If you’re not a surfer or a diver, a wetsuit may seem like a fairly specialized or even obscure piece of equipment. But once in a while, a product arrives on the market that’s noteworthy not only for how well it performs its job, but also for how it’s designed and produced. Such is the case with the amazingly efficient line of wetsuits recently added to Patagonia’s catalog of outdoor gear.
Traditional wetsuit designs have incorporated some decidedly non-green manufacturing techniques. Neoprene rubber, the insulating core of a wetsuit, is commonly produced from petroleum-based chemicals, and the sheer amount of raw materials consumed in the production process has been a cause for concern. But Patagonia, a company with a long history of sustainable design innovations and environmental stewardship, reasons that customers needing a wetsuit for their outdoor pursuits clearly enjoy spending time in nature, so their equipment should respect the environment too.
Patagonia’s wetsuit rubber is produced from a limestone-based process, instead of traditionally used petroleum derivatives (a thorough description of the technical process can be found on Patagonia’s blog). The limestone material still carries an ecological footprint, but it represents an important move toward exploring alternative technologies and manufacturing techniques. And as Patagonia points out, a limestone spill is much easier to clean up than an oil spill!
Most important, these wetsuits do a remarkable job of keeping the wearer warm. Neoprene’s insulating properties come from all the tiny air bubbles trapped within the rubber (the same principle of trapped air insulation that makes a puffy down jacket so warm, only underwater). Patagonia’s neoprene is produced with a whopping 98% closed cell ratio – which is a technical way of saying that their wetsuits work far more efficiently than most, so a thinner layer of neoprene insulates as well as other much thicker suits. And a wetsuit that provides superior warmth with thinner construction means fewer raw materials are consumed, as well as an end product that is far more streamlined and comfortable for the user.
Besides the limestone neoprene, Patagonia has carefully selected other component materials that are easier on the environment than traditional materials – and work better as well. Patagonia wetsuits are lined with a grid of unbleached merino wool and recycled polyester, which increases warmth and wicks moisture better than nylon. The kneepads are made of silicone instead of more commonly used polyvinyl chloride, providing better durability without the nasty chemicals found in PVC. The wetsuits also incorporate several clever design solutions to prolong their usable life (such as seams that are glued, blind-stitched, and reinforced), since durability is another measure of a product’s true efficiency and reduced environmental footprint.
Patagonia is reluctant to call their products “green”, since they still have an impact on the environment. But the company’s innovative approach to designing and producing their products is a huge step toward truly sustainable manufacturing.