Inside Icebreaker: Walking the Sustainability talkInside Icebreaker: Walking the Sustainability talk

Posted

April 17, 2018

9 min read
Words: Lucy Brock
Photos: Ken Harris & Tom Powell

Ken Harris is both Icebreaker’s Global Supply Planner and the leader of Icebreaker’s employee and office-focused Sustainability team, “Sheepdogs.” His mission: to make more people aware of a wide world that needs our attention, and to educate others on small changes that can have a big impact. He shares his thoughts on being a more conscious, educated consumer and tips on how to embrace a greener mindset.

What motivated you to start Sheepdogs?

Before I started at Icebreaker, I thought the place, with its transparent supply chain and natural fibers, would have hemp growing from the walls and incense burning in the meeting rooms. It wasn’t quite that, but it had the most vibrant culture and inclusive energy of any company I’ve ever worked for. For some reason, however, there wasn’t enough talk about sustainability. The company eats and breathes natural performance, so I wanted to see if we could shove some eco-toilet paper into the mix. What started off as a side project, soon made its way into my KPIs, so now it’s fairly official.

What sustainable practices have been implemented at Icebreaker HQ?

We’re focusing on waste, water, natural resources and energy. We also believe employee engagement is vital and we’re looking for ways to have some community outreach. As a side benefit, if we can help with employee wellbeing, that’s a great bonus.

A Northern Arizona slot canyon
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  1. Exploring the great outdoors: A Northern Arizona slot canyon.
Organic Coffee KeepCup
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  1. Our Icebreaker coffee of choice: Kokako coffee. An organic, locally roasted and ethically sourced coffee bean company, paired with Icebreaker KeepCups.

So far we have:

  • removed personal rubbish bins, so rubbish sorting is mandatory
  • introduced Secure Printing, which has reduced printing by 30%
  • changed to a more eco-friendly brand of coffee
  • changed to a lower impact variety of toilet paper (made out of bamboo and sugar cane)
  • created documentary movie nights
  • introduced a beach clean-up day
  • turned off retail store LED screens at night
  • invited educational speakers to talk about sustainable topics
  • introduced a forum for Icebreakers to post sustainability content and facilitate gear swaps
  • changed to eco-friendly brands of cleaning products
  • introduced signage for waste baskets and light switches
  • gifted Keep Cups to global offices to reduce disposable coffee cup usage
  • started work on a Sustainability guidance document to instruct global offices in best practice.

“With that mindset, you start to look at the things in your life differently. You don’t necessarily become a hoarder, but you do value things differently and you start to be more frugal. You start to take the less convenient, but more value orientated, option.”

Sheepdogs Icebreaker Office
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  1. The designated Sheepdogs blackboard to increase office awareness.
Sheepdogs Blackboard
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  1. Listing the key Sheepdog initiatives and upcoming events.
Waitakere Ranges
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  1. With my daughter, Paige, in the Waitakere Ranges (Pre-Rahui). She was a bit shy at the time, but she told us for months afterward how beautiful that waterfall was.
Yellowstone National Park
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  1. Captured while exploring a sandstone canyon on an adventure in Southern Utah. The walk led through a narrow dry gorge for several kilometres and abruptly opened up into a massive rock-walled amphitheatre.
What daily sustainable practices do you follow in your own life?

Until my wife and I can buy our own home and put up PV and solar thermal panels or build a house from scratch using the most sustainable materials possible, we do what we can. This includes:

  • composting and recycling all plastics
  • using LED or at the very least CFL bulbs
  • using only reusable bags as well as beeswax wraps and metal straws
  • not using a clothes dryer and only washing with cold water
  • taking public transport and carpooling to work
  • gardening
  • buying ‘used’
  • fixing or get things fixed rather than buying new.

But we’re still connected to the grid. My wife still turns over a petrol engine every day to drop off the kids and do the grocery shopping. We eat meat, even red on occasion. We still turn on the gas heat in the winter. We use hot water to shower. We use energy and water and send waste to the landfill. If I’m made aware of an alternative that we can possibly fit into our lives, I try to incorporate it.

“If this was your last chance to hold this thing. How would you treat it? How much would your assets mean to you if you knew you couldn’t replace them?”

What are some easy swaps or habits that people can bring into their life?

The best way to make changes is to think about those core things we can affect. Our energy, water and natural resources usage and our waste. It’s a mindset shift.

Whenever you consume or throw away anything, think about the options for having less of an impact. Imagine what would happen if the grid shut down. If water stopped running. If the shops were empty. If this was your last chance to hold this thing. How would you treat it? How much would your assets mean to you if you knew you couldn’t replace them? This could be food, water or non-perishables. Everything in our lives, except the air we breathe. Ask yourself, can I do without it? Can I use less of it? Can I repair my existing one? If I must buy new, is there a lower impact option? When I’m done with it, where does the waste go? Can it be reused? What value does it hold if I can’t replace it?

With that mindset, you start to look at the things in your life differently. You don’t necessarily become a hoarder, but you do value things differently and you start to be more frugal. You start to take the less convenient, but more value orientated, option. The thing in front of you is better than a new one, given how many resources it takes to bring it into existence. If you change your frame of reference, those swaps just start to happen.

National Parks on our road trip
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  1. Amongst nature in Yellowstone National Park with a backdrop of Bison. My wife and I visited in winter and it even snowed while we were there. We visited half a dozen US National Parks on our road trip and, hands down, winter is the best season to see them.
Sheepdogs Light
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  1. A friendly reminder in our meeting rooms at Icebreaker.
What could the future look like?

I think a continued concerted effort by the concerned amongst us – common folks, heads of government, heads of companies and people in between – doing as much as they can to combat climate change, plastic waste, water and food shortage, social injustice, etc.

In terms of market-based action, there will be more alternative energy production as solar and wind become cheaper. There will be more water limitations in drought-stricken areas as those cities/communities struggle to cope. There will hopefully be a worldwide carbon tax or carbon cap and trade scheme developed. In that same vein, companies will hopefully be forced to internalize the external environmental costs of their actions – from carbon usage and emissions, waste to landfill, and on to water usage and water pollution, etc. At that point, the sustainable option at the store will also hopefully become the cheaper option because the sustainable option will have fewer external costs to pay before bring product to market. There will also be new technology to help solve the problem. You’ll likely hear more about carbon capture machines that can extract carbon from the atmosphere, turn it into a stone-like substance and store it beneath the earth. And there’ll be more like that coming down the pipe that I can’t predict. Not all of these actions will be accepted by everyone, but hopefully they do the trick and we avoid the destructive events science is warning us about. If they don’t, there will be a tipping point in everyone’s behaviour – we’ll have no other choice than to live with at worst, a zero net impact on the planet and at best, a positive one.

“I like briefly entering a place where I couldn’t survive, just to see what’s it like. I imagine it’s similar to how scuba divers feel, albeit at the other end of the scale.”

How do you reconnect with nature?

As a father of two young girls, my big trips into the wilderness are now fewer and farther between, so we go on day trips to as many of Auckland’s regional parks as we can. We consider them the jewels in the crown.

Whenever we travel around the country, we find the woods, pack a picnic, put the kids on our backs and head off. If there’s a beach at the end, all the better for the kids.

When I was younger, and still on the rare occasion, my activity of choice was usually a two-three day adventure. I love walking from the forested valley floor into the vastness of the alpine and seeing the ecology change. From an abundance of flora and fauna at the bottom, and then up to the top, where seemingly only rock and ice reside. I like briefly entering a place where I couldn’t survive, just to see what’s it like. I imagine it’s similar to how scuba divers feel, albeit at the other end of the scale.

Sheepdogs RubbishBins
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  1. At Icebreaker Head Office we made rubbish sorting mandatory in our office, offering paper bins only.
What does nature mean to you?

Nature is the whole earth. We do a pretty good job of trying to shield ourselves from it, but it’s constantly trying to crawl its way back. Just look at an abandoned house. It doesn’t take long for nature to take over again. We trim our hedges and mow our lawns. We eat our food out of plastic wrap and cardboard boxes. We pour a lot of concrete and asphalt on the ground. We lay weed mats under our gardens and dig up the soil and shift it around. We build skyscrapers and tunnels. Leave it all alone for a few hundred thousand years and other than the precious element of copper, it’ll all be gone.

Nature is the endless onslaught of life on Earth, and it is the earth itself. The planet doesn’t need us. We need the planet. The sooner we connect back to the earth, like the way we once did, intertwined with the planet for our survival, the better we will understand how we can co-exist with nature for all time.

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