Flanagan’s Smart Wetsuit

Summer is long gone and Halloween is just around the corner. But for Barbara Flanagan, author of Flanagan’s Smart Home: The 98 Essentials for Starting Out, Starting Over, Scaling Back, it’s training season on the high seas. She’s guest posting a tale in which oceanic daredevilry meets consumer smarts meets a yet-to-be published money-saving Q&A. Whew. That’s a mouthful. Just cue the Jaws music and dive in!

Last week, the financial website called to ask how to save money using ideas from Flanagan’s Smart Home, my guide to getting affordably green via a short list of dependable household products. (The interview hasn’t run yet, but I’m using it as a transparent lede. Shhhh…)

Anyhow, Bankrate called and I’d just finished a three-mile, open ocean swim, my longest haul yet after four weeks of practice in the coastal waters of Santa Barbara, my new home. After a summer of fog, the seasonably warm fall had arrived with full sun and seawater peaking in the high 50s—just like me, a novice sea athlete of a certain age.

Pumped with endorphins, I wanted to share the Zen revelation of long-distance swimming with my interviewer. The revelation, in short, amounted to this: The happier you are, the less you need. Or, to be more specific, an addictive sport, preferably one that requires minimal gear, does wonders at keeping you out of the stores and away from those website shopping carts.

I went on. Wouldn’t it be great if we bought household products like we sought out athletic gear: seeking high performance, longevity, and value in products made by companies investing in sustainable materials research, funding environmental causes, promoting land stewardship, using fair labor practices, and flaunting all this with website charts and videos?! Wouldn’t it?

Rose, my webby interviewer, was a young runner who knew lots about the engineering and evolution of of running shoes but very little about say, sofas. (Except for the letdown of IKEA models. So perky in the showroom, they live short, shabby lives once you cart them home.) She understood right away.

I described my search for a wetsuit, the magic second skin that turns the frigid ocean into a free spa.

At the start, I sought out a generic long-sleeved, long-legged “full wetsuit,” the kind surfers wore. Just like buying a black swimsuit. Size medium. Done.

No. It turns out wetsuits are made of neoprene, a synthetic rubber that comes in different qualities, expected life spans, densities, textures, and thicknesses. The neoprene is backed with a liner textile, usually nylon, with properties of its own. Furthermore, wetsuits are not seamless shells like Playtex gloves; they are made of curvy neoprene panels, thick and thinner, sewn together into different proprietary models, each designed to hug the floating human form with superior tightness. And the sewing? Very important. The best suits are blind-stitched (one-sided), glued, and reglued, to create the most watertight seams.

Next, I learned that the standard surfing wetsuit, available widely, was not what I wanted. The surfer, who spends time on boards, not in water, needs a durable, abrasion-resistant suit. The ocean swimmer, a totally different animal, uses a more fragile suit with a thick (5mm) rubber torso and upper legs that only keep the organs warm, but adds buoyancy to lift the body into a sleek, horizontal, free-style position. Thinner neoprene (3mm) covers the thighs and calves. And the thinnest (1.5mm) forms the flexible sleeves and underarms that help the swimmer reach and pull deep into the water hundreds or thousands of times per swim. Costlier suits boast shiny, “speed-enhancing hydrodynamic” coatings that reduce the suit’s coefficient of friction.

It was easy (well, for me) to get intrigued by wetsuit assembly. Manufacturers detail exhaustive specs on their websites. Gear shops and internet retailers hire salespeople who not only know the details, but are passionate about using the things. In my early, confused research, the local surf shop gave me a loaner suit to try out in the water, where the fit changes.

Rose, I went on, summer may be over, but its reminder—nature is worth keeping–will make us happier householders and safer consumers over all seasons. Let us heed the lessons we learn via our summer sports and apply them to buying, say, couches: Research more. Buy less. Buy from knowledgeable salespeople who’ll steer you in the right directions and teach you something in the process.

And (yes, that’s still me talking) let’s buy from stellar companies who brag about things like this:

—Starting The Conservation Alliance, a charity that contributes to environmental missions. (The North Face, REI, Kelty, and Patagonia)

—Being the nation’s largest consumer cooperative. Giving members a percentage of sales as refunds, and holding board members to high standards of environmental stewardship. Manufacturing a brand of “ecoSensitive” products made of recycled or “rapidly renewable” materials. (REI)

—Donating 1% of net sales to grassroots environmental groups.  Aspiring to build an entire line of products made of recycled textiles. Creating a Common Threads Recycling Program that asks consumers to mail in their old, unwanted Capilene underwear to be reincarnated; debris is shipped to Japan, where new machinery granulates it and forms it into pellets that are purified, polymerized, made into chips, melted down and spun into filaments to become fibers for new gear. (Patagonia)

I’ll be thinking about my wetsuit as I paddle my way into spending season. As, I’m sure, will Rose.

–Author Barbara Flanagan would also like to mention that she bikes to the ocean. This may not offset her use of virgin neoprene, a petroleum product that predates the next generation of more sustainable wetsuits made with limestone-based neoprene. But it’s fun.

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