Those who know me well, know that I have my many quirks. I love folding origami. My closet is sorted in a ROYGBIV sequence. I’m a huge Battlestar Galactica fan. I wash my hair with baking soda and vinegar. But not many know of my most recently developed quirk – one that is ridiculous for even an island girl like me: I wear wool underwear. Regularly. Even in the tropics.
Even more surprising is how I was introduced to wool underwear: I was convinced to try Icebreaker’s Merino Wool underwear by my no-frills husband after he had read about them while researching his backpacking trip to Asia last summer. Previously, Mike was loyal to a particular style of average priced cotton boxer briefs that he had been buying for years. Not being one to wander far from his usual standards of comfort to something so peculiar, this became the one thing I had on him – his one quirk that I could make fun of: his fifty dollar wool underwear. That is, until I tried them myself.
It wasn’t until six months later, while shopping for some last minute items for a backpacking trip to the Mayan Riviera and Belize, that I decided to try a few pair myself. A local travel store had a half-price clearance on women’s Icebreaker underwear – coincidentally satisfying my quirk for thriftiness – so I picked up a few pairs. Still, at $18 each, I had lofty expectations for the most expensive under pants I had ever bought.
I first wore them the day we left for our trip. Flying from Edmonton to Cancun in the winter is always tricky when having to decide between dressing for the freezing cold cab ride to the airport in minus degree weather or the humid heat upon landing in the tropics. Serendipitously, merino is perfect for these two extremes as the Southern Alps of New Zealand, where the sheep are raised, exhibits temperatures from -20 C (-4 F) to +35 C (+95 F) (Icebreaker, 2012a). I was confident in my new merino wool underwear to keep my bottom warm on this side of the flight. I had to admit that the fabric completely opposed all my preconceptions of wool. The fabric is incredibly lightweight and soft, not heavy and coarse like traditional wool. After spending half the day sitting on a leather Westjet seat and the remainder of it in the Mexican humidity, I was amazed that the fabric was still comfortable, not clammy as I would have expected. Walking around in the heat with my twelve pound backpack on, I have to admit that they often felt non-existent under my sundress. In fact, I actually forgot they were there. By the end of the day I was silently thanking the New Zealand gods of the Southern Alps.
By the end of the trip I was falling fast for my new merino wool underwear. As with all love affairs, it was important to find out as much as I could about my new found crush. How heartbroken was I when I read that my socks made with rayon from bamboo was more chemical than natural fibre. My heart could not take another blow. I braced myself in expectation of finding reports of animal horror, environmental ravishment, and slave labour camps.
My first source of research was the website, www.icebreaker.com. The Icebreaker website does an incredible job of informing consumers of the performance benefits of wearing merino wool: a renewable, recyclable and biodegradable fibre that’s breathable in heat and insulating in the cold, soft and non-itchy, odour resistant, firesafe, sun safe, anti-static, and machine washable. All this, save the sustainability and firesafe testing, I had experienced during my trip. The Icebreaker website makes additional claims beyond garment performance that deserves investigation and discussing:
Since 1997, Icebreaker has been purchasing all its merino wool directly from sheep growers in the Southern Alps of New Zealand’s South Island (Andrade, 2010). While the prices in their long-term contracts are often higher than commodity prices in the industry’s tradition of auction sales (Icebreaker, 2012c), the contracts provide growers and their communities with long-term financial security (Cronshaw, 2009). In exchange, growers comply with Icebreaker’s strict standards for environmental protection, animal welfare, and wool quality.
Continually working with a small number of growers has enabled Icebreaker to develop its traceability programme, aptly named Baacode (Icebreaker, 2012d), setting a precedence for materials handling. Each garment the company produces has a unique code on the product label allowing the consumer to trace the material sources of their garment back to the actual sheep growers and read about their practices.
The standards that growers abide by reflect Icebreaker’s own corporate values. Growers practice “low intensity farming,” characterized by up to less than one sheep per acre, allowing land to regenerate itself (Icebreaker, 2012e). Each of their 120 stations are home to an average of 15,000 animals on 40,000 acres allowing sheep to live free range (Icebreaker, 2012f).
Icebreaker holds its growers New Zealand’s Animal Welfare Act 1999 (New Zealand Legislation, 1999), ensuring sheep are raised with food, water, shelter, health care and treatment, unnecessary pain or distress, opportunity for normal behaviours. Icebreaker extends their standards to growers’ care of sheepdogs (Icebreaker, 2012f).
Animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) abors the wool industry’s treatment of sheep in its controversial mulesing practice of removing skin from around sheep’s tails to prevent flies from laying eggs and causing infection (PETA, 2012). Icebreaker requires that their growers do not mules their sheep (Icebreaker, 2012f) even though the industry has not seen a price increase for non-mulesed wool (Gocher, 2012) causing some non-Icebreaker growers to return to the practice (Morgan, 2008).
As an animal fibre, merino is a renewable animal resource rather than a product of the oil industry like competing polyester fabrics. Recent trials show that Icebreaker’s merino products are biodegradable within nine months compared to polyester knits that do not degrade at all in the same period (The New Zealand Merino Company Ltd., 2012).
Icebreaker’s sustainability efforts extend beyond material sourcing and into their outsourced manufacturing practices. New Zealand manufacturers were limited in the technology needed to produce lighter micron fibre contained in much of Icebreaker’s clothing, so they began using Asian manufacturers in 2005 (Andrade, 2010) – much to the criticism of some New Zealand patriots. In a harsh criticism of Icebreaker’s Chinese factories, Barbara Sumner Burstyn writes, “when you manufacture in China you are outsourcing and off-shoring pollution and therefore the true cost of production” (2006a). Jeremy Moon, founder and CEO of Icebreaker, responded to Bustyn’s column defending the company’s choice to move to Shanghai’s textile technology hub, and stating that the factories, “have nil pollution output as they are all based on electricity, and are extremely energy efficient….Almost everything is recycled and reused where possible” (Burstyn, 2006b). Davey Hughes, the owner of another New Zealand brand named Swazi Apparel, is devoted to continuing his company’s own manufacturing in New Zealand, but believes that Moon has made the right choice by moving Icebreaker’s manufacturing to China where better technology exists (King, 2006). He understands that, “to be in the global market…we don’t have the manufacturing base left in New Zealand” (as cited in King, 2006).
Icebreaker’s merino wool is processed through three different plants, all of which have sustainability practices unique to their plant processes. Each plant purifies its used water to remove any chemicals prior to returning it back to the environment (Icebreaker, 2012g). The French wool cleaning plant extracts the by-product lanolin from cleaning water for selling to the cosmetics industry (Andrade, 2010). The German wool spinning plant reuses heat through its air conditioning exchange systems (Andrade, 2010). The Japanese textile and garment manufacturing plant uses environmentally friendly dyes and processes fabric in large volume batches to reduce energy consumption (Icebreaker, 2012h). All three are part of or are working towards a global standards for quality assurance and environmental assurance (Andrade, 2010).
While Icebreaker receives low ratings for environmental and social efforts on rankabrand.org, and is non-existent on other brand monitoring sights, reports of questionable practices are virtually non-existent. In fact, their Baacode is known for being on the forefront of manufacturing transparency – so much so that Icebreaker is one of five companies chosen to test the next phase of the Eco Index, an environmental impact assessment tool that helps companies measure their environmental footprint and identify areas of improvement (Mango Communications, 2011).
Ethical practice also applies to the factory employees. Manufacturers are required to respect staff and provide caring community environments; provide natural light, clean air and a healthy work environment; provide up to three meals per day, and accommodation when necessary; and only employ workers aged at least 17 years old (Icebreaker, 2012g). Employees are usually paid a premium above minimum wages for the region with additional opportunities for training and production (Icebreaker, 2012g) – a rare employment practice in China.
Known for scandals of child labour, employee abuse, and toxin-contaminated products, China’s manufacturing industry has a history of practicing low ethics in the name of providing cheap goods. While many like Burstyn refuse to support companies that use overseas manufacturers, they forget that manufacturing histories of North America and many other developed nations produced many of the same side-effects of industrialization in their time. Developed nations must also take responsibility for their own consumer demands for cheap products that instigated the “Made in China” market. It is unfair and unethical to simply close off sourcing from China when the opportunity to cause positive change – and make right the effects of consumerism – is made possible by continuing trade while demanding environmental and social change. With proper global support and pressure, China’s standards for employee rights, children’s welfare, and quality assurance can be raised to fair standards at a quicker rate than what it took other countries. This can be done by supporting companies that continue to use Chinese manufacturers but hold them to strict ethical practices, while voicing concerns for other companies to make ethical changes in the manufacturers they choose. As Moon says it, “By Icebreaker only supporting the ‘new’ China we are encouraging a positive change within a country that needs it” (Burstyn, 2006b).
Icebreaker has spent its fifteen years of business not only building its brand, but also ensuring that it maintains its relationships with merino growers, manufacturers, employees, and the environment. As it has global demand has grown requiring Icebreaker to extend its resources overseas, it has carried its ethical practices to wherever it reaches. While Icebreaker has just announced the largest merino wool contract in New Zealand totalling $66 million over two years, it also states that its plans to double its global business in the next three years will push them beyond the supply of the New Zealand growers, requiring them to source offshore merino (Icebreaker, 2012c). Global expansion not only extends the company’s operations, but also its values of balancing social and ecological impacts with sustainable profit. Now that’s a product I would bet my (under)pants on.
Andrade, A. D. (2010). Nothing to Hide: Managing Intellectual Assets Throughout the Supply Chain. APEC Secretariat.
Burstyn, B. S. (2006a, August 29). Buy Kiwi-made. Scoop Independent News.
Burstyn, B. S. (2006b, September 1). Jeremy Moon defends Icebreaker’s move to China. Scoop Independent News.
Cronshaw, T. (2009, April 9). Natural wool for a new world. The Press.
Gocher, K. (2012, March 14). Still little wool price premium for not mule sing. ABC Rural.
Icebreaker. (2012a). What is Icebreaker merino?
Icebreaker. (2012b). How does Icebreaker perform?
Icebreaker. (2012c, February 15). Icebreaker offers New Zealand’s largest-ever apparel merino wool contract: New Zealand-based merino adventure apparel company offers record contract to growers [Media Release].
Icebreaker. (2012d). Trace your baacode.
Icebreaker. (2012e). How do we treat the land?
Icebreaker. (2012f). How do we treat animals?
Icebreaker. (2012g). What is our supply chain?
Icebreaker. (2012h). Our supply chain [Web video].
The New Zealand Merino Company Ltd. (2012, March 2). Merino’s disappearing act [Press release].
King, D. (2006, June 3). Not made in China; NZ firms sell goods not made in China. The Press.
Mango Communications. (2011, October 19). Icebreaker tapped to test and refine product design tool. Scoop Independent News.
Morgan, E. (2008, October 10). Kiwi’s returning to mule sing. ABC Rural.
New Zealand Legislation. (1999). Animal Welfare Act 1999. (1999 No 142, p. 2046-2047).
PETA. (2012). Environmental Hazards of Wool.