How Icebreaker’s first transparency report aims to disrupt the outdoor apparel industry

A New Zealand-based outdoor apparel company's attempt to disrupt the industry by reducing plastic synthetics has been highlighted through its first Transparency report, which provides complete disclosure into supply chain contracts, living wage commitments and edible packaging innovations.

Icebreaker was founded in 1995, offering a range of sustainable outdoor apparel that largely consisted of sourcing local natural fibres through closed-loop solutions. With products sold in more than 47 countries globally, the New Zealand company has this week published a 118-page Transparency report detailing every step of its supply chain practices.

“Our thinking was simple,” Icebreaker’s chief executive Greg Smith explained. “What if our customers could see everything we do? This report sets this benchmark, challenging the industry and inspiring other outdoor brands towards natural solutions.’’

The Transparency report, which will be updated annually, offers complete public disclosure of supply chain policies, structures and practices in order to separate Icebreaker from an “industry based on petrochemical synthetics”.

Currently, more than 85% of Icebreaker’s raw material consumption is sourced from natural fibres. Many of the company’s products are created using biodegradable merino wool sourced from local farmers. In 2016, more than 6,600 bales of merino wool were sourced from almost 250,000 sheep.

More than 20 years ago, Icebreaker became the first outdoor apparel company to establish long-term contracts with merino wool growers, built on practices that support animal welfare and the environment. In 2008, for example, it became the first company to ban the mulesing of sheep – a process that involves the removal of flesh – which has since been widely adopted by the industry.

The Transparency report reveals that Icebreaker has now penned “historic” ten-year forward contracts with suppliers which create economic certainty for farmers provided they champion animal welfare and environmental practices.

Currently, 65% of production volume derives from partners that Icebreaker have worked with for 13-years or longer, but the companies supply chain connects more than 50,000 workers across 15 countries. Icebreaker is now using a “Baacode” that enables consumers to trace fibres in clothing all the way through this supply chain and back to the farm.

As detailed in the report, Icebreaker’s auditing process ensures that suppliers comply with the company’s sustainability strategy – which will evolve next year to cover complete carbon & waste emissions reporting.

Every partner in every tier of the supply chain is mapped in the report. Growers, for example, must document environmental strategies on their properties covering soil health, biodiversity and water and waste management – all measured under the Icebreaker Accreditation Standard.

Human Rights

Icebreaker is working to eliminate any arisings of modern slavery in its supply chain, with the report outlining its modern slavery commitments. These include the company’s chairman Rob Fyfe representing the New Zealand business community alongside the New Zealand Government to champion human rights in the country.

A living wage commitment has been set up for suppliers, although this differs from country to country. In August 2017, Icebreaker worked with Asia Inspection to analyse supply chain wage data, utilising the Fair Wear Foundation Wage Ladder and come up with new wage brackets. All human rights commitments align to ILO standards.

The industry average for factory auditing is 7.6/10, but Icebreaker is currently performing to a score of 9.2. All contracted merino stations have been audited within the last three years, with one-third needing Corrective Action Plans (CAPs). Of the CAPs, 86% were classified as minor, with nine cases (13%) classified as major corrections. The nine incidents regarded the use of chemicals and animal health in certain facilities, as outlined by the report.

Environmental footprint

Regarding chemicals, Perfluorinated Compounds (PFCs) are commonly used in outdoor clothing for durable water-repellent finishes. However, they consist of sulfonates and acids which are linked to environmental degradation. Icebreaker has pledged to become PFC-free by 2020.

Icebreaker’s wider environmental footprint is yet to account for total emissions reporting – which are currently being developed – but 76% of product is shipped by sea, with just 10% transported by air. Icebreaker claims this was a deliberate decision built on “careful planning”.

Water use is managed through closed-loop processes that sees fumes captured and treated by air extraction systems and waste water treated by on onsite treatment plants for reuse. More data is expected in the next iteration of the report.

Plastics and packaging

Although Icebreaker’s product material is predominantly built on natural fibres, non-merino wool source is comprised of 8% Nylon, 5% Polyester, 3% ‘Tencel’, 2% Lycra and less than 1% organic cotton.

Where synthetics are used, 72% of polyester is recycled and the company is committed to reducing the 28% non-recycled balance. Recycled polyester is made with 100% recycled PET bottles as the main ingredient.

The 3% sourced from ‘Tencel’ consists of a natural fibre made from cellulose found in the wood pulp of eucalyptus trees. Tencel is sourced from farmers that have achieved Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification. Chemicals and solvents used in this process are also 100% recycled.

The company currently uses 79% FSC-certified paper and cardboard for packaging, with a goal in place to increase the amount of recycled content in packaging by 20% by 2020.

As of February 2018, Icebreaker had been using biodegradable bags, recognised by the ASTM International standard, that can naturally break down into water, carbon dioxide, methane and biomass in up to two years.

The company is working with suppliers to accelerate the breakdown to a matter of weeks, by creating a water-soluble bag that meets Ocean Safe certification currently being developed. The bag will dissolve in water, but if an animal consumes it, it will also serve as food source.

“Sustainability isn’t just a feature of Icebreaker’s products, it’s the values and design of our business. I founded Icebreaker to offer a natural choice to adventurers and disrupt the outdoor industry towards sustainable solutions,” Icebreaker’s founder Jeremy Moon said.

“It’s why we exist. We are constantly struck by the irony of the outdoor industry to promote petroleum-based synthetic fibers, such as polyester. Plastic against your skin. Really? We believe there is a better way and nature has the answers.”

Matt Mace

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