Adventurer Julian Lings reveals his favourite trips and champions natural clothing brand Icebreaker

New Zealand-based clothing brand Icebreaker puts nature at the heart of everything it does. Julian, senior sustainability manager of its parent company VF Corp, talks adventure, reducing environmental impact, and Icebreaker's latest Transparency Report.

By Icebreaker
Published 26 Nov 2020, 14:18 GMT
The Lake Wakatipu area is home to one of six Icebreaker farms located in New Zealand.

The Lake Wakatipu area is home to one of six Icebreaker farms located in New Zealand. 

Photograph by Icebreaker

When did you realise you had a passion for the outdoors?

As a child, I holidayed in Snowdonia, hiking, exploring and playing in lakes. But it was when I was 16 and started trail running that I really fell in love with the outdoors. I lived in Sheffield, on the edge of the Peak District, and I loved how trail running helps you reach remote places quickly.

What’s your favourite outdoor activity?

It’s a tricky one — it’s a toss-up between cycling and running. Trail running is so simple. You just need your shoes and you’re off. It gives you that real sense of being alone with nature. During lockdown, I could run 10km and not see another person here in Switzerland. As for cycling, you obviously cover much longer distances. In the Alps — my favourite adventure playground — I can go for 200-300km in a day.

Where’s the most impressive place you’ve ever visited?

Around 10 years ago, I headed to northern Finland for the Rajalta Rajalle. It’s a cross-country ski race below the Arctic Circle, from the Russian border all the way to the edge of Sweden, taking you through a frozen wonderland where you don’t see anyone. You ski alone across giant frozen lakes. I felt so small in nature — and I had that feeling for seven days.

What do you see as the biggest challenge facing the planet right now?

Firstly, we need to deal with the immediate and deep impacts of the global pandemic. We also need to plan for the type of world we want to have post-coronavirus. The way we address climate change will be a critically important component to this. The 2016 Paris Agreement clearly laid out the challenge ahead of us: to hold the increase in global temperature to well below 2C while pursuing effort to limit the increase to 1.5C, or face grave consequences for our planet and its population. Icebreaker will be playing its role by inspiring the world to move towards nature. Broadly speaking, many consumers are disconnected from how the products they buy are made, and there’s a huge need to make more sustainable choices. 

Where’s on your adventure wish list?

This year, my girlfriend and I completed a cycling tour from Geneva to Nice, through the southern Alps, up steep climbs and mountain passes all the way to the Côte d'Azur. Now I want to cycle east to west across the Pyrenees. I’d also love to cycle Ireland’s Wild Atlantic Way. And there’s also the entire loop of the Alps, from Nice to Trieste.

Who are your outdoor sports heroes?

Chrissie Wellington OBE, the professional triathlete and Ironman challenger. Her entire journey is inspiring and she’s now using her platform to encourage others through park runs and other initiatives. There’s also the Sheffield link with Jessica Ennis-Hill. I’ve huge respect for her. She’s incredibly modest. Pau Capell is another endurance athlete I admire. He’s one of the world’s greatest ultra-runners and a trail runner for The North Face. He has this unbelievable mental fortitude.

What are you most proud of?

We've really advanced our work on sustainability in the last five years with Icebreaker and the group of brands it comes under. We've set science-based targets to drive certain environmental changes based on the Paris Agreement. And we’re one of the first in the industry to do that. I’m really proud of the level of ambition we’re focusing on, and we need to keep that momentum up if we’re to change and lead our industry.

What’s your biggest takeaway from Icebreaker’s latest Transparency Report?

We believe people should know exactly what they’re putting next to their skin, how it was made and the impacts their choices have. In the latest Transparency Report, we focus on Icebreaker's people, provenance, products and the continued progress of moving towards nature-based solutions. We reflect on the work we've done and look to the challenges that lie ahead. From being the first company in the world to establish 10-year contracts with merino growers to being the first company in the outdoor industry to ban the mulesing of sheep, the brand has been at the forefront of driving sustainable progress for 25 years. Drawing on our belief that nature provides the answers, Icebreaker has developed clothing based on natural fibres as an alternative to synthetic apparel. In the report, we announce our goal to have plastic-free materials by 2023. Today, 87% of current total fibre composition is natural fibres. Right now, we're focused on materials — for example, replacing nylon and elastane with new, natural fibre alternatives. In the spring/summer of 2020, we ceased using acrylic in our lines.

How important is sustainability and reducing environmental impact for a brand like Icebreaker?

It’s vital. Sustainability is what the brand is all about. Icebreaker started with a clear purpose — to provide a natural alternative to synthetics and to disrupt the textile industry. And that’s still going strong. We believe that nature can provide the answer — the fibres used to make our clothing don’t generate the same environmental challenges as synthetics, yet they’re really comfortable and versatile.

Julian on the Monte Tamaro hike, in Ticino, southern Switzerland. 

Photograph by Julian Lings

Three eco goals for Icebreaker

1. To be plastic-free by 2023
It’s thought the microplastics found in synthetic materials make up around 35% of the total amount released into the world’s oceans — and that’s a stat Icebreaker is intent on quashing with its visionary pledge to become plastic-free by 2023.  In its efforts for real change, it’s removing all synthetic yarns from its materials and is in conversations with its collaborators to find out how it can create and pioneer natural fibre alternatives to every level of synthetic materials — even nylon and elastane.

2. To champion Merino wool
Icebreaker’s trademark raw fibre, which is fine, soft and versatile, will naturally biodegrade if left buried. But it’s also the farming principles underpinning Merino that Icebreaker is interested in, working long-term with regenerative farmers whose ethos focuses on their land, their livestock and the ecosystem as a whole, and exploring other potential best practices as a force for good.

3. To continue reducing its environmental impact
Keeping itself ahead of the green curve, Icebreaker is looking to implement a carbon-reduction programme by 2023 with a view to slashing greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 50% by 2030. The lion’s share of its carbon emissions is the result of methane and nitrous oxide emissions released during Merino farming, and it’s for this reason that Icebreaker champions regenerative farming, a process that effectively reverses climate change.  

For further information, read Icebreaker’s Transparency Report

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