Part 2

A NuWave On The Horizon

The Design Journey

C-Skins’ Natural Progression To Offering Natural Rubber

How a man-made object looks and performs, is down to design – the creative process of solving a problem that has impacted almost everything in our day-to-day lives. At C-Skins, wetsuit design and development is an on-going process, to ensure that each season we offer the best wetsuits to help surfers perform in cold water. That means researching and considering new materials, construction techniques, technologies and cuts, sampling and testing, and creating a combination that best meets our criteria for performance, price and planet.

The design process creates a natural progression, and for us the latest step in that is natural rubber. NuWave, our range of natural rubber wetsuits, launches in Spring 2024, but it’s a development that’s been years in the making.

Wetsuits have been made from a synthetic foam rubber called neoprene for sixty years. Decade on decade, the petro-chemical industry drove material technology advancements that were difficult for natural rubber to catch-up and compete with. Without a viable alternative to neoprene the worldwide wetsuit industry carried on in a bit of a confirmation bubble; surfers wanted warmer, stretchier, wetsuits to help them to perform at their best and explore and surf new frontiers in colder climates, and wetsuit brands presented a solution using the only option available to meet those demands. For many years, very few questions were asked because people’s (both consumers and those of us creating products) priorities were different and there wasn’t the correct focus on environmental and social impact that society now has.

When Yulex Inc. first developed natural rubber foam for wetsuit applications as an alternative to neoprene 15 years ago, its superior environmental credentials were enough to give it a toehold in the market. Their first wetsuit utilising natural rubber launched in 2012, catering to surfers who made purchasing decisions based primarily upon sustainability, but these new suits were scarce, had high price tags, and didn’t perform very well.

At C-Skins we are continually researching and testing innovations that might give us an opportunity to improve our products. Nothing is off the table when it comes to research and development. That natural rubber technology was shared with the rest of the industry a few years later. Having made several other switches in favour of lower impact materials and manufacturing techniques, we gave it a go.“We first tested natural rubber in 2018, designing and making a sample version of our top of the range ReWired wetsuit using Yulex natural rubber” recalls head designer Jon. “At that point in time the price of the foam was more than 30% higher than limestone neoprene, the overall weight of the finished product was significantly heavier, and it was much less stretchier than the standard version.”

Our leading lights have traditionally been performance and accessibility. They are what we have built our brand, and our business, on. If a natural rubber wetsuit was going to be significantly more expensive and with noticeably compromised performance then we didn’t believe it was a viable option for us to pursue. Had only one of those key points not been up to scratch then perhaps we could have taken it forward as a “sustainable” option for one of our styles, but both made it a non-starter. As our head designer said, “We didn’t even feel that a team rider would want to test it and it certainly didn’t make commercial sense.” If we couldn’t introduce natural rubber across the majority of our range because those wetsuits would be disproportionately more expensive, and we couldn’t use it in our core range wetsuits because of the sub-par performance characteristics, then we would, we decided, have to feedback to our suppliers and drive for material improvements in the hope that we could try again the next year.

Hevea rubber is better for the environment and the workers processing the raw material along the supply chain than neoprene. As a material choice for wetsuits, where flexibility, warmth and durability are important performance characteristics, natural rubber is now comparable. Many early criticisms of natural rubber wetsuits were that it was heavier and not as flexible, but our range of NuWave wetsuits is proof that that is no longer the case – natural rubber foam’s performance is excellent and ever-improving. We challenge you to tell the difference between neoprene and NuWave when it launches in spring 2024. We’ve tried and tested it. . . and we love it.

“When it came to natural rubber, for it to have the greatest positive impact, it needed to be across as much of our range of wetsuits as possible”

Fast forward to 2020 and we revisited natural rubber as part of ‘Project Blue Line’, a refreshed drive to consider circularity of life in our wetsuits and utilise recycled materials. Our criteria for using recycled materials was that they had to match the performance criteria of the non-recycled/virgin alternative, and the focus was largely on the woven linings and knitted jersey fabrics that we wanted to substitute for single lined (smooth skin) neoprene.

“When it came to natural rubber, one of the primary focuses was that for it to have the greatest positive impact, it needed to be across as much of our range of wetsuits as possible, not just an option in the range of a “sustainable” wetsuit, even though that’s the easier market.” Jon says. “At this point we found the samples much more encouraging, and the rubber was now feeling much lighter, but the costs were still really high.” We were committed to not scaling back on C-Skins’ commitment to accessibility, despite that being the easier route to bringing natural rubber online. Making a positive purchase in favour of environmental and social issues shouldn’t be elitist. There are enough barriers to accessing the joy and benefits of surfing and watersports as it is, without then creating a divide based on the cost of the greener option. This had to be across the board, and we wanted it to have the biggest possible positive impact.

The materials shortages, international shipping issues and wildly fluctuating market that the COVID-19 pandemic caused through that year and the following two slowed our forward progress to develop and bring to market a natural rubber wetsuit. Then in early 2022, with the situation more settled, a renewed drive to deliver a more environmentally and socially positive product, and continued improvements to the natural rubber foam recipe, we fully committed to the natural rubber project. We developed all-new designs and specifications based upon our knowledge of the material and utilising all of the developments that we’d made with recycled materials. We ordered R&D sample wetsuits across the range from surf school and activity centre wetsuits, through juniors and the majority of our range of women’s and men’s wetsuits for Spring/Summer 2024. It was a leap of faith for us, as this would represent a significant commitment to natural rubber.

“I thought they’d made the wrong wetsuits.”

“Sampling takes two to three months and when we received the first sample wetsuits, we were really disappointed because we thought the factory had ignored our specs and used neoprene instead of the natural rubber requested. The suits literally felt like the very best neoprene we specify in our Wired and ReWired wetsuits. I thought they’d made the wrong wetsuits.”

The team here were bitterly disappointed. We’d thrown the lever on natural rubber and made a big psychological commitment to the future direction of our business and our industry, and somewhere along the line wires had been crossed and our manufacturing partners had sampled our new range of wetsuits with synthetic neoprene. It wasn’t just one model in the range, it was all of them. Was there still time to rectify the problem, produce samples, test, tweak and approve before the sales season started and our reps had to take samples out on the road to show to surf-shop owners and buyers around the country?

Jon picks up the story: “We asked the factory to confirm the earliest date that they could re-supply the samples in the correct materials. But then they replied saying that there had been no mistake – the sample wetsuits that they’d sent were in fact natural rubber! The improvements to the foam since our last round of testing and feedback were staggering. Not only that, but all of the linings were recycled fabric. Everything was exactly as we’d specified, and was better than we could have hoped.” The mood here went from one extreme to the other upon receiving that email. We’d been working on the branding concurrently, aiming to offer natural rubber as a range in its own right as well as each model in our line having a choice of natural or synthetic rubber. NuWave was happening.

The reason for offering a natural rubber version of our popular styles, rather than designing entirely new wetsuits, is because we know that the cuts, fit and features all work and our customers can seamlessly switch with confidence, knowing that their new wetsuit will fit and function just like their last C-Skins wetsuit. The last development that we’d made before introducing natural rubber, was to increase the use of recycled synthetic fabric on the interior and exterior linings of our wetsuits. This played into our favour in a big way when it came to that natural progression to natural rubber, because we had already eliminated a significant proportion of single-lined “smooth skin” or “mesh” neoprene in favour of a knitted hard-wearing jersey-style exterior lining. Natural rubber needs to be protected from ultra-violet rays (sunlight) to maintain optimal performance characteristics and to prevent it from degrading too quickly. Therefore, it needs to be covered with a woven lining. Our new knitted exterior linings allowed us to use natural rubber where smooth skin or mesh would traditionally be used on a wetsuit, such as the chest, back and hood. Currently, smooth skin is always synthetic rubber or neoprene (it is created by the polymer contacting the internal face of the hot mould used to create the foam). Natural rubber cannot be produced with this smooth skin characteristic yet, and because we’d already replaced much of it on the chest and back panels of our wetsuits (where it is often used for protection against wind chill) it meant that we could maximise the percentage volume of natural rubber in our NuWave wetsuits from the get-go and offer a product with features that our customers would recognise. As wetsuit designers who have always worked on the development of our materials, we were able to eliminate smooth skin (neoprene) panels at the design stage and step into the natural rubber wetsuit market in a really meaningful manner. As it stands, for this first range, our natural rubber foam is the industry standard mix of 85% natural rubber and 15% chlorine-free synthetic rubber – currently essential to ensure that the foam doesn’t break down if exposed to UV light and also to maintain its stretch properties. There’s no point making a lower impact wetsuit if it doesn’t last and consumers need to replace them more regularly.

For our design team, not having to design and test entirely new wetsuits cuts and fits meant that they could focus on the materials and optimising the design for the new materials. “The key was testing and re-testing to make sure that the materials were in fact now good enough” Jon said. “We know that whichever wetsuit in the range a customer buys, they will scrutinise it against their own purchasing criteria. Some surfers will spend more and have high expectations of stretch and flexibility, or of comfort and the overall weight of the wetsuit, whilst others will want a durable wetsuit – this is particularly true for the surf schools and activity centres. We’ve got to design and produce wetsuits that tick those boxes for those surfers.” We’re confident that we’ve achieved that with NuWave, and the response so far from our retailers, surf school customers, and team riders who have seen, sampled and surfed in NuWave natural rubber wetsuits confirms that. They’re as excited as we are.

NuWave launches in Spring 2024, but design is a process that doesn’t end. Part of the process of designing NuWave has been to consider the full lifecycle of our wetsuits and the component materials and to look for ways to transition wetsuits from the traditional linear “take-make-waste” model to a more circular, closed-loop model where the design considers the entire life-cycle of the product. Initially we will be offering a wetsuit return and upcycling service to encourage the transition from synthetic to natural rubber wetsuits, and we are working behind the scenes on a longer-term and potentially transformational project to bring full circularity to the wetsuit industry, so that you can truly recycle your wetsuit at the end of its usable life.

“The key was testing and re-testing to make sure that the materials
were in fact now good enough”

What’s next for NuWave? Well, after the summer comes winter, and we have already sampled natural rubber winter wetsuits for the Autumn/Winter line to follow the initial Spring/Summer launch range. And it won’t stop there. “We are continually driving improvements in our products, and there will be some rapid developments in our materials over the next few years,” head of design Jon says. And if surfers are being encouraged to choose natural rubber wetsuits over neoprene ones, then every item of kit that surfers need In order to enjoy the ocean year-round should be up for consideration, not just the headline products. We are committed to serving all surfers, so if products made from natural, recycled or lower impact materials pass our tests and we can guarantee performance then we’ll introduce them.

NuWave has been a big project for our design team. When asked about his hopes for this range, Jon replies: “I guess that really, we’re hoping that in time natural rubber and recycled linings will become the new norms across the industry as a whole, rather than the exception. We believe that we’ve created a product that’s as good or better than what’s currently available, using better materials. If customers agree then demand will grow and the costs of natural rubber and recycled yarns will go down. It might not be long before these options are really competitive across performance and price, and the result of that will be better for the planet.”

NuWave natural rubber wetsuits will be available in selected surf shops and online in Spring 2024.