Last year, an Auckland-based outdoor brand Icebreaker sponsored by ultra French swimmers Ben lecomte to swim across the Pacific from Hawaii to San Francisco via the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. He swims 350 nautical miles during the summer. The goal is simple: swim and collect plastic samples.
Working with a scientific support crew, he was able to further explain a growing problem: plastics are everywhere in our system. Through his entire swimming stretch from Hawaii to the California Coast, he and his crew collected more than 45,000 microplastics. From tiny fragments of plastic to toilet seats to hidden microplastics, they reveal the severity of plastic pollution in our oceans.
This is why Icebreaker, a New Zealand brand founded in 1995, and known for its wool-based collections, is committed to becoming completely plastic free by 2023. For outdoor brands that value performance and sustainability in their clothing, Opting out of synthetic fibers fully environmentally friendly and biodegradable options can be a challenge. Can they do it?
I spoke with Alistair Smith, Director of Global Product Design at Icebreaker, to learn about the process of removing synthetic materials from their collections, and the obstacles they face on this mission to become plastic free.
Chhabra: Why 2023?
Smith: We decided to set plastic-free materials by 2023 as our own goal around the beginning of this year (2020). As you can imagine, the wider apparel industry is a big, slow-moving machine at times. We know that this bold goal cannot be achieved overnight. As we planned projects, we realized that this was not just a case of swapping materials for alternatives.
For some common fibers, such as elastane (which provides stretch), there is no other 100% natural fiber alternative there is which can provide the same ‘off-the-shelf’ performance. So, knowing we were going to build some solutions from scratch, we set 2023 as an optimistic target. We work from chemicals, yarns, fabrics, products, which takes time to get it right, but is the right approach.
Chhabra: How far is the company now on this journey?
Smith: We’re making good progress, but there are still interesting challenges to solve. We started from a very nice place. Our product range is already 87% natural fiber from a material point of view.
We’ve taken some bold and difficult decisions to bring us closer to our goal. For example, we removed 59 ‘synthetic weight’ styles from our range which would have a retail value of US $ 7.9 million.
A big, bold choice, but we know the product doesn’t fit our brand goals and our plastic-free materials by 2023 goal. We are currently working on our 2022 product and are making major progress towards approaching 100% natural fiber.
Chhabra: What was the hardest part of this trip?
Smith: This is a product and material innovation. When it comes to maintaining stretch and recovery, finding a 100% natural fiber solution for elastane has been an exciting journey. It doesn’t exist at the moment. This is a growing area in yarn innovation.
There is a new bio-based synthetic solution where part of the chemical component of elastane can be produced from renewable natural sources, not from oil. But it is a medium term solution, ‘better not perfect’ because it may be 40% or 60% natural. They are definitely better than today’s oil-based synthetic yarns, but our goal remains 100% natural fibers. Staying true to this vision helps us go beyond our comfort zone in material innovation with our partners.
Ultimately, customers only need a product to function, so we are very conscious of maintaining or improving performance and functionality as we eliminate oil-based synthetics. We look at it on a case-by-case basis to ensure that we are doing what’s right for the product and for the customer.
Chhabra: How did the Icebreaker find this alternative material?
Smith: Being part of the VF Corporation brand family has been a huge advantage, because of the cross-brand collaboration. We have worked with and challenged some of the world’s leading chemical and yarn manufacturers. We have shared our ambitions with them and challenged them to help us innovate natural solutions. We’ve also collaborated with several innovative start-up materials companies exploring new natural sources of yarn and materials for apparel. Lastly, bio-synthetics is a growing area where we can make ingredients from sugar cane and castor oil instead of traditional oil-based synthetics. Many of these solutions are still in their infancy, but offer bright prospects for the future.