Wetsuits, Waterparks and Primark

What can we take away from the primark wetsuit controversy? What is it all about and what is the most economic solution?

The summer surfing season has begun with a controversial debate sparked by a small Cornish magazine’s disgust with Primark’s decision to launch their own range of wetsuits. The global retail giant are advertising this move into watersports as an, “affordable range of wetsuits, towelling snuddies and waterproof changing robes for the whole family.”  This seems like a harmless offer and not a completely unsurprising step for a large retail chain. In recent years we’ve seen products that would once have only been found in specialist shops or boutiques become available in highstreet chains, online retailers and supermarkets. A wedding dress was once only available as a unique luxury item. On average a wedding dress in the UK costs £3,000. However, beautiful wedding dresses are now available in high street stores from about £200 to £600. There has also been a growing movement in women renting wedding dresses from apps such as ‘By Rotation’ and also buying vintage or second hand dresses from sites like Depop, Facebook marketplace and ebay. All have been made possible by a cultural attitude shift and a reflection of our ever evolving economic instability, as well as a growing awareness of the environmental impact of fast-fashion. 

In the last two years, the UK surfing production manufacturers have faced multiple challenges. Richard Monk, who owns Saltcity surf shop in Exeter pointed out that, “the surf industry has been struggling since the recession in 2008.” However, after the initial UK lockdowns, the subsequent resurgence of staycations and societies renewed appreciation for outdoor adventures, there was an unexpected boom in surfing and wetsuits. This paired with the shipping delays caused by the chaos and new complexities of a post covid and post brexit trading, lead to a complete shortage of many products. This has been as true in supermarkets, retail chains and big budget brands such as Wilko’s as it has in the smaller independent surf shops. Brexit has been indiscriminately and merciless in its impact on supply chains. We have noticed gaps in shelving as well as huge delays and waiting lists for various products. Consumer demand does not dwindle even when products do. These are just a few ingredients that are building the recent cocktail of controversy about wetsuits.

Real Surfing Magazine, who wrote out against Primark’s decision to branch out into a surf range, pride themselves in being, “an opinionated, tongue-in-cheek, grassroots surfing magazine, with an old school vibe.” They say that they, “want to remember the free thinking alternative side to our culture,” concluding that, “some material in this magazine may cause you to laugh, cry or become angry. It is never our intention to offend or belittle anybody. However, we would ask you to keep an open mind.” Now, to me this reads akin to a tinder profile that would raise some serious redflags. It echos the internal wince when you hear a sentence begin, “I’m not being a **** but…” or the classic, “I’m sorry but”, which actually undermines the apology. It’s all a little “sorry not sorry” in its approach, or ‘vibe’. That is something as a journalist needs to be addressed. We have a free press but need to execute sensitivity, self-awareness and respect. It feels unsurprising then that it was this magazine’s social media response that launched the controversy surrounding the primark wetsuit range. They lambasted Primark in a social media post that read: “I tried to ignore this but I can’t. These awful cheap throwaway wetsuits are being mass produced and will be thrown away in no time. It’s very sad that companies such as this are tapping into surf culture […]They look ill fitting and poorly made so won’t keep you warm. The problem is that you can see why people buy them because they are not willing to go out and buy a decent long lasting suit if they go in the sea once a year […]”. This vitriolic statement jarred with a lot of people and received plenty of backlash. It did not recognise the sensitivity, trauma and day-to-day stress many households are trying to manoeuvre through in times of extremely high costs of living. Primark used this as their shield to critique in their response to the social media debate. In their response Primark stated, “we know that access to appropriate clothing and equipment is a genuine barrier to people participating in outdoor activities and we hope that this range helps more people to get out and enjoy the great outdoors.”

What are the real problems of simply popping out to Primark and purchasing a unisex wetsuit for about £36. The immediate issues are in the mass production of the product that indicates poorer manufacturing, worse pay and conditions for workers and an encouragement of mass produced items which feed into the global environmental fast-fashion crisis. An ill-made wetsuit will simply not last long. This could be beneficial for parents wanting to purchase something for a few weeks one summer for a child who will have grown by the next. However, it also feeds into our consumeriste and disposable culture that is steadily destroying the planet. According to Paul Chambers from Bodyline Wetsuits, a wetsuit repair shop specialist based in Newquay, “a suit should last a couple of seasons on average”. A well made wetsuit is not designed to be worn a few times but to be durable enough for a lot of repeat and repetitive wear. When tried and tested by journalist Olivier Vergnault, the Primark wetsuit did not hold-up well. A onesize fitsall, unisex pollicy does not translate successfully in a wetsuit. When testing out the Primark suit Oliver found that, “for a company doing fashion, we were surprised to find that their line of wetsuits does not make any allowances for men’s and women’s different body shapes.” Oliver found that the poor design did not keep water out or his body warm enough and that it was simply, “it was also really uncomfortable.”

So, what is the solution? It is recommended that you either save up and invest in a good quality wetsuit that fits your body well. If you do that then it is also essential that you really look after that wetsuit and see it as a piece of equipment. Paul Chambers admits that, “there definitely needs to be more education on the correct putting on and care of wetsuits – it means you will save money and the environment too as you are buying fewer wetsuits.” Alternatively, it is a great idea to rent yourself a wetsuit! 

Many places offer rental wetsuits that will be of good quality and fitted by experienced staff. If you are not constantly in the water and if you have growing children, you can rent them wetsuits for the season. 

One of the frequently asked questions at Dorset Adventure Park asks if visitors can rent a wetsuit. The answer is, yes! As an aqua park with wibit inflatables on two glorious lakes, as well as a completely wet and wild mud trail, Dorset Adventure Park makes sure to provide wetsuits for those who would prefer to use them. With Alder as the best suits that Dorset Adventure Park have found for our aqua adventures, the team are taking the time to switch solely to their favourite brand. Rent, run and dive into the fun – save yourself the hassle and headache of the great wetsuit debate. 

Words by, Olivia Lowry

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