Second time's the charm for Yulex
In 2015, Patagonia released the first wetsuit made entirely from organic rubber, yet they also unwittingly set a test for their customers.
What sacrifices would surfers make to protect the environment?
The idea of a 100% organic wetsuit is a sound one as neoprene is nasty stuff, yet when it’s fashioned into a wetsuit it provides highly effective insulation to keep the occupant warm while stretching to fit their body.
Yulex was the name of the organic rubber used by Patagonia to challenge neoprene's dominance. The name a play on Guayule, the plant Yulex was derived from. As an insulator, Yulex was on par with neoprene. I know this because I wore a Patagonia Yulex steamer through the winters of 2015 and 2016 and it kept me toasty warm.
Yet as far as stretch went...well, this is where the test began.
How much movement and comfort were you prepared to sacrifice for the environment?
This was no hypothetical question. I expect everyone who wore a Yulex wetsuit circa 2015 asked themselves a version of the same question, and that’s because Yulex didn’t stretch like neoprene. Yes it was better for the environment, but no, it wasn’t as good to surf in. The degree of discomfort a sliding scale measuring your commitment to the cause.
Me, I always considered myself the kind of person prepared to make compromises, yet when it came time to update my steamer I looked elsewhere, which was a shame as just after I ditched Yulex some significant changes happened.
The story of Yulex rubber began in 2008 when Jeff Martin was working for a medical device company, part of his job being to search for new technologies and materials. He came across Guayule which grows in arid regions making it an ideal commercial crop - cheaper land, less water - and one that wasn’t reliant on slash and burn farming typical of tropical rubber plantations.
The company Martin worked for showed little interest in Guayule so he quit and formed Yulex, encouraged by Rose Macario, CEO of Patagonia, who funded further research and assured Martin he had a customer once the rubber was developed to a standard befitting the company. And rather than co-opt the product for themselves, Patagonia pledged to make it freely available to any wetsuit company who wanted a more environmentally friendly wetsuit.
Six years later, Patagonia began introducing Yulex panels into their wetsuits. In 2014, their steamers contained 60% Yulex, and by the next year - when I got my steamer - they were 100% Yulex. Yet by not being as comfortable as existing neoprene steamers they butted up against one of the immutable laws of capitalism: Being better for the environment isn’t enough, a product must also perform as well, or be cheaper, than whatever it replaces.
Yulex was neither of those things. It was stiffer, and owing to R&D and Yulex’s diminutive scale, it was also more expensive. I’ve no idea about Patagonia’s sales at the time, however a telling fact was that no other wetsuit company adopted Yulex in their suits.
Most of the world’s natural rubber is sourced from the Hevea tree, which is native to South America but is now grown throughout the tropics in vast rubber plantations that are the root cause of much of the rainforest devastation in South East Asia. This fact initially nudged Martin in the direction of Guayule, however he pivoted towards Hevea when sustainable plantations became accessible in Guatemala and Sri Lanka, with promises of more to come.
Hevea proved a cheaper alternative, as Yulex didn’t have to grow the plantations, and, importantly, its elastic qualities matched those of neoprene - therefore abiding by the aforementioned law of capitalism. A few years after it initially launched Yulex, the company was allowed a second chance at a first impression, and they're finally getting a response from the market.
Ryan Scanlon is the founder of Needessentials, a company that, like Patagonia, recognises the contradictions of product consumption but nevertheless does their bit to reduce waste and harmful materials. All superfluous tags and inks are removed, raw materials are recycled wherever possible, Fair Trade boxes ticked, and when you order a product it arrives in a compostable bag. It ain’t perfect, critics will find something to criticise, and likewise Scanlon will find ways to improve his company’s act.
Right now, Yulex is playing a part in that.
Around the same time I was wearing my first Yulex steamer, Scanlon was also testing the product. “The early Guayule-based rubber had some limitations in comfort and stretch,” says Scanlon, echoing my own thoughts and likely many other product managers too.
“We were impressed with their endeavours to find a better option and respect Yvon Chouinard's vision,” continues Scanlon. “However, it’s important that innovation brings an improvement in the experience for the user and with new materials there needs to be a lot of time spent making sure it performs as well or better than its predecessor.”
Limestone neoprene provided a temporary solution, but convinced by the quality of modern Yulex, Needessentials ditched limestone and winter 2021 sees them release their first Yulex steamers with 4/3 and 3/2 versions. The rubber is unlike Yulex circa 2015, it feels and stretches exactly the same as traditional neoprene to the point where I’m convinced a blindtest could only be answered by guessing.
When it comes to surf companies using Yulex in their wetsuits, the first to the tape was Cheer wetsuits from South Australia. Their approach was a little different than Needessentials;. In 2015, when Patagonia released their first 100% Yulex suit, Cheer chose to use Hevea - making them also the first to use the organic rubber in their suits. However, a few years later when Yulex sourced FSC-approved Hevea plantations, Cheer moved over and began to use Yulex Hevea. In 2020 they even collaborated with OuterKnown creating a limited run of neoprene-free Hevea suits for Kelly Slater's company.
Of the large and long-established companies, Billabong is the first to introduce a Yulex model into their range. Last northern hemisphere winter, they released the Furnace Natural though they refrained from naming Yulex in their advertising, calling it instead a “hyper flexible super lightweight natural rubber”.
Scott Boot is BIllabong’s Global Director of Wetsuits and he’s been more open about the inclusion of Yulex, saying in a company video: “It’s a suit made out of natural rubber from Yulex. It’s very difficult to tell the difference between a chloroprene and a natural rubber suit these days…we’re at a performance stage now where it’s very difficult to tell the difference between the two.”
Cheer, Billabong, and Needessentials have precipitated a growing movement with an increasing number of brands also swapping out neoprene for organic rubber. To date, six companies include Yulex in their range: Cheer, Billabong, Needessentials, Finesterre, Seea, and new label Ansea who recently launched with Yulex wetsuits.
Says Sean Doherty from Patagonia, "It feels like a critical mass has been reached and we'll soon be seeing lots more Yulex suits." It certainly feels different than 2015 when Patagonia first unveiled Guayule-based Yulex, offering it to the world only to be roundly ignored.
The difference now is that the increased stretch of Hevea-based Yulex overcomes a rigid law of capitalism. The end result being consumers don't have to pass a commitment test when a greener option is on the table.
EDIT: The original version of this article stated that Cheer wetsuits used Hevea but not that it was sourced from Yulex. The timeline of Cheer's use of Hevea and Yulex has been corrected.