Can You Have a Green Wetsuit? Graham Wants to Know


Photo: Graham Hill collection

Many months ago our founder Graham Hill (pictured above) wanted to know just how green his Matuse wetsuit was. At the time he was spending heaps of time in it kite-surfing. "Seems like a great suit to me...warm, flexible, decent looking. Good stretch. The only challenge I have is that with kiting, water sneaks up into my calves while riding. I suspect that this is designed for surfing." He liked it so much he even included in his list of top eco clothes. But just how eco was it?
Photo: Graham Hill collection

We'd previously covered Matuse when we noticed that a whole swag of wetsuit makers, like Matuse, were gravitating to using Yamamoto Geoprene. Being a neoprene derived from limestone, it could be considered petroleum free, which sounded like an admirable characteristic. But were wettie manufacturers turning their back on the devil, only to be confronted by the deep blue sea?

Patagonia concluded that this might be the case. In an excellent, exhaustive, in-depth article on the company's blog, The Cleanest Line, Todd Copeland, from Patagonia's Fabric Development team wrote, "We have drawn the conclusion that both versions of polychloroprene have equally significant environmental impacts, although limestone definitely has the advantage of being easier than oil to clean up in the case of a spill!" Polychloroprene being the foamed rubber, more commonly called neoprene.

Even though Patagonia do use limestone derived neoprene in their wetsuits, Todd concludes his treatise with a rather blunt assessment: "But don't settle for marketing "greenwash!" Limestone doesn't make a wetsuit more environmentally friendly. Push for new, innovative materials and construction methods, because we've got a long way to go before anyone has a true "green" wetsuit."

I passed this information onto to our fearless leader Graham, who wondered what John V. Campbell, Founding Partner, President & Chief Executive Office of Matuse, made of it. Because in their technical discussion of limestone-based Geprene on their website, Matuse suggest "Geoprene is not only better performing but also much more sustainable." So we asked John for his thoughts.


Photos: Matuse

We quote directly from his email:
"I'm not sure why some folks says that limestone rubber isn't a superior environmental alternative - because it is. Geoprene's superior "functionality" and durability is what makes it a more ecological choice for consumers.

From a functional standpoint: When it comes to making a product - any product - the ultimate goal is fulfilling an intended utility. And this is particularly true in our product category. For wetsuits, the intended utility is to provide insulation, while also being flexible, durable and comfortable. Limestone rubber in general and Matuse's Geoprene in particular are much more effective at satisfying all of these requirements than a petroleum derived neoprene suit. The main reason why is that Geoprene is 98% water impermeable - because of its unique uniform microcell structure. Yamamoto Geoprene exclusive to Matuse is essentially foam that forms like a loaf of bread. For Geoprene, the bubbles or cells are all the same size and cell wall thickness. With constant compression and elongation every wetsuit endures, the pressure is evenly distributed throughout Geoprene's cells and they remain intact. This provides exceptional heat retention and efficiency.

The water impermeability offered by standard neoprene suits is 65-69%. Standard Neoprene wetsuits have a cell structure with irregularly shaped cells and randomly thick and thin cell walls. Over time, oil-based neoprene with a randomized cell structure does not endure in-use rigors and does not retain its water impermeability/insulation. Simply put, oil-derived suits function like a kitchen sponge because it absorbs so much water. Conversely, Geoprene suits are roughly the same weight in a dressing room as they are after a 2 hour session. A Geoprene suit is lighter, warmer and lasts longer. Because Geoprene stays functional for a longer period of time, the customer is not only less likely to dispose of their suit every 8-12 months (i.e., adding more waste and consuming more biomass to make/buy a replacement) but also get more value for their money.

When it comes to an "eco-friendly" wetsuit, the best one is the one that customers don't buy. At the end of the day, the world population continues to grow. The correlating increase in consumption is and always will be our biggest environmental challenge. Therefore, when it comes to branded consumer products, the goal is to make a great item that is long-lasting, durable - key to making the customers happy. To my knowledge, many wetsuit Companies are investigating/making their best effort to establish a long term recycling program. Until that happens on a broad-scale level, the most worthwhile environmental effort for every wetsuit Company is building the best possible product out of the best possible materials that are available. That's our day-to-day focus.

Finally, Petroleum is a dwindling resource. And tapping into the earth's remaining petroleum reserves are either not economically feasible or are costly from an environmental standpoint (i.e., Mother Nature doesn't dig drilling big holes on speculation). By comparison, the Yamamoto Corporation estimates that there is roughly 3,000 years worth of readily accessible limestone (99.7% pure) used to make Geoprene. So when evaluating the customer's demands, the intended utility of wetsuits and the greater durability and raw-material sustainability/supply, we believe that limestone suits make for a compelling functional and environmental alternative."

To some degree both Patagonia and Matuse are saying the same thing. It's hard to make a green wetsuit. There will be compromise and the best eco wettie is the one that offers both performance and durability. Matuse look to Geoprene to provide these attributes.


Photos: Patagonia
Patagonia have opted to use less (thinner) neoprene by lining their suits with merino wool and recycled polyester to achieve warmth. Believing reducing neoprene content (either petroleum or limestone derived) is a good thing.) See the new Patagonia Surf Fall 2010 catalog online for more details.)

What of Graham's enquiry? In his case, there may be nominally greener wetsuits on the market. But the greenest one he can own, is the one already hanging in his closet.

This is true of so many things. By learning to love the products we already possess, rather than coveting a newer, apparently "greener" option, we make a saner, safer planet. If what you have performs its function adequately you don't need another, different one.

Every new product we buy is carrying an unseen ecological rucksack of materials extraction, land degradation, production waste, transport emissions, packaging and so forth.

Continuing to use what we have avoids all the environmental impacts that is inherent in new product. Maintaining and repairing it comes a close second, followed by borrowing, and then by using pre-existing (second hand) goods. If you are concerned about the future buying new stuff is best only acted on when the above options have been exhausted.

So Graham, keep enjoying your Matuse wetsuit for as long as you can.

More 'green' Wetsuits
Resurf: First Group to Recycle Surfboards and Wetsuits
Bitchin', Green Dudes: Body Glove's Eco Wetsuit
Yamamoto Neoprene: From the Sea, for the Sea
Billabong B9 ("Benign") Wetsuits Made From Used Fishing Nets
Patagonia Wetsuits
Body Glove Biostretch: Oh No It Don't Come Easy

Tags: Clothing | Energy Efficiency | Oceans