In what could be called the next generation of wetsuit innovation, outdoor equipment company Patagonia has announced a breakthrough in its plant-based alternative to neoprene.
The brand's newest wetsuit line features a warm, flexible, UV-resistant blend comprised of 60 percent Yulex, a bio-rubber created from the bark of the guayule (Parthenium argentatum), a flowering shrub in the aster family that grows in arid and semiarid regions.
For the moment, the custom-order wetsuits are available only in Japan, but according to the company's surf director, Jason McCaffrey, the innovation's biggest leaps are just ahead.
In addition to a domestic rollout late next year, "our goal is to have a 100 percent Yulex option available by the spring of 2014," he told ESPN.com. "This is all about Patagonia trying to live up to its mission statement, and to find a viable alternative [to neoprene]."
Invented by chemical giant DuPont in 1930, neoprene is a synthetic rubber created by the vulcanization of polychloroprene, a process involving ethylene thiourea, which has been classified as reprotoxic. Other environmental red flags include allergic reactions and that neoprene isn't biodegradable.
All this runs counter to Patagonia's long history as an industry leader in environmental activism and developing materials that have less of an impact than their traditional forerunners.
The company also has a track record of encouraging its competition to follow suit. This Yulex breakthrough is no different.
"Patagonia doesn't plan on making any money on this initially," McCaffrey said in an interview. "It's never been about that, but rather it's always been trying to use business to implement and inspire change to the environmental crisis. We saw an opportunity to do that, and this is just us letting everyone know what is possible. For us, a perfect world would be to see everyone switch all or a large part of their wetsuit production to Yulex."
Patagonia's Yulex line comes after four years of research in partnership with the Arizona-based Yulex Corporation, a privately held company that develops sustainable, health-friendly biomaterials, according to its website.
In line with the Patagonia ethos, Yulex's work with the guayule (pronounced why-YOU-lee) showed promise early on -- the plant needs very little water and no pesticides, and can be semi-locally sourced because it's native to the American Southwest. But in the business world, idealism needs to pencil out.
"This project doesn't do anyone any good if it's too expensive to be implemented at an affordable level," McCaffrey said. "We need consumers to demand to see this product from the competition. We need the competition to try and meet that demand and get that business. When that happens, volume goes up and cost goes down. The power of making this happen lies in the surf population itself. If all surfers demand it, I can guarantee the industry will deliver."