UC Santa Barbara students can swap their lab coat for a wetsuit, trading biology lab at the university’s Marine Biotechnology Lab for catching waves at Campus Point in under five minutes.
Surfing has a rich history on the Central Coast, and was even enacted as California’s official state sport in Assembly Bill 1782. The rise in surfing’s popularity in California coincided with UCSB’s establishment in 1954. Today, a course titled “Geography of Surfing,” is offered annually at UCSB.
Because of the proximity to such notable waves, many global recreational brands, including Patagonia, call the Central Coast home — and employ a number of UCSB alumni. Tantamount to UCSB’s students, Patagonia’s surf division, based in Ventura, can trade their work for a surf session in a matter of minutes. The difference is, their research continues out in the water.
In the growing $4 billion global surf industry, Patagonia constitutes a small market share but has a considerable impact. Within the past 10 years, Patagonia’s surf division has reinvented the wetsuit through a design that reflects the imminent concerns of climate change. The fibers of their wetsuits, interwoven with sustainable natural rubber, recycled wetsuits and soon to be lined with recycled fishing net polymers, represent what is possible when a company and its employees prioritize collective good over individual profit in their garment.
A visit to Patagonia’s surf division at the Forge in Ventura provided insight into how the wetsuits — and the people behind them, including Product Line Manager Hub Hubbard — are making innovative strides in the surf industry. At the Forge, a corner block warehouse, the wetsuits team’s circular philosophy of test, redesign, repair and modify comes to life.
In 2014, the company’s wetsuit department led industry-wide shifts, away from neoprene, toward adopting the renewably sourced natural tree rubber, Yulex, which resulted in an 80% overall decrease in CO2 emissions. Even more, rather than keeping the success of Yulex exclusive to their company, Patagonia shared it with other surf companies to initiate a concerted industry departure from neoprene.
Neoprene, a petroleum-based synthetic rubber, has been used as the primary component of wetsuit construction since the advent of the wetsuit at UC Berkeley in the 1950s. Today, 65% of all wetsuits globally, roughly 6 million pieces annually, are manufactured solely by Asia-based sportswear manufacturer Sheico. However, the USA remains the largest producer of neoprene worldwide.
The production of neoprene is an environmentally hazardous and energy intensive process. As a crude oil based polymer, it is non-renewable, ecologically damaging and amasses in landfills requiring hundreds of years to degrade.
In addition, the production of neoprene is a public health crisis. Recently, filmmakers Lewis Arnold and Chris Nelson exposed the harrowing connection between surfing and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley: a corridor with cancerous air-quality along Louisiana’s Mississippi River caused by the unrelenting emissions of industrial plants. Labeled as environmental racism by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Cancer Alley disproportionately affects Black and poor communities.
Among the industrial plants of Cancer Alley is Denka, the sole US producer of chloroprene which is the chemical name for neoprene. In 2010 chloroprene was deemed as a likely carcinogen by the EPA. Residents of Cancer Alley who live within one mile of the Denka plant, 94% of whom are Black, have a cancer rate 50 times the national average, confirmed by the EPA to be a result of chloroprene emissions.
Patagonia’s early leading shift from neoprene to Yulex natural rubber served to be both an environmental and ethical decision.
Many surfers, such as 2017 World Surf League North American Champion and Patagonia field tester, Kilian Garland, are championing the innovations of Patagonia’s wetsuit team.
“The Patagonia suits are getting to a place where they are more eco-friendly and better [than those made of neoprene],” Garland said. “So, if you can make just little choices that are beneficial for the planet and for everybody around you, then it’s kind of a no brainer.”
At Patagonia’s wetsuit forge, employees are now pioneering another change: redefining the lifecycle of their wetsuit for longevity and circularity.
On any given day at the Forge, the wetsuit team will sew a current design iteration of their regulator wetsuit, travel mere blocks down to the ocean and paddle out to test the suit. For Hubbard, it is his favorite aspect of the job.
“Building a suit out of [the wetsuit forge] and running down to Emma Wood and jumping in the water,” Hubbard said, “that’s by far the best part … Nobody [else] has the ability to do this, [to] actually build wetsuits on site, go test them and then see: [do we] bring the neck in? Change this seam? We can do that.”
Alongside the information gained through rigorous field testing of their wetsuits’ material construction and design, the wetsuit team gains equally valuable insight from busted wetsuits sent into their lifelong repair program. The team’s overall goal, in line with Patagonia’s larger ethos to avoid unnecessary environmental harm, is to design a garment for both performance and longevity. Patagonia’s current wetsuit iteration is designed to last up to four seasons of regular surfing compared to the typical one season of other wetsuit companies.
Although Patagonia’s wetsuit is engineered for longevity, seams inevitably fail and zippers bust due the harsh conditions wetsuits are subjected to. In this case, rather than opting to buy a new wetsuit, Patagonia’s wetsuit team encourages the public to send their damaged Patagonia wetsuit in for repair, often free of charge.
At the Forge, the wetsuit repair team — the unsung heroes at the helm of single needle lockstitch sewing machines — effectively repair 90% of all wetsuits sent in to be mended.
Even with repairs, wetsuits, like everything else, will eventually reach the end of their life. However, due to a recent recycling innovation launched in early January by Patagonia, end-of-life wetsuits don’t need to wind up in the landfill, they can be used to make new ones.
Wetsuits and most other black rubber products, like tires, require the colorant and reinforcing filler carbon black which is typically made from the incomplete combustion of coal tar and petroleum products. In the last decade, Boulder, Colorado based company Bolder Industries created one of the world’s first reclaimed carbon blacks, BolderBlack. Made of 100% post-consumer tires and rubber scrap, BolderBlack emits 90% less greenhouse gasses than traditional carbon black.
Patagonia’s wetsuit team wondered if wetsuits could be included in reclaimed carbon black? In a collaborative process that took nearly six years between Bolder Industries and Patagonia, the two companies successfully incorporated old wetsuits into reclaimed carbon black.
“You can use old wetsuits to make new wetsuits,” Hubbard commented on the circulatory triumph. “We’ll keep [the wetsuit] going for as long as we can and then when it’s done we are going to ship it to Boulder and turn it into carbon black and then it will be shipped to Taiwan and it’s going to be used to make the new foam … So we have a full circular story.”
The wetsuit teams are relentless innovators. In the near future, Hubbard’s goal is for every Patagonia product that is dyed black to use reclaimed carbon black. The company has already had success on the small scale, rolling out small black six-liter bags dyed with old wetsuits. Soon, their black backpacks, that popularly dot many of UCSB’s classrooms and climbing gym floors, could interweave the stories of waves surfed by local students and the metaphorical “DNA” from many other surfing predecessors.
A version of this article appeared on pg. 11 of the Feb. 8, 2024 print edition of the Daily Nexus.
CORRECTION [2/8/24, 9:57 a.m.]: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the backpack Liam Ereneta is wearing in the second image was a prototype of Patagonia’s dyed backpacks. This article has been corrected to reflect that it is actually just an example of the backpacks that Patagonia plans to dye using recycled wetsuits and sell in the future.