This is something that I ask myself on a fairly infrequent basis, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about more in the last couple of years. It’s only when our wetsuits tears or shrinks, or we realise that our 3/2 just won’t cut it in colder waters during Winter, that we start thinking about our next purchase. Often we just go for whatever is easiest and perhaps been recommended to us by friends. The only problem is that most of the leading brands are still using Neoprene in their wetsuit manufacturer. This is a big problem if you’re ecological minded.
Nope, no way, absolutely not. The chances are that the neoprene that makes up most, if not all your wetsuit will end up in landfill at some point. Take a moment to think about the scale of wastage that causes and let’s do some basic math.
Let’s take the ridiculously high estimate that there are 35 million surfers in the world (according to Ponting and O’Brien) and let’s half this number straight away to account for regular surfers, and est. at it at 17.5 mi. Approx. 85% of them will need a wetsuit at some point during the year, so that’s 14.875 mil. Wetsuits right there. This is only assuming that each person has one wetsuit each, and of course we know that for many surfers in colder waters (Northern Europe, East Coast, South America, NoCal etc..) will need more than just the one type of wetsuit in their wardrobe.
So if we assume about 40% will have 2 wetsuits then this increases the number of wetsuits to approximately 20,825,000. Now let’s say a very conservative ⅓ of all those wetsuits will end up in landfill that’s still 6.8 million wetsuits every two years (which is how often the average surfer replaces their wetsuits). At this point it's also worth pointing out that surfing makes up a small percentage of water sports, the number is probably a lot great when you consider scuba diving, spearfishing, windsurfing, kitesurfing etc. Carvemag have in fact estimated that 380 tonnes of non-biodegradable chemical waste ends up each and every year.
The good news is that you shouldn’t to search too far and wide to buy a more eco friendly wetsuit. Already, well established brands such as Patagonia have lots of different sustainably produced wetsuits to choose from, for both guys and girls. Often their wetsuits come at a restrictive price point for those on a tight budget. They use Yulex neoprene for many of their wetsuits which means the material comprises of a natural based rubber rather than petrochemicals/oil. Their wetsuits provide great warmth, comfort and stretch and many of my friends are glad they made the investment as their wetsuits are known to last for longer than many of the competitors.
The good news is that you don’t need to spend $500 - $700 on a wetsuit, there are some relatively newer companies that offer ‘green’ wetsuits at a lower. If you don’t mind paying a bit extra for shipping, France has a few companies that are looking to alternative materials and bio-based alternatives to Neoprene that are fast establishing themselves in the market. Picture Organic and Soöruz, for example that are trying as hard as possible to cut out all neoprene from their wetsuits. The former has a First Stretch wetsuit made from primarily NaturalPrene, with 15% made up of chlorine free rubber. Their wetsuits come in at a more palatable price of around $300 - $400. Then of course, there’s Vissla which are capturing more of the mainstream market thanks to their marketing efforts and provide wetsuits in the price range between Patagonia and the aforementioned French brands.
Some people may want to consider a limestone-based neoprene for their wetsuit. Limestone is a sedimentary rock composed of Calcium carbonate. It is often found in marine environments e.g coral, algae, fecal debris that settles on the ocean floor and is compressed by oceanic currents/movements over time. However like petroleum it is energy intensive in its extraction, transportation and transformation into a usable material. It is also a non-renewable mined from the earth. Matuse in California have been using limestone-neoprene but are looking for more sustainable materials for wetsuit production.
As more experimentation with materials, expect more players to enter the sustainable wetsuit market, although at the moment it appears that the major players such as Quiksilver, Rip Curl and Billabong are yet to change their manufacturing process as they chase profits over sustainability.
So, next time your due for a new wetsuit take a moment to think about buying a ‘green’ wetsuit even if it may cost a bit more. You’ll be doing your bit and chances are you’ll save more in the long run as the wettie will last longer.