As outdoor-lovers, we all want our clothing to be produced in an ethical and sustainable way that has a minimal environmental impact. New Zealand brand icebreaker specialise in making outdoor kit from merino wool which they believe is not only more sustainable but also the perfect material for high-performance activewear.
We asked their Head of Sustainability, Julian Lings, to tell us more.
How can you claim to be a sustainable brand when your wool comes from New Zealand, your production from China and you deliver products all over the world?
We know from the independent analysis that has been carried out on our products, that more than 75% of the carbon emissions impact of a typical icebreaker product is from raw material sourcing and processing. In fact, 65% are associated just to merino farming – which is also the main contributor to water usage and energy usage. This is the area where we are focusing a lot of our sustainability work. Through collaboration with our Growers Club, by 2023 we will launch on-farm programs, optimizing land management systems to promote biodiversity and increased carbon sequestration. We will also continue to work with our merino grower community to identify on-farm efficiencies and best practice.
In your long term strategy, are you planning to move to a more local approach?
Icebreaker broke new ground in developing deep, long-term relationships with our merino farmers. Our partnerships guarantee not only a high-quality fibre but also the highest standards of land stewardship and animal welfare. Today, we are still deeply connected to our roots in New Zealand. We work directly with 70 growers through our partnership with The New Zealand Merino Company (NZM). This includes 56 growers that form our icebreaker Growers' club, with 10-year long term supply contracts.
Do you use chemical products in the wool treatment or wool colouring processes?
As part of our move to natural strategy, we are continually investing in innovative ways to find more natural solutions. Among our latest colour innovations is the use of plant-based pigments to dye our icebreaker nature dye collection. Alongside our supply chain partners, we have developed a process that cuts by up to 65% the amount of water used to dye our products, compared with traditional dyeing methods. Better still, one of our suppliers, Shanghai Challenge, has pioneered a cold-water natural dyeing technique where no chemicals are released into the water, and up to 40% of wastewater is recycled.
What is your position as a brand about animal welfare? Shaving sheep isn’t painful for them?
Our responsibility to nature is wider than the way our products are made and we've been committed to protecting animal welfare from the beginning. This means respect for the way the animals that produce the fibre are cared for, along with the standards in place to ensure their wellbeing. We’re part of The New Zealand Merino Company (NZM)’s ZQ program, which ensures stringent standards are met. These cover the stewardship of livestock, management of the environment and social responsibility. With our contracted merino growers certified through ZQ, we can ensure the fibre meets our quality requirements and that the growers share our ethical values and practices.
Do you monitor factory conditions and pay fair wages?
Factory conditions and fair wages. Every day, more than 64,000 people head off to a job that supports the production of icebreaker products. It’s our responsibility to ensure that everyone who works on an icebreaker product does so in a fair, safe and non-discriminatory workplace. Our Global Compliance Principles and corresponding auditing procedures serve as the foundation for our approach to worker safety, factory performance and worker well-being. These principles set out clear requirements that our contracted suppliers must meet about worker safety, human rights and the environment. When suppliers are unable to meet our standards, we intervene with worker-centric solutions designed to help improve performance.
How can you become plastic-free by '23? How can you replace synthetic fibres and keep the durability of your garment?
We believe in using natural materials instead of plastic or oil-based materials common in the clothing industry. Today, 87% of current total fibre composition is natural fibres. Moving forward we are focusing on finding natural alternatives to replace the small number of synthetic materials we use such as nylon and elastane. We’re going about it in a number of ways. Firstly, by removing synthetic yarns from our materials where possible without compromising on durability and longevity of the product. Secondly, where it’s not as simple as just removing the yarn, we’re launching innovation projects in collaboration with yarn and material partners to explore natural alternatives to certain synthetics.
What is the problem with the way the textile industry works at the moment?
Our vision is to inspire people towards a more natural way of living, through choosing natural, responsible apparel. We want to lead a move to natural by being an educator and providing inspiration for people to make the move to natural. The textile industry must change as consumer demand and fast fashion have propelled the apparel industry to unsustainable levels. Global fibre consumption amounts to 69.7 million tonnes annually, with petrochemical-based synthetic fibres estimated to account for 60%. Icebreaker believes that moving to natural will be crucial to addressing these challenges. Merino and natural garments can be produced in a more sustainable way, and are less impactful in their use phase as they require less washing because of the incredible natural properties of wool. By offering timeless, versatile, quality clothing that will last well beyond one season, Icebreaker is also to encourage more conscious consumption behaviours.
How is icebreaker merino different?
We believe in the power of our superfine merino wool as the basis for our natural performance apparel. It’s far superior to regular wool, feels amazing against your skin, is highly breathable, regulates temperature and doesn’t hold odour like synthetics. Icebreaker merino is naturally odour-resistant so users can wear more and wash less. The merino wool fibre is a naturally biodegradable fibre. Under the right conditions, it will readily biodegrade if buried. Icebreaker merino also absorbs moisture from the skin and then disperses it into the atmosphere. This leaves you drier and more comfortable.
Words - Julian Lings