VENTURA, Calif. — Early on a recent Friday, Mitch Taylor, a local surfer, paddled out at County Line Beach off the Pacific Coast Highway near Malibu, wearing a new Patagonia wet suit. After carving a few waist-high waves, he gave it a positive review, pronouncing it indistinguishable from other high-performance gear he had tried.
“I was really stoked on it,” he said. “There was actually nothing different about it than any other suit.”
And yet there was. The suit, which has begun hitting the market, is made not from conventional, petroleum-based neoprene but from a natural rubber derived from a desert shrub. It is one way Patagonia is trying to nudge along a sport that has not always been environmentally conscious despite its roots in the natural world.
Patagonia executives are also convinced that the many years of development and testing they have supported have resulted in a revolutionary material that will wind up not only in wet suits but also in everyday items like sneakers and yoga mats.
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And instead of holding the manufacturer of the rubber, Yulex, to a yearslong exclusive contract, Patagonia is encouraging its competitors to use the product, hoping to see its use grow and drive down the price.
Other wet suit and athletic apparel companies have shown interest, and Quiksilver plans to have a biorubber wet suit on the market next year.
Jeff Martin, Yulex chief executive and co-founder, was building a company largely around making nonallergenic products like condoms, catheters and gloves from the latex of the guayule plants they grew in the Arizona desert. In 2009, they heard Patagonia was looking for sustainable wet-suit material and tests began.
Patagonia’s promotion of Yulex is the latest example of its unusual commitment to advancing sustainability, sometimes at the expense of its bottom line. It introduced organically grown cotton into its products in the 1990s, pushing ahead even though it lost customers and money on the transition. It has rejiggered its corporate structure so it can count success in factors that benefit the public, like helping the environment, rather than simply maximizing profit, without the fear of being sued by potential investors.
The company’s motives are not entirely altruistic. Priced at $529 to $549 — expensive for wet suits but on a par with other brands’ premium gear — the suit will earn the company money and bolster its green credentials, an important part of how it tries to appeal to customers.
“This is not a charity case — we have our limits,” Rose Marcario, the chief executive, said, laughing, at the headquarters in Ventura, where employees store their boards under a staircase and can test wet-suit prototypes across the highway at the C Street surf break.
The wet suit’s cost reflects, in part, the long-term development the company undertook, running more than 200 tests and field trials of the material to get the balance of stretch, weight and durability executives were looking for.
“I knew that if we could somehow change this process, change the way that this material gets made, we could take the biggest step forward environmentally for the wet-suit industry,” said Jason McCaffrey, who directs Patagonia’s surf division. “But we have to prove it.”
That ethos has its roots in the beginning of the company, which grew from a rock-climbing-equipment business that Yvon Chouinard, an avid climber, surfer and self-taught blacksmith, began in a tin shed on the Patagonia campus, where he still forges the occasional piton.
As the business added outdoor clothing and equipment over the years, Chouinard continually pushed to help preserve the environment, whether through more mountain-friendly climbing gear or fleece from recycled materials.
To protect that approach, in 2012, the company, which is owned by the Chouinards, changed its structure. It became a benefit, or B, corporation, one of an estimated 900 in the United States. This form of incorporation requires executives to take into account not just how decisions will affect profit and shareholders but also how they will affect the public, generally defined as society or the environment.
Patagonia’s wet suit is the first widely available consumer product derived from Yulex guayule rubber.
Patagonia introduced suits with a blend of 60 percent Yulex biorubber and 40 percent conventional rubber in Japan at the end of 2012 and has been refining them ever since.
The new suit, for men only, has added features like a thermal lining made from recycled materials and a slick external coating that keeps the wind out. Eventually, the company plans to use 100 percent biorubber in its surf gear.
Patagonia plans an elaborate, cheeky marketing campaign showcasing the qualities of the natural rubber from the guayule plant. That rubber is nonallergenic; it lacks the proteins commonly found in rubber from the hevea tree, the major commercial source of natural rubber.
“We have the best weed in town and we’re giving it away,” proclaims one magazine ad.