural rubber. The fact that the rubber is natural, though, doesn’t automatically mean that it is better for the environment, as across the tropics enormous areas of rainforest have been cleared with the use of slash-and-burn practices and chemical herbicides to be replaced by hevea monocultures. Only 0.5% if the world’s natural rubber supply comes from FSC-certified plantations, and Patagonia are using hevea rubber from one such plantation in Guatemala.