When Patagonia first started making wetsuits, we quickly identified neoprene as a material that needed improvements to lessen its environment impact. In our search for alternative materials, we discovered we could use neoprene (polychloroprene) made from limestone instead of petroleum. Although using less petroleum seemed like a good move, limestone is still a limited, nonrenewable resource that is mined from the earth with heavy extractive equipment and heated to extremely high temperatures to remove chemical components. The net environmental benefit of using limestone over petroleum really wasn’t that much different. Both petroleum- and limestone-based polychloroprene have equally significant environmental impacts, and we realized we needed to continue searching for a solution.
When we first met with the folks from Yulex a few years ago, their material most closely resembled natural latex—very different than neoprene. But Yulex was interested in leveraging the unique properties of the guayule plant, a hearty desert shrub native to the southwestern United States. We began a collaborative long-term research and development project to develop a wetsuit material from guayule rubber.
Guayule plants aren’t grown organically, but they use low amounts of synthetic inputs and water compared to, for example, cotton. During their growth, the plants absorb and sequester carbon from the atmosphere. Guayule is harvested in a way that allows the plant roots to stay in the ground for an average of four years, reducing the soil and carbon loss associated with constant tilling and replanting of typical cropland.
After considerable testing and development, we decided a blend of the two materials would be the best way to launch our new product line. Although we are not completely eliminating polychloroprene from our wetsuits, we are making a significant step to reduce the environmental footprint of the wetsuit material.
Compared to traditional neoprene made from petroleum (or limestone), guayule rubber is a renewable resource that provides improved elasticity and softness to the finished material and can be replaced faster than the product wears out. The agriculture is low-impact and the extraction and processing uses little energy and few chemicals.
The extraction and processing is done by mechanical methods with the use of water, simple surfactants and potassium hydroxide. The main by-product is used as fertilizer and the wastewater can be used as fertilizer or cleaned and reused for processing. The Yulex processing facility uses very little energy compared to the refining and processing of neoprene and its synthetic precursors.
Overall, from the crops to the rubber manufacturing, Yulex® guayule rubber has a lower environmental impact than the polychloroprene that it replaces. We continue to strive towards environmental improvements and innovations in wetsuit manufacturing, not only in raw materials but also in the sponge production, sheet lamination, and final assembly.