New Industry Ethos? Icebreaker Goes Fully ‘Transparent’

New Zealand merino company Icebreaker reveals almost everything about its corporate inner workings with a new kind of report, open to the public.

Pure New Zealand merino wool
Origin of Icebreaker: Pure New Zealand merino wool

Merino sheep and their fine wool may seem odd as a platform for a polemic against our strange time. It’s 2018, and the world feels polarized, hyperstimulated, and on edge.

We parse “like” buttons and fake news. Screens and life merge, and you slowly forget where the lines form. Your eyes can cross in the maelstrom, but maybe a vision of sheep herders can help you breathe?

As people seek clarity and truth, corporations are rising to meet that need more than ever. And Icebreaker embraces the mood this year.

At the least, the brand thinks, you should know which factory your T-shirt is coming from. That’s where Icebreaker’s Transparency Report comes into play.

Icebreaker Transparency Report

Icebreaker turns 22 years old this year. An unlikely bootstrapped success of entrepreneur and “sheep-vangelist” Jeremy Moon, the New Zealand brand helped bring merino wool into the mass market.

Now owned by VF Corporation, Icebreaker enters adolescence via acquisition by the same company that owns Vans and The North Face.

But it keeps a strong independent streak. In the works since before the acquisition, Icebreaker’s inaugural Transparency Report gives a look behind the curtain. I haven’t seen anything quite like it.

The company offers it online as a PDF or in booklet form, each housing a 118-page tome of proclamations, charts, tables, text, and pretty pictures of sheep. The company calls it a report “on people, nature, and what it means to be a true sustainable business.”

Usually, corporate documents are not interesting or newsworthy. They are also not intended for public consumption. The Transparency Report, however, gives a glimpse into possibly new industry ethos.

Icebreaker Acquired, to be Sister Brand of The North Face
Icebreaker Acquired, to be Sister Brand of The North Face
The New Zealand brand rose to prominence over two decades designing base layers and merino shirts. Read more…

A Peek Inside the Industry

As the name hints, the catalyst of this project was transparency. This means openness with customers, Icebreaker employees, and its significant supply chain, from sheep herders to Chinese fabric-makers and retail employees selling the brand’s wares around the world.

In all, Icebreaker works with 40 suppliers in 59 factories. Though it employs 418 people directly, more than 50,000 workers in 15 countries are a part of the process, Icebreaker says. That’s a lot of moving parts – a glimpse at the complexity of a modern apparel brand.

Icebreaker Transparency: What We See

Icebreaker really spills its proverbial beans in the report. Wonder where the sheep live? Or where the wool is spun into yarn? The report spells it out in detail, photos included.

For example, look at page 56. There, the report shows the seven stages of its supply chain. This includes procurement of wool fibers from the sheep in New Zealand; processing and yarn spinning in China, Italy, and Bulgaria; fabric production; garment assembly; distribution; and, finally, e-commerce structures and product in retail stores.

It goes deeper on page 58 with a complicated “supplier matrix” chart. Page 60 has a global map revealing the location of its partners across the continents.

The Transparency Report is filled with this kind of insider detail and minutia that, while of interest to the industry, is not likely engaging to the masses. More than 10 pages have charts that give the name, location, and employee data on suppliers. I geeked out on it, but there is admittedly very little mass appeal to much of the content Icebreaker offers.

Outdoors Industry Ethos

However, there are tidbits you want to see. What about a plastic garment bag that biodegrades? Icebreaker is working on rolling it out this year (see page 50).

Then keep reading because the company soon hopes to launch a water-soluble bag made of “carbohydrates.” An animal can consume the bag, Icebreaker notes, with no negative impact.

Family sheep herders in New Zealand
Family sheep herders in New Zealand

A section on human rights begins on page 68. The details on the sheep ranchers are heartwarming. Icebreaker has extensive programs and has pledged to support New Zealand herders.

If nothing else, scan the Transparency Report for a gauge on the brand and the industry as a whole. While consumers have come to expect ethical and responsible actions from the brands they love, this report may be a bellwether of a very transparent future.

Icebreaker is a unique and admirable company – both global and local, high fashion and high function. I have worn the company’s products for years and now admire Icebreaker for striving to stay transparent in a time when much else seems obscured.

–See the Icebreaker Transparency Report here.

Stephen Regenold

Stephen Regenold is Founder of GearJunkie, which he launched as a nationally-syndicated newspaper column in 2002. As a journalist and writer, Regenold has covered the outdoors industry for two decades, including as a correspondent for the New York Times. A father of five, Regenold and his wife live in Minneapolis.