Image credit: Patagonia
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You might associate surfing with environmental awareness due to the nature of this water sport (and the good work of the environmental nonprofit Surfrider Foundation). But despite many surfers supporting environmental causes, surfing has a track record of many unsustainable practices.
Surfers travel often to catch waves around the globe, burning a significant amount of petroleum, and the discovery of a surf break in a small town in a developing country, if not managed well, can bring with it a deluge of plastic trash, water scarcity, and the displacement of locals.
Surf gear is predominantly made from non-biodegradable materials, such as nylon, and elastane, and boards from polyurethane or epoxy. According to the Surfboard Cradle-to-Grave Project by Tobias C. Schultz at the University of California, Berkeley, since the 1950s, surfboards transitioned from being made from wood, redwood, cedar, and balsa to either a polyurethane foam core and unsaturated polyester resin (UPR) soaked in fiberglass skin, or epoxy-resin-soaked fiberglass. Both types of surfboard construction emit a significant amount of CO2 equivalent during their manufacture, use, and disposal, from 170 kilograms for a UPR-constructed surfboard to 250 kilograms for an epoxy-constructed surfboard.
But we’re here to talk about fashion, so let’s discuss the wetsuit, which is made out of polychloroprene, a rubber, commonly known as neoprene, a petrochemical fabric invented by DuPont in the 1930s. It is heavily used in the surfing industry because it is durable, elastic, heat resistant, and entirely waterproof, making it an ideal material for wetsuits to insulate against wet and cold environments. But fashion brands and regular bathing suit brands have also been known to incorporate the spongy fabric into their products.
Like most petrochemical-derived fabrics, neoprene has a significantly negative impact on the environment. It’s not biodegradable, and the outdoor apparel company Finisterre estimates approximately 419 tons get thrown away in the UK every year.
Reports have also shown that its manufacturing has poisoned neighboring communities. Since 1968 DuPont emitted into the air the primary component of neoprene, chloroprene, leaving residents nearby plants in Louisville, Kentucky and Reserve, Louisiana complaining about the chemical odors and illnesses. The company had reportedly known since 1956 that the colorless gas “may enter the body either by inhalation or by absorption through the skin” causing “damage to vital organs.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency mentions that long-term exposure to chloroprene may also affect the lungs, liver, kidneys, and immune system. The risk of cancer from air toxicity in Reserve is now 50 times the national average. But it wasn’t until 2008 that DuPont shuttered the Kentucky facility due to residents’ outrage over the site’s toxic emissions. However, operations continue in Reserve, Louisiana, even after DuPont sold the Neoprene business in 2015 to the Japanese company Denka.
Now Californian Proposition 65 includes chloroprene amongst its list of carcinogens, requiring businesses to determine if they must provide a warning on certain neoprene wetsuits.
Similarly, in 2009 the Environmental Working Group (EWG) named neoprene the allergen of the year, mentioning that neoprene products can cause an allergic reaction when touching the skin. “Avoiding the neoprene products is the only solution because protective covering of the offending material is either impractical or insufficient,” said the EWG report.
Although some brands have ditched the conventional neoprene and switched to a version made out of chloroprene derived from limestone, a 2012 Patagonia report says that chloroprene derived from either petroleum or limestone have equally significant environmental impacts.
Is There a Sustainable Alternative to Neoprene?
In 2008, Patagonia launched its wetsuits with the intent to develop a less-harmful alternative to neoprene. But it wasn’t until 2016 that Patagonia introduced a natural rubber in partnership with Yulex, an Arizona-based supplier of Forest Stewardship Council–certified latex-free rubber. It’s a 100% plant-based natural rubber derived from hevea trees made in a zero-waste production process that emits 80% fewer carbon dioxide emissions than neoprene. Patagonia says Yulex neoprene is light, stretchy, yet strong, all while still being good for the planet.
Patagonia made Yulex available to other brands, with the hopes it would replace neoprene across the industry. So if you want to hit the (cold) waves in sustainable gear, you have choices! Here are the companies using it:
Patagonia was the first surf company to remove neoprene from its assortment. Now, Yulex natural rubber is the base polymer for all of its men’s, women’s, and kids’ suits, as well as its gloves, booties, and hoods. Patagonia is committed to ethical and transparent production, so you can find out more about where your wetsuit was made right on the product page.
New York-based Ansea is an ethical lifestyle brand that creates a chic, feminine, and functional ocean wear and accessories. Its inaugural collection includes bags and wetsuits made from Yulex locally produced in small batches in New York City and Los Angeles.
Made in Italy, Slo active is an ocean wear brand with a swimwear and wetsuit line made from Yulex. The brand converts its offcuts into hair ties, hang tags, and business cards and sends a portion of them to its partners who use offcuts for diving accessories. SLO active works with a manufacturer that uses water-based glue for the lamination of its fabrics, eliminating harmful volatile organic compounds in them. Also, its suits are delivered in minimal recycled and compostable packaging.
Seea is a women’s surf brand that mixes both retro design and modern functionality in its swimsuits and apparel. In 2018, Seaa switched to Yulex with linings made out of recycled polyester and bonded with solvent-free adhesives. Seea’s dying plant is bluesign-certified, meaning it follows strict guidelines in terms of efficiency, waste disposal, and non-use of toxic materials. The brand’s garments are picked up from its factory, enclosed in biodegradable bags, and shipped from its warehouse to retailers and customers in recycled paper packaging. Although its website mentions that all of its swimwear and clothing is manufactured in the U.S., its recent Yulex collection product page states that they are “Made in Thailand.” We reached out to the brand for clarification, and once we hear back, we’ll update the post.