Eco friendly wetsuits are still a relatively new phenomena. This guide runs through all the essential tech and showcases the best currently on the market.
There was a time when heat retention and flex were the only things that crossed our mind when it came to buying that steamer. No longer. With global warming and bleached reefs on display for all to see, it’s now more important than ever to put eco credentials near the top of your purchase list. Love the water and it’ll love you back, right?
Thankfully, there’s been a huge shift towards environmentally focused wetsuit production in recent years. Manufacturers have shifted to smart materials that aren’t only better for the world but better. Period. Yep, we’d actually say that you’re in safe hands when you go for eco friendly wetsuits. You could pay more, but these tend to be the top-of-the-range products; premium pieces that’ll cut your carbon footprint while also keeping you on the waves for longer.
This guide will take a quick look at what makes eco friendly wetsuits eco friendly in the first place. We’ll run through the key technologies and features to look out for when you go green on your neoprene. Better yet, we’ll list five of the top eco suits on the market right now, with the pros and cons of each.
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This is just one part of our complete guide to wetsuits
What makes eco friendly wetsuits?
There’s now some really special tech out there helping wetsuits go green.
From inventive new seam stitching to non-bleach dyes, manufacturers have started unpicking (not literally, thankfully) every aspect of the kit to crank up that eco resume.
Of course, a lot of that has been hot air – AKA marketing jargon that’s not really worth the paper it’s written on. Most isn’t though, and in our experience, major wetsuit brands really are making a sincere effort to cut their emissions and whatnot.
Some do it because it’s good business, others because they genuinely care. Either way, it’s working. You’ll now see a nod to some sort of environmental feature in most branded suits, especailly if you’re willing to fork out a little more and hit the top end of the scale.
Here’s our guide to some of the key eco friendly wetsuits tech you can get right now:
Features of eco friendly wetsuits at a glance
- Limestone neoprene – a limestone-based alternative to petroleum neoprene that means your wetsuit won’t support global oil production.
- Natural rubber/Yulex – A 100% neoprene-free material that’s derived from trees. It has a much lower carbon footprint, performs amazingly in the water, but won’t come cheap. It’s the key ingredient to Patagonia suits.
- Efficient manufacturing – A way of planning your manufacturing line that helps maximize the amount of useable raw neoprene or natural rubber in a batch, so less is discarded to landfill.
- Dope dyeing – A way of dyeing artificial fabrics like wetsuits that cuts overall carbon emissions by 20% and reduces water consumption by up t 80%.
- PET-linings – Instead of making linings from first-use plastics, eco friendly wetsuits can use recycled PET bottles for thermal insulation.
Ever since its invention in the 1950s, neoprene has traditionally been made from petroleum-derrived chemicals. If that rings those eco bells, then good – it should.
The base of our trusty wetsuit was butadiene, which required oil drilling and all sorts to get it out of the ground. You also have to factor in the destructive cost of transporting the oil itself, usually in long crude pipes that cut through forests and mountains, or in ships that have caused disastrous spills. Not good.
Sometime in the 60s a few people came up with a way of creating neoprene from limestone. It mean isolating a chemical called acetylene and then fusing it together to create the long strands of polymer that give wetsuits that thermal quality we know and love.
So, no oil = good, right?
Well…not quite. It’s true that a lot of brands have seized on the advent of limestone neoprene as a panacea for the woes of the wetsuit industry. We’re not so sure. Limestone is still a finite resource that needs to be mined, heated to high temperatures and fed through a global production chain that’s really energy intesive.
In fact, the direct environmental impact of limestone neo and petroleum neo are estimated to be similar, although limestone is less energy intensive. Brands like Patagonia also point out – quite rightly in our opinion – that there’s something to be said for reducing dependency on oil generally.
The conclusion? Limestone neoprene is definitely the way to go right now. It’s the most eco friendly we’ve got, but it’s not the magic pill.
Recent years have seen the rise of the neoprene-free wetsuit. Instead of oil-based polymers, these use a substance known as ‘natural rubber’. Let’s just say the results have been pretty darn impressive…
Not only are suits made from natural rubber up there with the greenest of the green eco friendly wetsuits, they are also stretchier and more durable than their neo compadres. The manufacturing process doesn’t involve heating to temperatures in excess of 3600 F, and not a dime goes to oil companies in the meantime.
Downsides include the cost. Natural rubber suits tend to be up there with the priciest on the market, at least for now. It’s also true that natural rubber isn’t 100% eco cool. You’ve still got the fact that it’s derived from trees, so deforestation can be a problem, along with expensive and carbon-intestive transportation costs.
Patagonia is kinda’ alone in leading the charge with natural rubber with their Yulex range, which are fantastic! There’s promise that a lot more brands will follow suit soon, though.
Manufacturing efficiency and recycling
Recycling wetsuits is notoriously hard and there’s not really any global supply chain for turning used steamers into new kit. That’s just the reality, sadly.
Brands have come up with their own solution. Patagonia (yes, we go on about them a lot in this guide to eco friendly wetsuits guide) offer to patch up older suits to extend their life span, for example. Other brands are making use of alternative recycled materials as thermal linings in their designs (check out Vissla’s EcoSeas, which has approximately 45 recycled plastic bottles per suit).
Right now, the important thing to focus on is the efficiency of the manufacturing line. Proper planning on panel layouts and stitching can help maximize the amount of useable neoprene that comes from a batch of raw neoprene. Of course, all that’s good for profit. The upshot? Expect most brands to do this pretty well already.
Dope dyeing was invented as a solution to the classic method of coloring fabrics known as wet processing. While the latter involved lots of chemicals and pollutants, dope dying reduces the amount of wastewater and reduces the overall carbon impact of the dyeing process by an estimated 20%.
Dope dyeing can only be used for artificial materials (AKA wetties!) and it’s thought to give a deeper, longer lasting color. Win, win.
These days, the neoprene or rubber component of the wetsuit is just part of the story. Manufacturers have also added in all sorts of clever membranes and thermal insualting linings that can help up the efficiency of your trusty suit and cut flushing (the movement of water from out to in).
There’s an eco-friendly way to do this. It’s pretty simple. Cut out first-use plastic and use recycles PET water bottles instead. Simple. Some suits, like the aforementioned Vissla EcoSeas, can consume up to 45 single-use plastic bottles per wetty. Nice.
The best eco friendly wetsuits for 2021
Now you’ve got a good idea of the sort of things to exect in eco friendlty wetsuits, let’s get stuck in. Below, we list the top options for the green surfer in 2021. We’ve tried to cover a wide range of the market, but remember: Going eco today usually means paying a little more.
We think it’s worth it, though. Not only do eco wetsuits bring that rare piece of mind that you’re doing at least something to give back to the ocean and the planet. They also tend to be some of the best performers of all wetsuits, with fantastic flex, high heat retention, and added buoyancy.
A quick-jump guide to our best eco wetsuits for men..
- Patagonia R3 – No neoprene and the best all-round eco wetsuit
- Patagonia R1 – Same as above, but this is the summer suit option
- Vissla 7 Seas – Decent eco features on a fantastic all-round wetsuit
- Xcel Drylock X – Accomplished cold-water wetsuit from a brand that’s making some good eco moves
Men’s R3 Yulex Front-Zip Full Suit
- 100% natural rubber – not a touch of neoprene
- Fair Trade certified
- Certified by the Rainforest Alliance
We won’t beat around the bush – Patagonia is the brand to go for if the environment is your first concern on the wetsuit front. There’s really no one out there that can match the attention to detail that comes with this famous name in the outdoor industry. The amazing thing is that they hadn’t even made a single wetty until 2005. Dismayed by the lack of eco products on offer to surfers, they entered the market with a trademark disruptor smile.
After initially following the craze in limestone neoprene, Patagonia made the full switch to natural rubber wetsuits in 2016. That’s really the creme-de-la-creme of eco wetsuit material right now, and these guys have sourced some of the best on the market. It comes from Arizona-based bioprocessing science firm, Yulex, and it is simply STUNNING – super flexible, noticeably light (heaviness is usually the problem with natural rubber bases).
The R3 version of the flagship Patagonia wetsuit is meant for cold-water environments between 48-55°. That makes it a doozy for Oregon or East Coast surfing up north, but also a toasty prospect for California, the European winter and more. And the pulls don’t stop there, either. The R3 uses natural rubber that’s certified by the Rainforest Alliance, the whole thing is Fair Trade certified, and it’s dope dyed to reduce water usage.
Basically: This is arguably one of the most eco friendly wetsuits you can get right now!
Men’s R1 Yulex Front-Zip Full Suit
- Yulex rubber sourced from sustainable forests
- Fair Trade
- Seriously awesome summer suit regardless of the eco features
Best for? Summer surfing for the environmentally conscious
The R1 comes with all the same impressive eco tech as the R3 seen above. It still makes use of that neoprene-free architecture. It’s still flexy Yulex rubber sourced from sustainable hueva trees. You also get the piece of mind that comes with buying a suit from a manufacturer that has sought Rainforest Alliance and Fair Trade certifications. It really is quite remarkable how well Patagonia have done with eco friendl wetsuits considering they’ve only been in the game since 2005.
Where the R1 differs from the R3 is in thickness and thermals. This one’s built for warmer waters of between 60°–65° F. We put it down as the perfect eco summer and early-fall steamer for surfers in Europe and most of North America (perhaps not Canada, though).
We’ve highlighted the long sleeve summer suit option, but you can also get short-sleeve versions of the R1 if you’re lucky enough to have the water temp for it.
Vissla 7 Seas Chest Zip Wetsuit
- Limestone neoprene
- AquaA lamination that’s ocean safe and non-toxic
- Dope dyed to reduce water usage
Best for? Regular surfers who want at least some eco-friendly features
Vissla have been a rising star on the eco-friendly wetsuits scene for the last few seasons. Apart from making the move into all limestone neoprene, they’ve also designed a totally eco suit with the same natural rubber as Patagonia’s R3. That’s called the EcoSeas. Sadly, we’ve found it super hard to find it available pretty much anywhere, so we’re convinced it’s still sorta’ in the R&D phase.
That doesn’t mean you should discount Vissla altogether. Their flagship 7 Seas suits have lots going for them on the green front. For a start, they are 100% limestone neoprene. Now, that’s not the king of eco materials but it’s a good step up from petroluem-based stuff that supports those global oil chains. The 7 Seas also comes with AquaA membranes, which cuts flushing with non-toxic laminates, along with dope-dyed color, so there’s reduced water usage on the production line.
More than anything, we’d say the 7 Seas is one fantastic wetsuit. It’s stretchier than most at the same price point and has very powerful Thermal Brain Fuzz insulation that’s never let us down. Okay, so it’s not the best of the best when it comes to eco suits, but it’s a step in the right direction, won’t cost a packet, and is a fantastic all-round option.
Xcel Drylock X
- 100% natural rubber – not a touch of neoprene
- Fair Trade certified
- Certified by the Rainforest Alliance
Best for: Cutting carbon emissions while still buying a leading wetsuit
We’ve said some wonderful things about the Xcel Drylock X and the Xcel Drylock range. They’re up there with the best suits for very cold water surfing, we’re certain of that. But this premium brand have also made moves to go green with their neoprene. It’s not quite 100% Yulex a la Patagonia, but it’s certainly enough to warrant them a place here.
Xcel now source a significant proportion of their Carbon Black (a central ingredient of artificial neoprene) from recycled rubber tyres. The only use organic glues that eliminate the VOC chemicals (not good for reefs and the ocean). Mostly, Xcel have one of the best manufacturing efficiencies out there, so there;s hardly a scrap of neoprene going straight to landfill. Overall, they boast they’re saving 2.68kg of carbon emissions per suit.
We also have plenty to say about the sheer quality of the Xcel Drylock X. It’s a warm suit. Like…a really warm suit. Thermo interior layers use your own boy heat to crank up the temp and keep it balmy for a long time. It’s also got microfibre tech that helps the flex. One of the best options for winter surfing in North American and Europe for sure.