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Patagonia's Clean Green Wetsuit

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by Clark Tate

Aug. 6, 2013—Patagonia, the perpetual innovator, has done it again. The company that looks at playing hooky as a perk and actually encourages customers to buy fewer of their products has discovered a process that will turn a simple seed into that most essential piece of Santa Cruzan oceangoing gear, a wetsuit. No, they haven’t Frankensteined a wetsuit-growing tree. What they did do was spend four and a half years investing in a wetsuit material that would satisfy the second half of their mission statement: “use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

This fall Patagonia stores worldwide will be selling a version of its most popular wetsuit, the R2 front-zip made of 60 percent renewable, biodegradable and plant-based Yulex biorubber. The remaining 40 percent of the suit is currently composed of neoprene, but not for long. Patagonia Surf Director Jason McCaffrey says, “Our goal is to have the formula be 100 percent 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.”

The groundbreaking biorubber is sourced from the guayule (“why-YOU-lee”) plant by Patagonia’s partner in invention, the Yulex Corporation. A perennial species native to the high deserts of North America, guayule is grown in the U.S. (largely southern Arizona), requires no pesticide use and needs very little water to grow. According to a video on the subject, after maturing for three years the entire plant is mulched and homogenized and the biorubber, which originates in the bark, skimmed from the top. Water serves as the primary solvent, and all byproducts are organic and creatively repurposed—think products from garden soil to fuel source.

Regardless of how spectacularly the second half of the mission statement is satisfied, the wetsuit could be a tough sell if it doesn’t achieve the first bit, “Build the best product.” McCaffrey believes that the product will show that “there’s really no difference in performance, in durability, in quality and stretch, and all that stuff that people look for in a wetsuit.”

One thing that is reportedly different: the smell, which McCaffrey told Transworld Business is like “eucalyptus or to some people pine trees … It’s pretty wild because once you notice it the smell stays in your head. Regular wetsuits smell like the floor of a gas station in comparison.”

What’s even better? Patagonia plans to share the eco-conscious wealth. “There’s no point—from an ecological perspective—to develop this technology and be the only ones in the industry using it,” McCaffrey explains on Cool Hunting. With that in mind, they’ll be sharing the technology with every major wetsuit manufacture out there.

At about $100 more than the traditional R2, the suits are spendy. But, come on, dressing the kooks at Cowells in plant matter while helping corporations catch the wave of environmental consciousness? Thanks, Patagucci, we’ll pay for that.

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