Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard was best known for his climbing and skiing when he started his company in the early 1970s. But he was based in Ventura, California, and was also a long-time surfer.
Patagonia waded into the surf market 12 years ago using innovative materials in their first wetsuit and showed the industry how their enviro ethics could lead to financial success. Then in July of 2016, they announced that their full line of wetsuits would be made of a natural rubber called Yulex. The Forest Stewardship Council-certified natural rubber was grown by the Yulex Corporation and could reduce CO2 emissions in production by up to 80-percent.
It was a bold move. Surfing has always had that forward-thinking environmental ethos but at the end of the day, surfboards and wetsuits are still primarily petroleum-based. No matter how many beach clean-ups a surfer does or how many pairs of recycled boardshorts a surfer buys, the board and wetsuit still contribute to greenhouse gases and the remains will still take up space in mounting landfills.
In addition to pioneering new materials, Patagonia has reduced their footprint and sought out more socially responsible ways of doing business. They are famous for standing behind their products, fixing or replacing pieces for free. They offer credit for used gear and sell it to keep it out of the waste cycle. They support grassroots activists who are dealing with the issues facing our wild places. Amid public land use controversy, Patagonia made a statement by pulling out of the Outdoor Retailer trade show forcing the show to move from Utah to Colorado.
Patagonia is suing the current administration, naming the president as a defendant over his executive order to turn jurisdiction of the nationally-protected Bears Ears National Monument over to the state, which will be apt to let corporate interests tear it up for natural resources.
Even with all of that, making wetsuits out of a natural rubber was still a huge deal. And it didn't come without some glitches.
The samples that Patagonia signed off on with the factory were not the same quality as the products they received. Some of the problems with the first suits would have happened with production of any suits, but some were specific to the material.
The factory was treating the Yulex like traditional rubber. They weren't as stretchy as they should have been. One entire season of suits was improperly sized.
“A few discoveries were made, like the viscosity of natural rubber needed to be adjusted more carefully, and the foam needs some extra time to cure before it can be sliced,” Hub Hubbard, Patagonia's wetsuit development manager, tells ASN, “We had to work backwards with the engineers at the factory and Yulex to find out what the variable was that was causing the suits to fit small. While we had perfectly good wetsuits, asking customers to go up a size is definitely not ideal.”
This wasn't something Patagonia took lightly. The brand prides themselves on the quality of their product and their success is built on reputation. They had to learn an awful lot about the properties of Yulex. The team at Patagonia has considered the whole experience a voyage of sorts.
“Fortunately, a lot of customers fully believed in what we're doing and I think they'll be stoked on the new range this year,” adds Hubbard.
Yulex has shifted from their farm in Arizona to FSC certified suppliers in Guatemala and Sri Lanka. The sizing is on point. The kinks have been worked out. This winter, Patagonia's entire line of 35 different wetsuits, boots, gloves and hoods are made of Yulex.
The product looks good, and most importantly, it fits and works in the water. Not only did the process keep a large number of toxic wetsuits out of the water,, but Patagonia has set a new standard that the surf world, and eventually other industries, can follow.
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