How Sustainable Is icebreaker? All You Need to Know

How Sustainable Is icebreaker? All You Need to Know

By
Dennis Kamprad

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Active people like you are taking a serious look at their athletic wear since the apparel industry contributes 10% of global emissions and is the second biggest polluter of our environment. icebreaker is a popular sportswear brand found on retail shelves these days, known for their merino wool items and environmentally friendly approach. So, we had to ask: How sustainable is icebreaker apparel?

icebreaker uses natural, responsibly sourced materials that suggest they’re pretty sustainable, but more details about manufacturing are needed to make that call. They share supplier details, but third-party audits are necessary to prove that how they make apparel is less impactful on the planet.

Okay, we’ve already given you the overall summary of icebreaker’s sustainability. But there’s more to it than that. Let’s have a look at the whole life-cycle of their products, from production to usage to end-of-life. We’ll also cover their involvement in sustainability-promoting organizations. But let’s get started with the big picture first.

Here’s How Sustainable icebreaker Is

The icebreaker brand grew from the idea of making athletic and outdoor wear using merino wool, known for being soft, durable, and capable of naturally regulating temperatures. The wool comes from Merino sheep that are native to New Zealand and grow the most resilient wool on the planet. Inspired by this, icebreaker set out to make clothing from this wool and other high-quality, natural fibers.

  • icebreaker was started in 1995 by entrepreneur Jeremy Moon.
  • They are headquartered in Auckland, New Zealand.
  • They were purchased by VF Corporation in 2018.
  • Their clothing is sold in over 4,700 stores in 50 countries.

Sustainable: The ability to be maintained at a certain rate or level | Avoidance of the depletion of natural resources in order to maintain an ecological balance”

Oxford Dictionary

To know if icebreaker really is sustainable we need to look at their manufacturing practices and determine if they are effectively reducing their impact on the planet. To do that, we need to look at:

  • the information they share,
  • their ratings and reviews, 
  • their reports from third-party reviews, and 
  • what sustainable organizations they belong to. 

And to understand the sustainability of icebreaker, we must assess their products’ life-cycle and each stage’s sustainability. This life-cycle assessment (LCA) is a method to evaluate the environmental impacts of products and materials. Over the years, companies have strategically used LCA to research and create more sustainable products. So, let’s have a look at the LCA of icebreaker!

The product life-cycle stagesEach stage’s sustainability
ProductionMaterials: They are responsibly sourced, and nearly zero synthetics (plastics) are used. The majority of growers practice regenerative farming. 
Manufacturing: This occurs mostly in China. Their parent company, VFC, manages production and has been known to have supply chain labor issues. As such, they need outside audits to prove their sustainable practices and impact reductions.
Packaging: They’ve been using recycled and biodegradable content for a while. They continue to work to eliminate plastics in shipping.
UsageLifespan: Their clothing items are known to be durable. They encourage customers to wash their apparel less often so it lasts longer.
Quality reviews: Customers love the quality. Reviews rave about the value—and icebreaker gear isn’t cheap.
End-of-lifeCircularity: Using natural materials makes it easier to repurpose fibers after the apparel is worn out. So, it’s easier for icebreaker to achieve circularity.
Recycling: They’ve started apparel recycling in some stores, but need to apply this further. 
Waste: Their clothing doesn’t go to waste quickly. That being said, little is known about how they reduce waste in manufacturing, which is where it mostly happens.

How Sustainable Is the Production of icebreaker Products

To determine if icebreaker’s products are sustainable, we have to look at how they are made. Are factory emissions monitored, and are actions taken to reduce them? Do they keep material waste at a minimum? Do they use non-toxic chemicals that don’t harm the environment? These are all things we need to know to determine if icebreaker is sustainable.

Icebreaker raised the standard for openness in the fashion industry when they released their first transparency report in 2017. While it’s good that they share these details and that their materials seem to be responsibly sourced, they need third-party audits to verify their efforts to be sustainable in manufacturing.

In 2017, icebreaker issued their first transparency report, and it raised the bar on reporting expectations in the apparel industry. Unlike most companies, they shared details about their growers and suppliers, as well as their factory environmental standards for reducing energy, water, and chemical use.

Recently, the site Good On You, which rates apparel for its sustainability, gave icebreaker a mid-grade rating “of it’s a start.” They mentioned the company’s low-impact materials, high level of transparency, and emissions policies, as well as their actions to reduce water use in their supply chain, as reasons for the mosly favorable rating.

How Sustainable Are the Materials That icebreaker Uses for Their Products

Most athletic and outdoor wear is made with cotton, polyester, vinyl, rubber, and plastic. All but cotton are synthetics derived from fossil fuels. But icebreaker is different. Their product line was started with the idea of making clothing with less synthetic content. As such, they use mostly merino wool, which they blend with other natural fibers like cotton and linen. As for their use of synthetics, it’s minimal, and they’re working to eliminate them.

Using responsibly sourced natural materials is a huge step toward sustainability, and this is what icebreaker has attempted to do with their merino wool. Today, they blend it with other natural fibers, like cotton. Very few synthetics are used, and they are sourced from growers that follow regenerative land practices. So, their materials are mostly sustainable.

Shop Ethical praised icebreaker for their materials sourcing since they use mostly natural fibers, but gave them an overall rating of a “C” due to the parent company, VF Corporation, having a history of labor issues.

  • What types of materials does icebreaker use for their products? Their tagline, Move to Natural, is a good fit, since icebreaker apparel is made from mostly natural fibers, primarily wool.

Their goal is to use 100% all-natural materials, which they’re close to reaching.

So, it appears they’re working on using recycled materials, but they’re not there yet. 

  • Is icebreaker part of any organizations to “prove” their sustainability? Their industry certifications prove that icebreaker uses responsibly sourced and sustainable materials.
  • Over half of their farmers are part of the ZQRX Programme, practicing regenerative farming, which means chemical-free and responsible land use. Their goal is to have 100% participation by 2028.
  • All of their wool farmers are RWS certified. That means they meet the Responsible Wool Standards set by the Textile Exchange for proper and ethical animal care and land management.
  • Both icebreaker and VFC are members of the Textile Exchange, which certifies organically grown materials and promotes responsible sourcing of textiles.

Before they were bought, icebreaker’s 2017 transparency report said that their apparel was certified by OEKO-TEX® Standard 100, a common apparel labeling that verifies it’s been tested for harmful substances. But as of now, icebreaker and VFC are not listed as having any OEKO-TEX® certifications.

So, they’re pretty good at sourcing materials responsibly, but what about their manufacturing? Are they actively working to reduce harmful chemical use, emissions, water waste, and unfair labor conditions? Do they have policies for their supply chain regarding these? And do they follow through on those? 

How Sustainable Are the Manufacturing Processes of icebreaker

In the apparel industry, manufacturing is the biggest cause of climate change, inducing waste and emissions. From wasted fabric on the cutting floor to the chemicals used on materials and the carbon output from operations, these all have a huge impact on our environment.

Icebreaker needs to do more than just have supplier policies and tools for sustainability and fair labor practices in manufacturing. They need to bring in outside auditors and get certifications that prove they’re acting responsibly to employees and the environment. Until they do that, we only have their word that they’re taking these actions.

  • Where does icebreaker produce their products? Icebreaker’s first transparency report was a big deal because they did something most apparel companies don’t do, which is provide full location information and employee demographics for their supply chain. Let’s look at a few key points from the report:
  • 100% of icebreaker merino wool can be traced to its source.
  • Their wool may come from New Zealand, but their products are mostly made in China.
  • It includes their supplier’s code of conduct, which covers their standards for workplace practices and policies, but not for sustainability.

However, icebreaker and VFC need to work on certifications and reviews of their labor practices.

  • What does icebreaker do to reduce their CO2 emissions? Regenerative farming naturally reduces CO2 emissions from the soil, and icebreaker is working to get all their farmers certified. So, they appear to be focused on responsibly sourcing materials, which is good, but a challenge is that manufacturing details come from VFC, which owns 12 different brands.
  • What does icebreaker do to reduce their water consumption? In their 2019 transparency report, icebreaker said they reduced water use in their fabric dying process by 65%. Their 2021–2022 report didn’t give an update on this, but it said that one of their goals is to work on water efficiency. The report also said that VFC suppliers use the Higg FEM, which requires them to “collect information on facility-level water usage and promote water efficiency.” We couldn’t find any results reported on those efforts. 

But chemicals are also used in apparel manufacturing to treat materials, like waterproofing and dyes for coloring. 

  • icebreaker says they use PFC Free durable water repellent, which is good, since PFCs are known to be toxic. 
  • They say they are developing plant-based dyes for coloring. 
  • If their suppliers are following the Higg FEM, it means they shouldn’t be using any banned chemicals.
  • Which organizations has icebreaker joined to showcase their social sustainability? icebreaker’s first transparency report said their long-time supply partner, Shanghai Challenge (SCT), was the first Bluesign® factory in China. This means they manufacture products under strict eco-friendly requirements. Other sustainable affiliations that could be found fall under their parent company, VFC.

While these efforts are great, we’d like to see them join organizations like Fairtrade International, which certifies products as being made fair trade, or become a B Corp, which would give them a way to certify their sustainability actions in manufacturing. However, we didn’t find them taking these actions.

While being part of a big company like VFC might have its benefits, it makes it difficult to see into icebreaker’s manufacturing and how well they’ve followed through with the sustainability goals talked about in their transparency reports.

How Sustainable Is the Packaging Used for icebreaker Products

Nearly half of all plastics made are for product packaging. While some packaging is necessary or is required by law, some isn’t needed. Since plastics are made with fossil fuels, can’t be easily recycled, and take hundreds of years to break down, they are a huge contributor to the carbon footprint and waste caused by product manufacturing.

It looks like icebreaker has been serious about responsible packaging since the beginning. They were already using some recycled and biodegradable packaging before their quest to be plastic-free in their apparel. They also admit that they’re still using plastics in shipping but that they’re exploring bio-based alternatives. 

  • How much packaging do they use? It seems like icebreaker has always been paying attention to the impact of their packaging. Their first transparency report told us they were already using some recycled and biodegradable packaging and that they were focused on eliminating unnecessary plastics and waste. 
  • How sustainable is their packaging? All of icebreaker’s previous transparency reports discussed goals to reduce and rethink packaging, until the most recent one dated 2021–2022, which has no references to packaging. 

So, icebreaker looks pretty sustainable when it comes to their materials sourcing, but they have work to do to prove it in their manufacturing. Just because they require suppliers to use the Higg FEM to measure environmental performance doesn’t mean they’re successful with those tools. Outside audits are needed to show they’re meeting sustainability goals.

How Sustainable Is the Usage of icebreaker Products

Having sustainable products also means making them durable so that they last. It is estimated that 64% of garments made end up being disposed of in landfills within a year after purchase. So, it’s important to know if icebreaker makes clothes that last and that people want to wear for a long time.

Merino wool is one of the most durable natural fibers on the planet, and it’s what icebreaker clothes are mostly made of. They blend it with other breathable natural fibers so that their apparel requires less washing. Customer reviews show that people find it a top-quality, long-lasting product that they want to hang onto.

What Is the Lifespan of icebreaker’s Products

The lifespan of a product is the period of time from when a product leaves the manufacturer to the moment it becomes obsolete or cannot be used anymore and is thrown out. So, we need to know if icebreaker apparel is made to last and if customers keep it for a long time.

icebreaker challenges customers to wash their clothes less often since natural, breathable fibers don’t need frequent washing. This helps your icebreaker gear last longer and remain durable, since washing clothes breaks down their fibers. 

  • Are icebreaker’s products designed to last? Merino wool is a natural fiber that breathes, so it doesn’t hold odors. This is great because it means your icebreaker gear doesn’t need to be washed as often and will last longer. 

In 2020, knowing that less washing reduces the impact of a garment on the planet, icebreaker ran a campaign encouraging customers to wear their wool T-shirts for seven days without washing. “It’s a really great way of adding value to the consumer while reducing their impact on the planet,” said their parent company, VFC.

  • Can icebreaker’s products be considered fast fashion? No. Fast fashion is made to be disposable, whereas icebreaker apparel is not. It is designed to last.

So, using all-natural fibers makes their apparel more durable, and as such, it lasts longer. But does that mean it’s made well? We’ll need to look at what customers say and any product reviews about the quality to find out.

How Is the Quality of icebreaker’s Products Rated

When a product is rated as being high-quality, it reflects on its durability and lifespan potential. If it is made poorly or from inferior materials, it is not likely to last or be rated very well by consumers, and it’s more likely to end up in a landfill sooner. So, we went looking to see what industry reviews and customers have to say about the quality of icebreaker gear.

  • Eco-Stylist, which rates brands and guides consumers to sustainable apparel, certified icebreaker as sustainable and said they “[…] create quality products that embrace nature.” 
  • The review site 33 Square looked at the value and said, “Icebreaker delivers excellence beyond the price tag.”

Consumer and industry reviews make it clear that icebreaker apparel is some of the best quality outdoor wear you can find—especially if you like to buy planet-friendly clothes made of natural fibers that feel good on your skin.

  • How do users rate the quality of icebreaker’s products? Customer reviews are favorable, especially when it comes to the quality of icebreaker apparel.

So, it’s clear that customers are happy with their icebreaker clothes, and since it’s good quality and doesn’t wear out quickly, they likely hang onto it for a long time. But what happens when they’re done with them? Where do these clothing items go when they reach their end-of-life?

How Sustainable Is the End-of-Life of icebreaker Products

While a big environmental impact from the apparel industry is manufacturing, the mounting piles of clothes that end up in landfills are equally impactful. So, it’s important for apparel companies to make their products reusable or recyclable, and support those efforts so their garments don’t eventually end up as waste. Let’s look at what happens to icebreaker apparel when it hits its end-of-life.

icebreaker started their first apparel recycling act in New Zealand and, since natural fibers are easier to take apart, their clothes have a better chance of being recycled at end-of-life. They need to expand this to all their stores and work on ways to recapture their natural fibers for use, as this is ultimately how they can reach circularity with their apparel.

How Circular Are icebreaker’s Products

When existing apparel is 100% recycled or reused indefinitely, we will have reached full circularity of our clothes. While we may be a long way from this, it’s important to have companies like icebreaker paving the way with products that last and are easier to recycle. 

While using 100% natural fibers doesn’t make them circular, it does put icebreaker in a good position to get there, since natural materials can be taken apart and recycled easier than synthetics like plastic. Fortunately, they know this and are working to design circular apparel for the future.

Circular economy: A circular economy within the textiles industry refers to the practice of clothes and fibers continually being recycled, to re-enter the economy as much as possible rather than ending up as waste. | A circular textiles economy is in response to the current linear model of the fashion industry, in which raw materials are extracted, manufactured into commercial goods and then bought, used, and eventually discarded by consumers.”

Wikipedia

In 2021, icebreaker made a move toward circularity by partnering with Spinnova, a Finnish sustainable textile company, to develop circular merino wool mid-layer products. Unfortunately, there’s no sign that current icebreaker apparel contains these recycled materials and no update on this partnership could be found. Hopefully, this project is still in development.

So, it’s clear icebreaker is ahead of other apparel companies when it comes to being circular. 

  • By using all-natural fibers, their clothing has more potential to be taken apart and the materials reused. 
  • They’ve invested in the development of circular products in partnership with a sustainable textile company.

But making clothes that can be recycled doesn’t mean that always happens, unfortunately. A key part of making circular apparel is figuring out how to recapture used materials. There has to be a recycling process, and likely some incentives to get customers to turn in used clothes.

Are icebreaker’s Products Made for Recycling

Natural fibers, like cotton or wool, are the easiest to recycle since they can be taken apart and reused as thread or yarn to make more material. Synthetics, on the other hand, aren’t easy to take apart for reuse. So, it’s good that icebreaker apparel is made with natural materials that are easier to recycle, but to have circularity means they also need to make sure that happens.

Since natural fibers make clothes easier to recycle, icebreaker is already positioned to have recyclable apparel. They need to work on recapturing those materials when customers are done with them. They’ve started apparel recycling in some stores, but need to expand it to global retailers.

Many brands now offer reward programs for recycled clothes, but only take gently used ones that they can resell or donate to charity. To be clear, this is not in support of circularity. It doesn’t address where clothes go when they’re too worn to wear. Actual recycling of the materials is what it takes, and that’s what icebreaker has started to do. 

So, they’re giving incentives and working to recycle used fibers, but UPPERAL operates only in Australia and New Zealand, meaning this program wouldn’t include all icebreaker Touch Lab stores globally, nor any retailers of their apparel. Hopefully, they will continue to push apparel recycling and get it in all their stores, but there’s no sign that they’re there yet.

Without effective recycling, our clothes eventually end up as waste. So, it’s good that icebreaker appears to be serious about apparel recycling but until that’s a complete success, what happens to their apparel when it’s worn and reaches its end-of-life?

Will icebreaker’s Products Go to Waste at Their End-of-Life

No matter how durable a product is, it will one day cease being useful. When it comes to apparel, it’s becoming critical to avoid having it end up in landfills, which reports say is where nearly 80% of our clothing eventually goes. So, it’s important that apparel companies work to keep materials out of landfills at their end-of-life and when making their products.

icebreaker supports better end-of-life results by using natural materials, and they seem mindful of waste at some levels of their business. That being said, it’s hard to tell what’s being done in their supply chain. Third-party audits are needed to know if they’re working on zero waste in all areas, including manufacturing. 

With apparel recycling in its infancy, once a garment can’t be worn anymore, it will likely end up as trash. So, it’s great that icebreaker is getting into recycling to support better end-of-life results. What’s also important is the waste that comes from manufacturing and their everyday operations.

  • In their first transparency report, icebreaker detailed waste audits of their growers. But they didn’t talk much about manufacturing, where a lot of waste happens. 
  • In 2020, 72% of VF’s distribution centers were zero-waste facilities, according to icebreaker’s 2021–2022 transparency report. While this may be significant, distribution isn’t where most waste happens.

While they’re mindful of waste at distribution centers and at the hands of their growers, there’s no information on waste reduction efforts in their manufacturing. Either they have work to do in that area or they need to be more transparent about it, as well as bring in outside audits to verify it.

Is icebreaker Involved in Any Charities Promoting Sustainability

  • icebreaker works with UPPERAL, which is an Australian organization that sends usable clothes to charities for reuse and repurposes the materials from garments that can’t be worn anymore. 
  • Their parent company, VFC, supports zero-emissions and green policy initiatives, including the Textile Exchange’s Fashion Industry Trade Policy Request intended to incentivize responsible sourcing in the fashion industry. 

With all their talk of working with nature, one would think that icebreaker would be donating to environmental causes or One Percent for the Planet, which supports those causes with corporate donations. However, there’s no sign of this. 

Here’s How Sustainable icebreaker Says They Are

Having all-natural synthetic-free products is a big deal when it comes to sustainability since natural fibers make less of an impact on the environment. So, icebreaker’s goal to eliminate plastics from their apparel is a big step toward sustainability, and they let us know it.

What Is the Sustainability Strategy of icebreaker

In 2019, icebreaker set a target to be 100% plastic-free, and they’re still promoting this as their top sustainability goal. And it appears they’re going plastic-free throughout their business. 

  • This PR News Release highlights their efforts and progress toward being plastic-free.
  • This Treehugger article says they’re serious about removing plastics entirely, even from store operations; they use display mannequins made of recycled materials. 

It’s a huge step for them to accomplish their plastic-free goal, and after five years they’ve nearly made it. Now, we’re looking to see what icebreaker is going to do next to be more sustainable.

What Sustainability Marketing Messages Does icebreaker Share

icebreaker’s marketing mostly plays up their use of natural materials and what kind of actions they’re taking to be more sustainable.

Their homepage says that now that their plastic-free journey is almost over, they’re switching their focus to regenerative practices, and they’re also letting their site visitors vote on which project they work on next. This is unique for any business, but then, icebreaker has always been a little different.

So, they give sustainable features in their product listings, but they don’t push their products as sustainable on their homepage. This is good because they have a ways to go, but everything they say leads us to believe they’re taking the steps.

Greenwashing: behavior or activities that make people believe that a company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is”

Cambridge Dictionary

If they said their manufacturing was sustainable, beyond pointing to a few specific suppliers, we’d probably call them out on it. But icebreaker doesn’t promote their brand as sustainable, only that they’re working on becoming that. So, they’re not saying anything that necessarily comes across as greenwashing.

How Does icebreaker Compare to Their Competitors

There are very few apparel companies that can say they wrap you in all-natural fibers—but icebreaker is one of them. Since natural materials are more recyclable and renewable, this puts icebreaker leaps ahead of other brands in terms of sustainability. Their apparel lasts longer and they can easily be considered among the leading apparel companies when it comes to their eco-friendliness.

How Can You Buy More Sustainable Sports Products

Watch out for the companies that use marketing buzzwords to sound good but don’t stand behind those claims. You’ll want to verify what a company says about its sustainable practices. 

Here are some organizations that certify and rate companies on sustainability. They provide a way to search by brand name:

With these resources and a few minutes of your time, you can find out if a brand is as sustainable as they say.

Final Thoughts

While it’s hard to make apparel from 100% natural materials in a synthetic-heavy world, icebreaker is doing it. But they have more work to do before we can call them sustainable. 

  • They’re transparent with supplier details, though not so much about their manufacturing; they need third-party audits to prove they’re eco-friendly or, at least show that they’re working toward this.
  • They showcase suppliers getting third-party certifications and acting sustainably, but there have only been a few of these thus far. 
  • Their parent company, VFC, says their suppliers use the Higg FEM to monitor and improve sustainability. However, that is a self-imposed and self-reported tool. 

So, we won’t know for sure how icebreaker’s doing until they or VFC gets certified as sustainable from an outside organization. Even so, with their efforts to always do better, it’s easy to say icebreaker is working on being planet-friendly.

Stay impactful,

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