CAN MERINO WOOL REPLACE SYNTHETICS?

Synthetic materials dominate technical performance apparel. It’s usually some variation of fast-wicking polyester that quickly dries sweaty athletes but leaves much to be desired when it comes to comfort and body odor control. While the commercial green revolution has ushered in a new age of ubiquitous recycled materials, Jeremy Moon believes consumers want to go a step beyond petroleum-based products altogether and embrace a natural, sustainable alternative. Moon is the founder and CEO of Icebreaker—the New Zealand company that makes apparel almost exclusively from merino wool.

Moon stumbled upon merino while doing research as a cultural anthropologist in his home country’s Southern Alps. A farmer gave him a t-shirt made from the wool of high-country merino sheep, which has a super-fine texture that prevents the annoying itch of regular wool. In addition to the soft, lightweight feel, Moon was blown away by the shirt’s unexpected technical properties. As an avid runner, he quickly  realized that merino had the insulating capabilities of regular wool but it was also breathable and didn’t hold the stench of sweat after many miles on his feet. He was also intrigued by the completely sustainable fiber.

“I looked into the industry, and realized the only other options out there were synthetic,” Moon said at a press briefing at this summer’s Outdoor Retailer trade show. “I found a natural product with very technical characteristics.”

As a result, Moon started Icebreaker 15 years ago and gradually brought his high-end baselayers to markets around the world—including a move into the U.S. five years ago. While Moon purchases 20 percent of all New Zealand merino from 140 family farmers, he recently left his native country and set up operations in Portland, Oregon—the Silicon Valley of the outdoor gear world—where he’s poached employees from bigger neighbors at Nike and Adidas.

With his expansion, Moon is betting more people are ready to make the switch to natural tech wear. This spring he’s moving well beyond underwear and launching specialized merino lines for running, cycling, and mountain biking—and he’s not alone. SmartWool, Ibex, and others are starting to incorporate more merino in technical apparel. It seems like a no-brainer—a sustainable product that’s soft, stink-free, and ready for mountain time. But there’s a catch—the cost. Producing merino isn’t cheap, and that’s certainly reflected in the price tag. When Moon entered the market, he had to price Icebreaker baselayers 50 percent higher than Patagonia’s ever-popular Capilene, but he believes consumers are ready to spend a little more on a high-quality, earth-conscious product.