Eight years after becoming the first wool company in the world to incorporate traceability into its products (with its innovative “Baacode”), and just two months after announcing its acquisition by VF Corp., New Zealand’s 22-year-old Icebreaker turns the spotlight on its own practices to see what’s working internally and what isn’t. Tracy Ross spoke with CEO Greg Smith about the recently released 61-page “Made Different” transparency report. It’s a fascinating document, but a lot to digest, so we asked Smith to break it down and give us some of the highlights about the company’s strengths, weaknesses, and initiatives going forward.
Tracy Ross: Most obvious question first: Why a transparency report 22 years after Icebreaker entered the merino wool market?
Greg Smith: It’s taken us 22 years to craft our business….and we haven’t finished yet. This report is the result of our 22 years of commitment to building an ethical and sustainable business. While we’re not perfect, we’re proud of what we have achieved.
There’s been a consumer shift in people wanting to better understand the companies they purchase their products from—beyond the marketing spiels they read on hangtags or in ads.
The launch of our Transparency Report is about sharing the Icebreaker way, our philosophy and the principals that drive our business daily. Insight on our supply chain, people and how we make our clothes is incredibly important to our customers and for Icebreaker, as leaders in our industry, we want to champion how clothing is made. We are extremely proud of our natural fiber heritage and relationships throughout our supply chain and know transparency provides a catalyst for change and improvement. It’s not about perfection, but it is about being open on how to continuously improve for the future.
TR: Do you anticipate customers reading a 61-page report?
GS: We know many of our customers and end consumers are hungry for this level of detail. We’ll also be sharing bite-sized content across our ecommerce and social media channels with quick facts and easy-to-digest information…so watch this space!
TR: From a transparency perspective, why should people choose New Zealand wool over American wool?
GS: I think it comes down to this: We’ve never been a company that set out to win and conquer. We’re about kinship and relationships. So, from a business perspective, if there are other brands creating the growing the merino category, that’s great. But Icebreaker merino really is unique. Our long lasting term relationships with merino farmers in New Zealand has allowed us to develop unrivaled expertise in specifying and selecting the finest quality merino. We specify length, strength, diameter, consistency, color, and cleaness…we even specify an Icebreaker crimp and structure!
The merino sheep can survive in 86°F and -10°F in the New Zealand southern alps. They’re incredibly hardy and so is the wool they produce. It’s far superior to regular wool, feels amazing against your body, is highly breathable, regulates tempature and doesn’t hold odor like plastic synthetics.
TR: So will Icebreaker ever completely rid its products of plastic?
GS: Our belief is that nature has a better way, and our R&D team are relentlessly pursuing natural fiber alternatives to synthetic fibres. Currently 85 percent of our supply chain is based on natural materials – which in an industry based on petrochemical synthetics is unheard of!
To make our ‘top to toe’ layering system possible, there are times when we combine our merino with other fibres. This is only ever to enhance the functionality of merino. We never do this to make the fabrics cheaper, or to make up for poor quality merino. Can you imagine your socks and underwear without a touch of Lycra for stretch and comfort?
Technology for natural alternatives is moving fast we want to be at the forefront of offering consumers a natural alternative.
TR: You were recently acquired by VF, the company that owns The North Face. Seems with its capital, you’ll be able to chase things like plastic-free development more aggressively.
GS: Yes. Our partnership with VF translates to growth around research and development. When we spoke with the VF team, they were so excited about natural performance disrupting the outdoor industry for good. Our partnership with VF provides us with the largest platform in the world to share our philosophy and sustainable approach to business.
TR: Icebreaker has always maintained that ethical sourcing is one of its key beliefs. How does this play out with the sheep?
GS: Since our inception Icebreaker established long term contracts with merino wool growers, based on genuine trust and mutual concern for animal welfare and the environment. In 2008, Icebreaker became the first company in the world to ban mulesing of sheep as part of our work to champion animal welfare.
This practice removes strips of wool-bearing skin from around the buttocks of the sheep as a means to protect flystrike – and can be painful for sheep. Icebreaker growers have replaced this with integrated methods for management, prevention and treatment that make mulesing unnecessary. We are proud this has now been widely adopted by the industry, and is lasting legacy to the impact that brave business decisions can make on a global scale.
Beyond mulesing we guarantee the ‘five freedoms’ of the sheep, so you can feel happy in the knowledge that the sheep felt just as good making your Icebreaker, as you will wearing it!
TR: What other values does Icebreaker hold that people should know about?
GS: Well, 1997 we introduced three-year contracts to farmers, which speaks to our long-term commitment to supporting relationships in our supply chain. As you might know, wool is sold on the open market, and prices fluctuate constantly. When Jeremy Moon (Icebreaker’s founder) introduced these contracts, it changed our farmers’ lives forever. All of a sudden, their entire year wasn’t based on what happened in one day. When they had a contract, it guaranteed how much they would make over the next three years: Growers could get loans against the contract and invest in their land. And when you can invest in the land, you’re investing in the healthiness of the sheep and the quality of the garment. This year, we have just introduced 10-year contracts. We believe this is another world first and demonstrates our deep commitment to people, nature and New Zealand merino.
TR: I personally think the idea of the bio bag (a 100 percent water soluble packaging product that Icebreaker is planning to employ in 2020) is one of the coolest things the company is introducing to its production. Whose idea was it to create the bag?
GS: The idea to create the bag came from the supply chain team within our business. At Icebreaker, we attract people who want to make a difference, who share common beliefs and believe deeply in what we are doing. ‘Sustainability’ isn’t a department, it’s our way of business, and this project is a great example of our approach.
TR: And how will using the bag help the environment?
GS: The bag will essentially be a carbohydrate – so it will fully breakdown in any environment and eliminate the effects of microplastics. It will have no negative impact and could in fact source as a food source for fish!
TR: What’s been the response to your transparency report so far?
GS: We’re launching the report to consumers in March but have already had overwhelming positive response from industry, supply chain partners, and our internal team. Until now, we haven’t been great at sharing all the details of our approach to building a sustainable business, but we relish any opportunity to do so. We aren’t perfect—we make that very clear, and feedback has been that partners have loved this refreshingly honest approach. Like life, transparency is a journey—and those consumers deeply interested in how their clothing is made can now feel part of sharing Icebreaker’s journey.