Last year, Auckland-based outdoor brand Icebreaker sponsored French ultra swimmer Ben Lecomte to swim across the Pacific from Hawaii to San Francisco through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He swam 350 nautical miles over the summer. The goal was simple: swim and collect plastic samples.
Working with a support crew of scientists, he was able to shed further light on a growing problem: plastics everywhere in our system. Through the entire stretch of his swim from Hawaii to the California Coast, he and the crew collected over 45,000 microplastics. From small shards of plastics to toilet seats to hidden microplastics, they unearthed the severity of plastic pollution in our oceans.
This is why Icebreaker, the New Zealand brand founded in 1995, and famous for their wool-based collections, is making a commitment to go completely plastic-free by 2023. For an outdoor brand that prizes performance as well as sustainability in their clothing, opting out of synthetic fibers completely for eco-friendly, biodegradable options could be challenging. Can they do it?
I spoke with Alistair Smith, Director of Global Product Design at Icebreaker, to learn about the process of stripping back the synthetics from their collection, and the roadblocks they’re facing in this mission to be plastic-free.
Chhabra: Why 2023?
Smith: We decided to set Plastic -free materials by 2023 as a goal for ourselves around the beginning of this year (2020). As you can imagine, the wider apparel industry is a huge, sometimes slow-moving machine. We knew that a goal this audacious couldn’t be achieved overnight. As we planned the project we realized it wasn’t just a case of swapping out materials for existing alternatives.
For some common fibers, like elastane (which provides stretch), there simply isn’t a 100% natural fiber alternative that exists that can provide the same performance ‘off-the-shelf’. So, knowing we’d be building some solutions from the ground up, we set 2023 as an optimistic target. We’re working from chemistry, to yarn, to fabric, to product, which takes time to do properly, but is the right approach.
Chhabra: How far along is the company now on this journey?
Smith: We’re making good progress, but there are still interesting challenges to solve. We’re starting from a very good place. Our product range is already 87% natural fibers from a material standpoint.
We’ve taken some bold, difficult decisions to get us closer to our goal. For instance, we removed 59 ‘synthetic heavy’ styles from our range which would have a retail value of US$7.9m.
A big, bold choice, but we knew those products did not fit with our brand purpose and our plastic free materials by 2023 goal. We’re currently working on our 2022 products and making great progress in getting closer to 100% natural fibers.
Chhabra: What’s been hardest part of this journey?
Smith: It’s been product and material innovation. In the case of maintaining stretch and recovery, finding 100% natural fiber solutions to elastane has been an interesting journey. It just doesn’t exist at the moment. It’s a developing area in yarn innovation.
There are new bio-based synthetic solutions where part of the chemical component of elastane can be produced from a renewable natural source, instead of from oil. But they’re the mid-term, ‘better not perfect’ solutions because they’re perhaps 40% or 60% natural. They’re definitely better than the current fully oil-based synthetic yarn, but our goal remains 100% natural fibers. Staying true to this vision helps us push beyond our comfort zone in material innovation with our partners.
In the end, the customer just needs the product to work, so we’re very conscious of maintaining or improving performance and functionality as we remove the oil-based synthetics. We look at it on a case-by-case basis ensuring that we do what’s right for the product and customer.
Chhabra: How is Icebreaker finding these alternative materials?
Smith: Being a part of the VF Corporation family of brands has been a huge benefit, due to the cross-brand collaboration. We’ve been working with and challenging some of the world’s leading chemical and yarn producers. We’ve shared our ambition with them and challenged them to help us innovate in natural solutions. We’ve also been collaborating with some innovative start-up material companies who’re exploring new natural sources of yarn and materials for apparel. Lastly, bio-synthetics is a developing area which can allow us to make materials from sugar-cane and castor bean oil instead of traditional oil based synthetics. Much of these solutions are still in their infancy, but offer a bright outlook for the future.
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