Icebreaker: Profitable sustainability?Posted: September 8, 2010
The current issue of the Ecotextile magazine (p. 30-32) reports about Icebreaker’s self-made strategy of “profitable sustainability”. The company (£ 65 Mio sales) argues that their focus on sustainability explains, why they have grown quickly without using advertising and instead focusing on word of mouth. If you are also interested in Icebreaker’s strategy to expand to the US and China market you can read two case studies in the HBR.
Icebreaker’s sustainability strategy fully builds on the idea that consumers trust the brand and connect it to sustainability. Surely it is good, if a company tries to embrace a philosophy of sustainability, but there remain some questions:
- Transparency: The ‘baacode‘ is the company’s web-based tool that tells the story behind the products: “to give consumers a clear understanding of Icebreaker, and of our deep commitment to the environment and to social ethics” (p.31). So far, more than 115.000 customers used this tool. It allows to type in a code from a product and read information and watch videos about how this product was produced. Great! But it would be even better, if Icebreaker disclosed the locations of their factory – as other companies (e.g. Timberland, Nike) already do. This would enable stakeholders to independently check the claims Icebreaker makes.
- Social standards: A quick look into the “Ethical Manufacturing Standards” indicates that explicit references to ILO norms are missing. Why is Icebreaker not obliging to pay living wages. And why is the company not member of a multi-stakehodler initiative that would verify their claims?
- Environmental standards: According to Ecotextile, Icebreaker does not use 3rd party eco-textile or organic certification: “Our mindset is called ‘Eco System’ which takes a holistic view of the entire company – not just manufacturing – and helps us balance ecology and economy” (p. 32). Why cannot they balance ecology and economy by using 3rd party certification systems (apart from ISO 14001)? This might provide more trust in their promises and it could make it easier for customers to compare their approach to that of other companies. The article gives one explanation, why their wool is not organic: “because the growers choose to use an anti-parasite treatment annually to improve animal welfare. Claiming that a fibre is organic covers only the use of chemicals, and doesn’t say anything about the other environmental and social issues involved in the garment’s production”. This might, indeed, then be a problem of organic standards for wool.
I have asked Icebreaker to comment on these issues.