A plant-derived biorubber wetsuit gets put to the test. Punta de Lobos, Chile. SEBASTIAN MÜLLER

From Seed to Suit

It’s a long way from the farmlands of Arizona to the nearest breaking wave, so we didn’t expect to find the inspiration for our most important surf initiative in one of America’s driest states. But when you’re trying to get somewhere new, sometimes you have to go to an unexpected place.

When we started making wetsuits in 2006, our aim was simple: Build the best possible suits in the least damaging way. Though wetsuits let us interact with the ocean in a pure, human-powered way, their traditional materials leave a lot to be desired. The most environmentally harmful aspect of a wetsuit is neoprene, a synthetic, petroleum-derived material with a highly toxic manufacturing process. By lining our first suits with merino wool, we found we could use less neoprene—but we still wanted a better solution.

After a few years of exploring alternatives, we started working with Yulex, an American company making plantbased biorubbers. Using guayule, a small shrub native to the desert Southwest, we were able to codevelop a new biodegradable wetsuit material that performed as well—or better—than traditional neoprene. Grown without pesticides, the guayule plants are harvested and mulched, and a high-quality natural rubber is extracted through a water-based separation process. The rubber can then be processed into sheets and cut into wetsuit panels. Our product engineers in The Forge™ passed the first prototype suits to our ambassadors and field testers, who surfed them all over the world and found the Yulex® material to be super stretchy and super warm. We knew we had something that surpassed our expectations.

In Fall 2013, we launched Yulex® biorubber in the R2® Front-Zip, our most popular wetsuit, in a 60/40 Yulex biorubber/traditional neoprene blend. We will expand our Yulex offering in Fall 2014 to include both R2® and R3® Front-Zip styles. These suits will have the added advantage of Nexkin® smoothskin, an ultradurable windproof coating that takes performance to the next level. We also hope to make them the first 100% Yulex biorubber suits we offer, with field testing currently under way.

Wetsuits made with Yulex biorubber surf the same as conventional suits, with no sacrifice in performance or lifespan, but they’re far better for the environment. They’re better in the beginning, with no chemical inputs; and they’re biodegradable, which makes them better in the end.

But it’s only a start, and our own Yulex biorubber program is only one small step. If we wanted to create significant change, we knew we had to share the material with the rest of the industry. We’re a small player in the surf world, and the low volume of available Yulex material keeps it at a higher price than conventional options. So we took the leap of connecting other wetsuit manufacturers with Yulex, and as of 2015 our proprietary biorubber will be available to any company that wants it. Why? Because when volume goes up, prices go down; and when more people can buy a less harmful material, we all win.

We’re still figuring out how to get Yulex biorubber into all of our suits, but for now we can say this: We’re stoked to be walking, slowly but steadily, from seed to suit.