Part 1

What Is Natural Rubber?

NuWave Journey

Hevea Natural Rubber: NuWave’s Plant-Based Core

Our Spring 2024 collection will feature a full range of natural rubber wetsuits. But, what is natural rubber?

Wetsuits are made from panels of foamed rubber that are usually covered in a knitted fabric for protection and durability. That foamed rubber has traditionally been neoprene, the trade name for a synthetic rubber made from either limestone or oil. Natural rubber, on the other hand, comes from trees.

How is Natural Rubber Produced?

Some flowering plants and trees (around 10%) produce a fluid called latex that they secrete when damaged as a defence reaction to plant-eating insects and animals. Latex, which is different to sap, is a milky fluid present in the stems and roots of these plants that coagulates when exposed to air and is the raw material for natural latex or, with further processing, natural rubber.

The primary source of commercial natural rubber is the Hevea tree, commonly referred to as the rubber tree or rubber plant. Its Latin botanical name is Hevea brasiliensis, which gives a clue to its origin in the Amazon rainforest of South America. As demand for rubber grew and vulcanisation (the methods used to harden rubbers) was developed through the 1800s, attempts were made to grow and establish commercial rubber tree plantations outside of Brazil. The species only grows in a tropical climate, and today most commercial rubber is grown and produced in South and Southeast Asia, but it is also grown in other tropical and suitable sub-tropical regions such as West Africa. Hevea trees need to be at least five years old before they can be tapped for latex – the process of stripping off a sliver of bark then making a cut across the latex vessels that grow in a spiral up the trunk of the tree and hanging a bucket beneath it to collect the latex that flows out. The cut is not deep enough to harm the tree, so the tree can continue to grow and produce latex. Whilst hevea trees can live for up to 100 years, latex production declines with age so most commercial rubber trees in plantations are felled after 25-30 years and a new tree planted in its place. The wood is then used in applications such as for making furniture or toys.

Latex contains a high volume of water that must first be reduced to create concentrated latex for commercial use (and economical transportation of the raw material), and that can then be processed with heat to create solid natural rubber. Our production partner processes natural rubber into foamed natural rubber, which serves as a neoprene alternative.

Is Hevea Rubber Better Because It’s Natural?

In many ways hevea natural rubber is better than its synthetic alternative, but “better” depends on the definition and criteria you are judging it against. It is important not to make any assumptions and fall into the trap of the naturalistic fallacy that just because something is natural it is better, but rather to question and measure it objectively.

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.

NuWave, Natural Rubber, And The Environment

Our NuWave wetsuits are made from a blend of 85% natural rubber and 15% chlorine-free synthetic rubber (as a percentage of total foam rubber content) to optimise the natural rubber foam's longevity, durability and stretch. This is covered with a recycled knitted lining to protect the natural rubber from ultraviolet degradation at the same time as improving elastic return and comfort. In addition, any smooth skin, mesh, or otherwise non-porous single-lined foam as would traditionally be used on the inside of the neck for comfort or on the torso and back, can only currently be produced from neoprene. Because of this limitation, we've designed our NuWave wetsuits accordingly and the only glide skin used is kept to the absolute minimum on the collar and the o-ring seal on the edge of the shoulder closure - essential for comfort and to provide a satisfactory seal.
At 85% natural rubber composition, it has been estimated that the carbon footprint of the wetsuit is reduced by up to 80% compared to a neoprene wetsuit. Most natural rubber, around 88%, is grown in South and Southeast Asia (mostly on small-holdings), close to our production partner’s manufacturing facilities, so raw material transportation is reduced compared to limestone neoprene originating from Japan. More importantly, natural rubber comes from trees that are tapped sustainably and replaced, and that draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere over their lifetime. The natural rubber used in our NuWave suits comes from FSC certified (Forestry Stewardship Council) sources, and the foaming process is also FSC certified. It is REACH compliant, RoHS compliant, and meets environmental standards for PAHs. The final foam is a USDA certified biobased product at 63% - the non-biobased certified content is eco carbon black (made from recycled scrap car tyres), oyster shell powder and oils, including soybean oil.
Concerns exist about the negative environmental impacts of monoculture plantations (where the entire farming area is planted exclusively with rubber trees) compared to rubber-based agroforestry systems (when one or more other species of annual or perennial crops and/or animals are farmed alongside rubber trees). In Brazil through the 20th century rubber tappers led the campaign to protect forest from clear-cutting for cattle grazing, creating “extractive reserves” for the harvesting of rubber and nuts. Whilst there are many benefits to agroforestry, not least for biodiversity, intensively managed monoculture production dominates in Asia. It is argued though that rubber tree plantations have far less of a negative impact on the land and encourage greater biodiversity than other intensively farmed monoculture crops.

What Does FSC Certification Mean?

Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification indicates that wood or tree-products (such as latex and natural rubber) are produced and harvested responsibly, with no net-deforestation over time. Old growth forests are maintained and protected, as are plant and animal species. Workers are paid a fair wage and provided a safe working environment, and local communities living in and around forest areas are consulted, and their legal and cultural rights to land and forest resources are respected. C-Skins NuWave wetsuits are made with FSC certified natural rubber, a standard that contributes most directly to the Forestry Stewardship Council’s mission to ensure thriving forests for all, forever.

We are excited to be making natural rubber wetsuits available to C-Skins customers with our next range. The move to offer a plant-based alternative with minimal environmental impact is a natural progression for us. It is the latest step in our efforts to minimise our impact, but not the last.