Is neoprene free rubber more functional than alcohol-free beer?

As conflicted as gluten & dairy-free pizza?

After watching the former UK pro turned Patagonia Europe surf guy Gabe Davies shred the bejeepers out of his favourite and England's finest surf break recently, we caught up to ask him if wetsuits really do grow on trees...

What's wrong with neoprene anyway?

So pretty much every wetsuit ever made is largely created from petrochemicals, or in the case of ‘geoprene’, the source material is limestone based. Neither of these are sustainable or good for the environment in any way. Also bear in mind the chance of recycling old suits is pretty much zero, and they don’t biodegrade. Patagonia dived into detail on this topic, when we first started making suits lined with merino to limit the neoprene component as much as possible.

Tell us about wetsuits made from (sustainably managed) trees... sounds pretty cool...

So the bio rubber company Yulex saw our company blog 8 years ago and realised they had an answer. By using natural rubber, sourced from plants, we could replace the largest proportion of a suit with a renewable and sustainable rubber sourced from the Hevea Rubber tree. This comes from an FSC® certified by The Rainforest Alliance forest in Guatemala. Each tree has a lifespan of 40 years and can produce rubber for approx 35 years. It reduces ~80% carbon from the production of our suits and we can now have a suit that is neoprene free. We mix the 85% natural rubber with a 15% synthetic rubber which helps give us the flex, density, longevity and UV protection needed for our suits to perform.

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Someone clever-sounding once said ' We can't consume our way out of (environmental) trouble'. But can we?

Wow good question, I think our choices really do and can make a difference. It is important what we choose to consume and the reasons behind the end purchase. Decisions will always come down to what looks good, does it perform and of course the price. Each aspect is important to a consumer.  If you buy the most flexible suit in the world or the lightest board you know these products will not last and you’ll be frustrated and have to go out and buy again, leave a growing pile of junk in your backyard. Or the decision to buy an organic or non-organic cotton T-shirt, take that way back to the farm where the cotton is grown, one farm will have an ecosystem and the other will be getting hosed down by pesticides. Likewise, Fair Trade is not just about coffee and chocolate, it helps alleviate social issues in countries and communities where products are made. With these suits, we are not saying they are perfect, but they are whole lot better than anything else out there. We are stepping in this direction and want people to come with us. We have shared the Yulex technology process with the entire Surf industry to help make changes at an industry level. If they choose to come on board by doing the right thing, then hats off to being like-minded and taking a positive step forward, if they don’t then question your support for companies that don’t represent what you want the surf industry to look like. I’d like to think surfers see the world from a different perspective and still want to be forward thinking (and even now maybe even a bit rebellious).

Yeah but... do they actually work?

This is our 4th generation Yulex suit, which has benefitted from around 200 fabric tests and various ambassador feedback from missions from all corners of the world. They are by far the best suits Patagonia have made, recycled quick dry linings, 100% taped and sealed. We set ourselves a performance barrier that the Yulex suits had to be the same or better than neoprene, and if you surf in in one you’d not notice any difference.

Photo: Al Mackinnon

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How significant do you feel neoprene free wetsuits could/should be in the grand scheme of surfing?

Well in Europe every surfer has at least 1 or 2 wetsuits on the go at any one time and probably a couple of pissy old suits stashed in the garage. Some suits don’t last very long and have longevity issues, just check your suit tag when you buy it. If we multiply that out across the world and over the course of a lifetime. That is a lot of wetsuits, other than the board, it is the one essential part of what we do. It’s the biggest change in the wetsuits industry, since there has been an industry and hopefully guys and girls will grab a chance to test drive one for themselves at one of our events happening in 5  countries.