••• Wetsuits are a staple gear for water enthusiasts, providing insulation and protection in various aquatic activities. However, many people are unaware of the environmental implications associated with neoprene wetsuits. Neoprene, a synthetic rubber commonly used in wetsuit manufacturing, has a significant ecological footprint. As we welcome in World Ocean Day this weekIn this blog post, we will delve into the environmental impact of neoprene wetsuits and explore sustainable alternatives that are emerging in the market ••• 

Neoprene has long been used as the go-to for surfers, ocean-explorers and enthusiasts for decades.  Recently, a stark light has been shone upon the brutal affects of neoprene production not just on the environment, but equally, people.  Surfing is a $10 billion global industry – built on the dream of carefree spirits, crystal clear waters and an even clearer connection to the natural world, and has never been more popular.  Multiple British surf champion Lucy Campbell recently spoke to the BBC, slamming the sport of surfing for relying on boards and wetsuits mass-produced from petrochemicals that create tonnes of waste every year.  Seven times British women's champion Lucy Campbell told the BBC the top brands "need to change", and she refuses to work with brands with a clear sustainability ethos. 

Lucy Campbell surfer

Recent film The Big Sea has explored one step further, stating “surfing has set out its stall as the champion of environmental issues. But surfing has a dirty secret… and people are dying.”

We have been riveted by this film and the conversations around it.⁠  Filmed over three years, director Lewis Arnold and writer Chris Nelson have followed the story from the communities of “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, through to the sun-drenched surf-rich beaches of California, to the heart of the surf industry and beyond. This independent film is a tale of the power we have as individuals and as communities to effect change , exploring the shocking ramifications of neoprene production, and exploring solutions, including utilising yulex.⁠  We highly recommend diving into the Looking Sideways podcast hosted by Matt Barr, who in this episode with Directors Chris and Lewis  hears how they heard of the story, the three-year mission to bring it to life, what the entire saga says about surfing and our relationship to environmental issues, and what change they hope to inspire.

As Matt Barr explores in this podcast, “The Big Sea has the power to reframe the conversation about surfing environmentalism and drive real tangible change in a way that will benefit real people in real communities. No wonder Surfers Against Sewage co-founder Chris Hines calls it ‘probably the most focused 50 minutes of environmental and social campaigning by surfers ever.”

Exploring The Environmental Impact of Neoprene Wetsuits

  1. Production Process:

Petroleum-based - The production of neoprene involves the extraction and processing of petroleum-based materials, leading to carbon emissions and reliance on non-renewable resources. Furthermore, the manufacturing process often involves the use of toxic chemicals and generates waste.

Limestone based - Limestone neoprene, or “Geoprene” or what some call “Ecoprene” is also not the best sustainable alternative because the process relies on mining.

  1. Energy Consumption:

The energy-intensive nature of neoprene production, which includes multiple stages of heating and curing, contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbates climate change.

  1. Waste Generation:

Neoprene wetsuits have a finite lifespan, and their disposal poses a challenge. These non-biodegradable suits end up in landfills, where they contribute to the accumulation of synthetic materials and take hundreds of years to decompose.

  1. Loss of Biodiversity:

The extraction and processing of neoprene can lead to habitat destruction and the loss of biodiversity. The pollution caused by its production can contaminate waterways and harm aquatic ecosystems.

Sustainable Alternatives

  1. Natural Rubber:

Wetsuits made from natural rubber, derived from sustainable rubber tree plantations, offer an eco-friendly alternative. Natural rubber is biodegradable, renewable, and requires less energy to produce compared to neoprene. Furthermore, it can be sustainably harvested without causing harm to the trees or surrounding ecosystems.

  1. Yulex:

Derived from the guayule plant, Yulex is a plant-based alternative to neoprene. It offers similar insulating properties while reducing the environmental impact. The cultivation of guayule requires less water compared to traditional rubber tree plantations, making it a more sustainable choice.

  1. Recycled Materials:

Many companies are now utilizing recycled materials, such as recycled polyester, to create wetsuits. By repurposing plastic bottles or other post-consumer waste, these wetsuits help reduce the demand for virgin materials and divert waste from landfills.

  1. Biomaterials:

Innovations in biomaterials have led to the development of wetsuits made from natural and renewable resources like algae or fungi. These materials have the potential to provide similar performance and durability to neoprene while significantly reducing the environmental impact.

As we become more aware of the environmental impact of our choices, it is crucial to consider sustainable alternatives to neoprene wetsuits. Natural rubber, Yulex, recycled materials, and biomaterials offer promising solutions to mitigate the ecological footprint of wetsuit production. By supporting brands that prioritize sustainability and investing in eco-friendly gear, we can contribute to the preservation of our oceans and the planet as a whole. 

We’ve been proud to work with Yulex since our inception, and in an interview we had with Yulex's founder, Jeff Martin, he told us: "We have got to stop relying on non-renewable resources to make materials and fuel. Neoprene, as with all synthetic polymers and plastics, is taking carbon out of the earth, drilling for it or mining it, and then putting it in our atmosphere. Every time you take oil out of the ground, it ends up in our atmosphere. All of these materials are hydrocarbons and with carbon in the form of CO2 polluting our atmosphere, this has been responsible for global warming and climate change. So first and foremost, we’ve got to stop doing that." ⁠

SLO's debut collection, Clean Lines, solely works with Yulex, and we're proud to have been champions of Yulex adoption since our day dot, over 5 years ago.

Together, we can make a difference and ensure a brighter future for our aquatic playgrounds.

May 25, 2023 — Janaya Wilkins