In 2016 we replaced neoprene rubber with natural rubber to reduce our use of petroleum-based materials.
Surfers have been hooked on neoprene—the base material for wetsuits—since the 1950s. But it’s a nonrenewable material with an energy-intensive manufacturing process. Developed by DuPont in 1930, this synthetic rubber was initially made by chlorinating and polymerizing butadiene, a petrochemical derived from crude oil. In recent decades, some companies have used limestone as an alternative to neoprene, but it’s not much better, environmentally speaking. Limestone is also a nonrenewable material that is difficult and damaging to extract. Once it is mined, the limestone is then crushed and superheated to over 3,600 F (1982 C), a process that requires massive amounts of energy.
Part of our intent in starting to make wetsuits in 2008 was to develop a less-harmful alternative to neoprene. First, we incorporated rubber derived from the guayule plant. A few years later, we eliminated neoprene from our suits by using natural rubber tapped from hevea trees. Our renewable Yulex® natural rubber performs just as well as neoprene, and it’s a far better choice for the planet. While neoprene is made in factories, natural rubber is produced by trees that absorb carbon throughout their life span. Switching to hevea reduces the CO₂ emissions from one wetsuit by up to 80%.
In 2016, we were the first surf company to go neoprene-free. Yulex natural rubber is now the base polymer for all of our men’s, women’s and kids’ suits as well as our gloves, booties and hoods.
But natural rubber can have nasty environmental consequences, too—hevea is a cash crop in many tropical countries, and to plant more of it, rainforests have been slashed and burned, waterways drained and diverted, and toxic defoliants used to remove native ground cover. In Southeast Asia, farmers have cleared an area of native forest about the size of Massachusetts and Vermont combined to cultivate hevea.
When we decided to switch to natural rubber, we wanted to make sure we weren’t contributing to deforestation, so we partnered with the Forest Stewardship Council® to ensure that our hevea rubber was sourced only from plantations that preserve biodiversity and ecological integrity. All of our Yulex natural rubber is FSC® certified, ensuring that it doesn’t come from newly clear-cut rainforest, like some of the world’s supply.
When we were working with guayule rubber, we ran ads with a slightly cryptic headline: “We have the best weed in town, and we’re giving it away.”
In the small print, we explained we were sharing our Yulex technology with the rest of the industry in the hope that other companies would join us in the shift away from neoprene. We kept up that call when we transitioned to natural rubber, and now several other surf companies are incorporating it in their suits. For us, it’s not about having an advantage in business—it’s about changing the whole surf industry for the better.
From our perspective, however, the best thing about Yulex natural rubber is that we no longer have to choose between performance and the planet. How a suit works in the water—and how long it holds up to everyday use—is still the most important thing, and we’ve been working to make our rubber as light, strong and stretchy as possible. As we look to the future, we hope to further maximize Yulex’s performance potential while continuing to encourage surfers, and other surf brands, to make neoprene a thing of the past.
For our 50th year, we’re looking forward, not back, to life on Earth. Together, we can prioritise purpose over profit and protect this wondrous planet, our only home.