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The misconception of wetsuits. The impact of surf-gear on our natural ecosystems

Wetsuits traditionally made from petroleum-based material – UK located brand Finisterre invented an eco-friendly version made from Yulex: revealing its business model

The nature linked sport can result in a yearly number of 400.000 tons of wetsuits ending up in the landfill. «The wetsuit is a fit-for-purpose product», says Debbie Luffman, Product Director at Finisterre U.K. «If there is a hole in it or it has got too thin, it is no longer fit for purpose. People who want to get into the ocean and interact with the sea do not understand how toxic the nature of their wetsuits is». In the early Twentieth century, when the surf sport acquired popularity amongst coast citizens and water enthusiasts, the industry’s environmental footprint was not considered an issue. When the inflation of ocean plastic got noticed by the media and scientists during the 1960s, surfers, activists, and scientists were pioneering the founding of organizations, working against the dissemination of the global problem. The industry continuously gained ground. Quoting Modern Gentlemen, 1.73 million people in the U.S. go surfing annually. With the rise in adherents, the value of the surf equipment market and production of neoprene wetsuits increases — a research study by Business Wire reveals the growth path and projections of the global wetsuit market, foretelling that it is projected to expand 5 percent at a steady rate throughout the period of assessment, 2017-2021, reaching USD 2,145.37 million by 2021.

The first neoprene wetsuits entered the market in the 1910s. The prototype was composed to prevent anglers, seeking to fish in deep waters, from injuries rather than the cold. This pioneer evolved into the criterion of today’s wetsuit from 1951. Hugh Bradner, a physicist, associated with the University of California, Berkley worked on developing the wetsuit version adopted by the U.S. Navy Frogmen during World War II. Bradner’s replacement trapped water between the body and the fabric, serving as insulation, while the outside water could not enter the suit. Renewed by Jack O’Neill and Bob Meistrell in 1952, the modern era of wetsuits began in 1989.

It is not the history and dimension of the wetsuit industry that are discerned as critical, but the production process of the wetsuit elements. «Neoprene captures the warmth and captivates through strength and flexibility. The material is petroleum-based, meaning it is toxic. The bubbles created during the production process give the wearer the insulated feeling and elasticity», describes Luffman. «The main issue is that it is non-renewable and non-degradable due to the way the materials are assembled and laminated together. It is almost impossible to take them apart and recycle Neoprene after the end of its life cycle». The material neoprene has been around since the 1930s and was invented by the chemist Wallace Carothers, also responsible for the invention of nylon. Neoprene is a foamed synthetic rubber, obtained through a chemical reaction using the organic compound of colorless liquid chloroprene.

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Finisterre invented an eco-friendly version made from Yulex. Courtesy Finisterre

It is 15 years since Debbie Luffman commenced working for the sustainable outdoor brand Finisterre. The 2003-founded B-Corp certified company is based in Cornwall and regularly innovates with their designs and eco-friendly materials for their outdoor pieces. «Tom Kay founded Finisterre out of a reaction to what was missing in the water and surf market». From the beginning of existence, Finisterre was guided by its commitment and was found accolade by parts of the surf audience. «We have been growing at our own pace but have taken our customers with us. The roots of the business remained identical – our values, the commitment or the way we operate – but the way we communicate and connect with our consumer has changed».

Finisterre’s engagement with the surf industry could not be warranted without the most used garment of the branch – the wetsuit. While the brand built its audience with its sustainably produced outdoor garments such as polyester free insulated jackets or recycled polyester coats, the complexity of wetsuits intrigued the founder Tom Kay. It triggered the creation of a neoprene-free type. «Sustainability was organic cotton and recycled polyester, which was a niche back then. Now it is about other materials and measuring and mapping the impact those are having on one’s community and the environment», says Luffman. B-Corp, the Sustainable Recycling Goals, or Finisterre’s collaboration with FWC not solely secure a traceable supply chain but preserve transparency, equity, and sustainability throughout the tiers of manufacturing.

The Finisterre wetsuit is made from the natural FSC100 percent-certified rubber Yulex – a material that had been utilized by Patagonia in 2017, shifting the attention onto the problem of traditional wetsuits. Naturally grown and harvested, the natural rubber produces 80 percent less CO2 during its zero-waste production process than Neoprene. «We hired a wetsuit recycler three years ago as our ambition was more than creating a Yulex wetsuit. We wanted to tackle the landfill problem and support our commitment to a circular economy, so we called out the industry and education facilities in the U.K., looking for wetsuit recyclers», recalls the Product Director. In collaboration with Jenny Banks, Research Engineer (Materials) at the National Composites Center the brand disassembled a wetsuit to see how they could ensure the Finisterre prototype’s recyclability. «We worked backward, trying to understand how to ease it for the product to be recycled and avoid the toxic chemical run-offs of the production. Customers should be able to bring the wetsuit back to us to recycle them back into a wetsuit. We asked the question: How can we make a glue, holding the layers of the wetsuit, not durable? The water-based glue became a topic. It was the opposite of what Finisterre is about: Making sure a product has longevity»

Amongst Yulex and water-based glue, Finisterre incorporates sustainable materials from GOTS certified cotton over recycled polyester and thrives on work with bio-plastics or sustainable yarn for their knitwear. «The amount of plastic is immense, so recycled plastic makes sense, but for a circular economy to thrive and exist, these materials are limited. We should be looking at renewable, regenerative or degradable to be sustainable. The amount of innovations happening at the moment grows. The future is harnessing the benefits of the natural fiber, mimicking characteristics of synthetics». 

To find the manufacturer for their designs, Finisterre’s design and product team begin with the fabric. Colors and prints, determined by an in-house design team, are inspired by what surrounds people in their every-day-lives; shapes and silhouettes mimic the archetype and military. «We start with a fabric and then make connections with fabric suppliers». The production of their outerwear pieces confronted them with challenges and resulted in the resettlement of their center for output to Asia. «After working in Germany, the U.K. or Portugal and having to import fabrics from Taiwan or China, we simplified the process by moving the productions to Asia, a continent ahead of some places in Europe», tells Luffman. She pursues, «In China, we work with several factories. The preconceived idea about what facilities in China are like is outdated, as they have advanced. Nowadays, factories are specialized in a selection of techniques or fabrics. We build a relationship and maintain it. Longevity is key to creating a solid supply chain». When approaching a factory, the U.N. Codes of Conducts, spanning aspects from no child-labor over minimum pay and fair hours of work, have to be agreed on. «B-Corp audits the factories as social and environmental compliance and tracks their carbon emissions. It is a way of having a dialogue with our suppliers to understand how they keep their records». Within the last decade, so Luffman, the Chinese government operated to improve the country’s environmental footprint and standard. By closing down the dye-houses, responsible for the water contamination, and the plating of trees, they managed to control and erase the pollution issue. «These days, dye-houses are large facilities that can be controlled by the government and waters in critical areas are being tested on a regular».

Since 2019, Finisterre works with the Chinese Jiangsu Sudey Garment Industrial Co. on their blue-sign credited insulated jackets. Powered by a holistic approach, blue-sign is a system that provides safe and sustainable environments for people to work while adjusting the environmental impact of textiles for good. «There are up to five tiers before a fabric goes to the manufacturer – the recycler, the spinner, the weaver, the finisher, and then the factory. Blue sign will give you that traceability of by-stuff and chemicals that have been used before the product gets to the producer»

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Amongst Yulex and water-based glue, Finisterre incorporates sustainable materials from GOTS certified cotton over recycled polyester and thrives on work with bio-plastics or sustainable yarn for their knitwear

An agent, operating locally with the factories to cultivate regularity of contact and the obedience of audits, serves as a bridging tool in the times of Covid-19. «We work with smaller brands and factories to build trust and a relationship over time and visit them regularly. The pandemic toughened the regularity in business trips; hence we work with the agent». At the Chinese JC factory, specialized in working with GOTS certified organic cotton; a sewage facility ensures that toxic effluents from the dying processes are being filtered and traced. «Through the sewage facility, these run-offs are filtered into a sludge which is disposed of by specialists outside the water system. The pure water can then be recycled and led back into the production facility».

Luffman sees industry players’ evolution and exhilaration of environmental awareness and longevity during the Covid-19 lockdown periods. «In the last years since Covid, we had the time of our lives in terms of sales and the male and female customer ship reached a 50/50 percent balance. We all just want to be comfortable and wear a piece that sticks with you for a long time». Though Luffman expects fast fashion chains to remain part of the industry demand, she sees the middle market collapse and the interest in sustainability and transparency from Gen-Z increasing. «Sustainability has been exhilarated through figures such as Greta Thunberg. Brands have been given the opportunity to engage with their communities. This life-cycle change and the interest in repairing rather than purchasing new calls for adaption».

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Finisterre
Wheal Kitty Workshops
St Agnes, Cornwall TR5 0RD
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