Icebreaker: Pioneers of Merino Wool Products

Since Icebreaker pioneered the use of merino wool fabrics in 1994 they have become synonymous not only their use in base layers, but also their sustainable and ethical philosophy. Read what sets Icebreaker apart from the rest…

Among the trees by rivers and streams, on the hills, fells and mountains you’ll find walkers, ramblers and other outdoor enthusiasts exploring, getting close to, and enjoying all facets of the natural world.

United by their love of the outside, those who spend time experiencing outdoor life share something in common. Whether it be a weekend stroll or a Himalayan expedition, all have a certain passion for being outside; an understanding of what makes the natural landscape so precious and what is required to master, or at least survive within, your surroundings.

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They have requirements and needs dictated by the differing geographical conditions and environments; be it staying warm in cold climates, navigating a route, crossing difficult terrain or cooking supper by torchlight.

The varying conditions and challenges thrown up in the outdoors require use of the correct clothing and kit. Without it, you’ll be lost – even if you know exactly where you are.

Tread off the beaten track and the wrong boots will feel uncomfortable, may not grip, and can injure. A poor quality jacket won’t protect you from the wind and rain, and you’ll never stay warm in cold temperatures without correct layering and a thermal layer.

It is that knowledge that enthusiasts hold for the outdoors built through experience that fuels further knowledge and understanding.

Those who understand the beauty of the forest, the rivers, or the mountains and get closest to them, develop a bond with nature and understand need to help protect the landscape for future generations to enjoy.

As environmental and ethical causes have become mainstream in society as a whole, so too has the sphere of corporate social responsibility and corporate environmentalism moved in from the sidelines.

While there are still ‘evil doers’ out there (and plenty of them) there are companies who understand the ethical cause, who not only support the need for conservation and full respect of the environment, but also actively embrace a sustainable business model to minimise the impact of their actions on nature – a balance of ecology and economy.

Icebreaker is one of those companies.

1994 – The Beginning

When Jeremy Moon, then 25, was first shown a prototype merino t-shirt by a merino sheep farmer he was amazed by its comfort, warmth and easy care nature. So much so that he quit his job, got a mortgage and joined forces with these farmers to found Icebreaker.

Icebreaker_CEO_Jeremy_Moon_2011_07

Jeremy wasn’t the only one who was amazed by this  fabric; his customers were too. When people tried on the merino they loved the way it felt, how it performed and the fact that it was natural. This fabric bucked the trend against the dominant synthetic fabrics, considered all the rage at the time.

It was the performance and quality of the wool, as well as the endorsement of legendary Kiwi yachting record breaker Peter Blake, which enabled Icebreaker to grow from small beginnings, driving the country sleeping in travel hostels with an entire clothing range in an old leather suitcase, to an international company that employs 350 people with offices all around the world.

Advantages of Merino

Warm, breathable, lightweight, anti microbial.

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The merino is one of the world’s oldest breeds of sheep. Native to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, they are incredibly resilient and must cope with extreme ranges in temperature to survive – from the scorching heat of a +35c summer to –20c in the winter. These are much different and more resilient to regular sheep you may see in the fields of the countryside.

In order to survive, the merino has to be adaptable. Its fleece needs to be both soft and lightweight; it must be breathable in the summer and should insulate in the winter. In the freezing conditions of the Southern Alps of New Zealand a regular sheep would freeze to death. The merino’s second coat prevents this, keeping them warm enough to live through the cold winter.

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If you’ve never worn merino before do not make a comparison to regular wool – big, hefty knitted jumpers and scarves received from well-meaning grandparents concerned that you’ll feel the cold come winter time; not to mention itchy!

Merino wool is breathable, non-odorous, lightweight and warm – it provides the best performance qualities of traditional wool and synthetics making it highly suitable for use in outdoor clothing.

Regular wool has much thicker fibres and can feel uncomfortable and itchy against the skin. Because merino fibre is a fraction of the diameter of regular wool, it doesn’t itch – it feels soft. Merino is warm because it houses millions of tiny pockets which trap warm air and help you to retain body heat.

Icebreaker doesn’t subscribe to the ‘rat race’ of manufacturing the latest ‘technical’ fabrics, because nature has already done it for them over thousands of years of painstaking evolution motivated by survival and necessity. To paraphrase Jeremy Moon, it’s not done in factories, but on the back of an animal that lives in the mountains.

As Peter Blake said after setting a world record circumnavigating the globe in 1993: “Icebreaker is superior in every way to anything I’ve ever worn. I wore it for 40 days and 40 nights and it didn’t itch or get whiffy.”

Advantages of merino:

  • Natural
  • Non Itchy
  • Soft
  • Warm
  • Cool
  • Dry
  • Breathable
  • Lightweight
  • Odour resistant
  • Firesafe (least flammable of fibres)
  • Sunsafe
  • Easy care
  • Anti static

Commitment to sustainability

Icebreaker has made a commitment to a carbon neutral operation. In every way possible they try to ensure that they operate in an ethically and environmentally conscious manner, right the way through the supply chain.

Despite Icebreaker being big business, they remain committed “to a sustainable business model that doesn’t put profits ahead of the environment”. Their growing methods respect the ecosystem and ensure long-term sustainability.

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Treatment of animals and the land:

  • All guardians of the sheep adhere to a strict welfare code when raising them to ensure that they free of distress, disease and illness and are able to behave as they would if they roamed free.
  • A typical Icebreaker merino ‘station’ is around 40,000 acres in size and supports about 15,000 animals. That’s almost 3 acres per animal.
  • Low intensity farming ensures that the impact of grazing animals on the environment is minimal, this gives grazed pasture more time to regenerate.
  • The sheep dogs aren’t forgotten either, they are also treated with care to high standards.
  • Icebreaker sign long-term contracts with wool growers instead of buying it at auction. The contracts give growers financial security, and enable Icebreaker to set strict standards on environmental management, animal welfare, and wool quality.

The supply chain:

  • All contracted manufacturers are required to meet minimum standards for garment quality, clean manufacturing technology and fair treatment of workers.
  • They also must meet other high standards in quality assurance, environmental assurance and be constantly trying to minimise their environmental impact.
  • Workers must be treated fairly, are provided with a healthy working environment and are usually paid a premium above the regional and/or national minimum wage. There are also opportunities for training and promotion.
  • All manufacturing contractors are required to meet strict ethical standards.

Others:

  • Packaging is kept to a minimum. Biodegradable vegetable-based garment bags are used instead of plastic bags, sustainable ink and cardboard is used in packaging.
  • All cardboard is either recycled and/or certified by an independent non-profit organisation that supports responsible management of the world’s forest: The Forestry Stewardship Council.
  • Icebreaker conform to ethical standards in all process of product manufacture and development (Oeko-Tex Standard 100, ISO 14001:2004) They also have a restricted substance list, is a member of the conservation alliance and will plant one tree for every mailing list subscriber they receive through Trees For The Future.
  • Icebreaker ship by sea whenever possible

Design:

The design of Icebreaker garments is always focused towards the functional – unrestricted movement, temperature regulation, and mobility are key tenets of the design process. Inspired by the wild New Zealand landscape, the design philosophy is “under-stated and elegant, and always has an element of surprise.”

New Fit For Anything Icebreaker

For this season, Icebreaker have launched a new fit & grading system for all of its garments. Body sizes have changed over time, so Icebreaker hired global fit experts Alvanon to provide the latest global fit data to allow their garments to appeal to a new generation of customers.

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“Icebreaker’s fit project aimed at creating garments that gave maximum ease of movement, are the ideal length, and had no bunching under the arms. The fit also had to be consistent in body length and width, so customers would take the same size in every style from season to season.

After creating new size charts and fit blocks, Icebreaker tested its new fit system by recruiting a group of women who all considered themselves a size medium but were actually of different shapes, proportions and body types. The test confirmed that the new garment proportions suited a wider variety of women.”

BAACODE

Every Icebreaker item comes with a ‘baacode’ – it’s a unique code that allows you to track the source of the merino that was used to create your garment. The baacode enables you to find out more about the location and living conditions of the sheep that produced the merino fibre in your garment. You can also meet the farmers who look after them and discover what inspired them to farm merino sheep.

Already have an Icebreaker garment? Trace your Baacode here http://baacode.icebreaker.com/site/baacode/index.html

baacode

Finally:

Ethical considerations increasingly play a bigger part in dictating what people buy, whom they buy it from and how it is made. It is not uncommon today for people to consider environmental or manufacturing policies before making a purchasing decision.

More and more, we want to know where our items come from, how they’re made, and the environmental impact of their manufacture. We want to know about the ethical commitment of the companies we buy from and what impact their purchases will have on the planet.

When you purchase a product from Icebreaker, you know that you’re getting quality at minimal cost to the environment. Furthermore, they strive to bring sustainable and environmentally friendly solutions to all aspects of product development and manufacture – helping them to fulfill their mantra:

“It’s about our relationship with nature, and to each other.”

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