Patagonia Unveils World’s First Plant-Based Neoprene Alternative

Neoprene is a synthetic rubber that for years has been the main material for everything from laptop sleeves to wet suits. While this water-resistant material comes in handy when you want to stay dry, few people are aware that their health is at risk every time they touch neoprene. Made from a whole host of potentially carcinogenic chemicals, neoprene is known to contain formaldehyde, lead and off gassing VOCs.

For years, conscious manufacturers have looked for neoprene’s less-toxic alternative, but most still contain petroleum products and questionable chemicals. Patagonia, an outdoor gear company that’s made its environmentally-responsible mission quite public over the last few years, may have come up with the first truly green wet suit material — an alternative to neoprene that’s made from plants.

Patagonia, guayule, wetsuit, surfing, neoprene, VOC, petroleum

Image via Patagonia

Working in partnership with Yulex Corporation, a clean technology company developing agricultural based biomaterials, recently announced today the introduction of a guayule-based wetsuit, a renewable biorubber that is the first alternative to traditional fossil-based neoprene. Wondering what the heck a guayule is? So were were. Turns out, guayule is a flowering shrub that likes to grow in the desert. It’s a renewable, non-food crop that requires very little water, is grown domestically in the US, needs no pesticides, and in comparison to traditional neoprene, has a very clean manufacturing process.

After four years of collaboration, Patagonia says they’ve developed a wetsuit made from 60 percent guayule without compromising any of the water or temperature resistant qualities of neoprene. “Our goal is to have the formula be 100% plant based, but we feel that for now this new material is a big enough step forward to let the world know it is possible to buy something cleaner,” said Jason McCaffrey, Patagonia’s surf director. “This is just the first step; it’s our hope that other brands see this as interesting and join the effort to innovate and implement alternatives to traditional neoprene that is used in wetsuits.”

Initially, the new suits will be available in Japan only. In Spring 2013, surfers will be able to order custom suits out of Patagonia’s wetsuit facility in Ventura, CA, with a global rollout to follow.

Beth Buczynski is a freelancer writer and editor currently living in the Rocky Mountain West. Her articles appear on Care2, Ecosalon and Inhabitat, just to name a few. So far, Beth has lived in or near three major U.S. mountain ranges, and is passionate about protecting the important ecosystems they represent. Follow Beth on Twitter as @ecosphericblog