Rupert Holmes explains the problem with neoprene and takes a look at some of the best eco-friendly wetsuits that are available right now…
When choosing the best wetsuit we tend not to think about the potentially destructive nature of the garment. Yet conventional neoprene, an oil-based synthetic rubber that will never biodegrade, is hugely energy intensive to produce. It can also create an allergic reaction.
While the bulk of wetsuits sold still use problematic petroleum-derived neoprene, a growing number of companies are using new or sustainably sourced materials to produce eco-friendly wetsuits that are also more comfortable to wear in many respects.
This is not simply of interest to dinghy sailors and watersports enthusiasts – like many yacht owners I carry a wetsuit on board. It’s emphatically not for going over the side for use at sea, but can be used at slack tide and flat water when safely anchored in a sheltered bay or estuary.
Zhik ECO Wetsuit
Since 2019, Zhik has used sustainable plant-based materials and recycled plastics for the 2mm neoprene-free foam used in its ECO Wetsuit.
It has a recycled soft fleece lining and benefits from a much higher degree of stretch than conventional neoprene wetsuits, which greatly improves comfort and freedom of movement, while also making this eco-friendly wetsuit a lot easier to put on and take off.
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Similarly, Rooster also has a non-neoprene wetsuit, with the motive to produce garments for those who suffer from neoprene allergies a key driver behind its development.
The Exofleece is made of a nylon-based fabric with a PU membrane and brushed fleece lining. It’s lighter, more breathable, more flexible and more water repellent than a standard wetsuit.
Patagonia, which has its roots in mountain gear, spearheaded a change in the industry with its first wetsuit range in 2005. Instead of following established practice, the firm used neoprene derived from limestone instead of the usual petrochemicals, plus an inner lining of merino wool to provide additional warmth.
Yet the company saw this only as a first step, partly because producing limestone-derived neoprene is still energy intensive. Three years later Patagonia teamed up with natural rubber specialist Yulex to identify a sustainable way to source that material.
This resulted in a new range in 2012 that instead used rubber from guayule trees. This was a big step forward, but was in some ways a second-best, given the best natural rubber comes from hevea trees.
However, there was a barrier in that Patagonia says less than 1% of hevea are in certified sources, with much of the rest responsible for depletion of rainforests.
Eventually Yulex found a source of hevea certified by the Forestry Stewardship Council and Rainforest Alliance. The raw latex tapped from the trees is refined to remove 99% of impurities, including those responsible for allergies.
This material, which reduces the CO2 emissions associated with wetsuit manufacture by around 80%, has been used for Patagonia’s Yulex wetsuit range since 2016.
The following year, young eco-friendly French outdoor clothing company Picture launched its first wetsuit range.
This too uses rubber sourced from hevea trees, in this case processed into fabric called NaturalPrene by Taiwanese company Sheico.
These eco-friendly wetsuits are also certified by the FSC and Rainforest Alliance.
Recycled plastics are used wherever possible for polyester linings, while traditional glues are replaced with water-based alternatives.
How wetsuit manufacturers are embracing sustainability
Billabong sources some of its materials from discarded car tyres, in tandem with a limestone-derived neoprene.
Meanwhile, Typhoon’s range includes the Caliso3 ECO range that’s made from ‘the latest in eco-friendly and sustainable recycled materials.’
For a long time Patagonia has welcomed end of life wetsuits to be returned to it stores, so the material doesn’t go to landfill.
Zhik’s latest initiative, reZHIKle, is a recycling scheme for any brand of old wetsuits for recycling or reuse, in exchange for vouchers towards the cost of a new Zhik suit.
The pilot event, run in conjunction with UPPAREL, a leader in textile recovery and garment recycling, took place at the ITM New Zealand SailGP in March this year, ahead of a planned wider roll out.
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