Icebreaker: Layers of Sustainability

November 18, 2015

by Drew Zieff
Icebreaker: Layers of Sustainability

Icebreaker sources high-quality merino wool from New Zealand’s Southern Alps, spinning active layers well-suited for adventures in those very same rugged mountains. Not only do Icebreaker’s BodyfitZONE base layers and MerinoLOFT insulated midlayers have a sustainable storyline behind them, but they’re also some of the best we’ve ever tested.

Why Icebreaker Merino? 

The wooliest of alpine creatures, merino sheep are evidence that, try as we might, humans can’t always beat Mother Nature at her own game. First of all, merino wool adapts to changing temperatures and fights odor much better than its synthetic imitators—which also happen to be significantly more flammable. Plus, the fleecy merino is lighter, more comfortable and dries more quickly than your run-of-the-mill wool.

This isn’t speculation; it’s science. And while the Active Junky team hasn’t spent much time in a lab, we’ve put in enough cold days of testing Icebreaker layers to attest to these claims. [Editor’s note: Except with regards to flammability—we’ve yet to set our base layers on fire, though we’ll keep you posted if anything changes.]

Reed Snyderman speeds down this stark and sketchy Chilean couloir, with the Zone One Sheep Suit underneath his North Face jacket and pants.
Treated with a water-resistant coating, the Helix’s outer layer sheds pow shots with ease. Lio sends his first pillow of the season.
Lydia Tanner paddles across the clear waters of Chile’s Lago Llanquihue in a women’s BodyfitZONE long sleeve.
Radioing in to his guide, Eric Yochim rocks the Helix jacket along the shores of a glacier-fed lake in Patagonia.
“Warning Backcountry Skiers.” Lio DelPiccolo skins through fresh powder after an early season dump on Berthoud Pass.
Sustainable packaging houses a new pair of Zone Leggings before a gear tester threw them on in the Berthoud Pass parking lot.
When you hold BodyfitZONE base layers up to the light, you can see the difference between the warm 200gm heat retention zones and the perforated 120gm ventilation zones.
Whether bootpacking or skinning, a sweaty ski day can be ruined by a subpar layering system. Merino wool stays warm and wicks well for those long days of shredding.
These base layers aren’t just for winter. Far from it. Cooler temps in Patagonia allowed testers to push the Zone One Sheep Suit on treks through canyons.
Stopping halfway up the ridgeline, Drew Zieff scopes a line in Valle Nevado, Chile.
It all comes down to the fibers—and the sustainable story behind them.
The first early season backcountry mission of the year calls for rock skis and a layering system that can handle the perspiration.

A Sustainable Supply Chain

Put it under the microscope, and Icebreaker’s fabric of choice beats out synthetics and conventional wool. Look at the entire brand through an environmental lens, however, and you start to see that it’s about more than just the wool: it’s about where the wool comes from. 

Every Icebreaker garment begins its journey high in the mountains of New Zealand with a mob of merino sheep. By signing long-term contracts with small-scale farmers in the region, Icebreaker is able to promise financial security to the farmers while enforcing a strict welfare code that protects the sheep and the surrounding ecosystems. This welfare code ensures that sheep are:

  • free from thirst, hunger and distress
  • provided with comfort and shelter
  • protected from harm via preventive measures and/or quick treatment
  • able to display normal patterns of behavior 

Even the sheep dogs are treated with high regard—after all, they are some of the hardest working and most valuable employees on a free-range sheep farm. And just how big is an Icebreaker sheep farm, you ask? A far cry from industrial, the average sheep station has 15,000 sheep roaming across a 40,000-acre expanse. That means every sheep has a couple acres to itself, and they actually can “display normal patterns of behavior” as they would in the wild. It also means that overgrazing doesn’t decimate the delicate ecosystems of New Zealand’s picturesque Southern Alps. Phew.

The care shown for animals and farmers continues to flow through the Icebreaker supply chain. Factory standards are high and company goals are transparent: workers are paid and treated well; child labor is prohibited; manufacturers are required to minimize environmental impact and recycle whenever possible. 

These ethical business practices do more than good for the supply chain: they also guarantee a high-quality product for the consumer. 

From Sheep to Steeps: Icebreaker in Action

The brutal truth of the outdoor industry? It doesn’t matter how sustainable your story—if your product is subpar, gearheads will write it off as impractical. 

Quality is essential. That, however, is one area that Icebreaker doesn’t need to worry about. 

Countless outdoor enthusiasts – from skiers to cyclists – swear by Icebreaker's excellence. In addition to the magical properties of merino wool, they cite longevity, thoughtful design and overall functionality as reason enough for four seasons of loyalty to the brand.

Over the past six months, Active Junky gear testers have had Icebreaker’s new base layers and midlayers on the chopping block. Testing scenarios included: climbing couloirs in the Valle Nevado backcountry at 14K feet, trekking across Patagonia’s iconic alpine terrain, mountain biking snow-streaked peaks and skiing frigid early season conditions in Colorado’s ruthless high country. 

BodyfitZONE Baselayers

In the new BodyfitZONE line, Icebreaker optimizes the temperature regulating properties of merino wool. The base layers mainly consist of a 200gm blend  (96% merino, 4% lycra) that adds warmth, while panels of a 120gm blend (85% merino, 14% nylon, 1% lycra) dump excess heat and moisture. The lighter 120gm fabric is reminiscent of mesh: when you hold a panel up to the sun, you can see rays penetrate a perforated pattern that augments ventilation.

Icebreaker Zone Long Sleeve Crewe

Icebreaker Bodyfit 200 Zone Crew - Long-Sleeve - Men's After international ski trips and perspiration-heavy backcountry missions, rainy mountain bike rides and frigid fall backpacking trips, the Zone Long Sleeve Crewe earned high praise from multiple Active Junky testers for its light weight, quick drying times and integrated ventilation system.

Best For: All-season versatility, multi-sport trips, skiing and snowboarding

Icebreaker Zone Leggings

Icebreaker BodyFit 200 Zone Leggings Tested in a myriad of conditions, these merino leggings are both warm and breathable thanks to Icebreaker’s BodyfitZONE construction. A solid choice for outdoor lovers who won’t hold back when a cold front hits.

Best For: Skiing and snowboarding, backcountry travel, multi-sport and/or multi-day trips

Zone One Sheep Suit

Icebreaker BodyFit 200 Zone One Sheep Suit Everybody loves onesies—and Active Junky’s gear testing team is no exception. A supremely comfortable baselayer, the Zone One Sheep Suit has a shocking amount of features including: a versatile ventilation system, dual-zipper back flap, inconspicuous hood, chest zipper, thumb holes and a front fly. On cold pow days and multi-day backcountry hut trips, our testers say this piece can’t be beat.

Best For: Any snowsport or cold-weather activity

Helix MerinoLOFT Midlayer

Icebreaker Helix Down Jacket Starting at: $130.83 Skeptical about an insulator that replaces down with merino? We were too, but we aren’t anymore. After months of rocking the Helix all over Colorado and Chile, we’ve been won over by the dynamic and sleek design, breathable side panels, light weight and surprising amount of insulation and warmth. 

Best For: A midlayer in changing conditions, a 4-season breathable insulator


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