If you take a quick look around your office, it probably won’t be hard to spot a pair of shoes made by Allbirds, the San Francisco-based footwear company that makes its products using materials like wool and eucalyptus fiber.
The two year-year old company aims to make comfortable, sustainably-made shoes – and they seem to be everywhere. Just last week the company launched a new line of shoes, actually flip-flops, with soles made from sugar-cane instead of petroleum. Allbirds co-founder Tim Brown calls the new material, SweetFoam™, “our biggest sustainable-material innovation moment yet.”
I spoke with Tim to learn more about his approach to design and innovation and to look behind the sustainability curtain at Allbirds.
How did you go from professional soccer player in New Zealand to entering the environmentally friendly footwear market?
I was back in New Zealand playing soccer for the Australian A-League when I noticed a design problem: all of the sponsored footwear I was getting had bright colors, too many logos, and just felt overdone. I saw this opening in the footwear space to do less rather than do more, to create something really simple.
Plus, outside of the fossil-fuel industry the fashion industry’s the largest contributor to carbon emissions. I think that’s a solvable problem if we put our minds to it. How is it that we can send a man to the moon but we can't work out a way to make a T-shirt in a more sustainable way?
When I went into my first footwear factory, I realized that it's an incredibly antiquated process that hasn't changed for hundreds of years – it’s also reliant on low-cost labor and a low-cost mentality that leads shoes to largely be made out of synthetics or low-quality leathers.
More than 20 billion pairs of shoes are made each year, so I saw an enormous opportunity to bring in sustainable materials – not just for the environment but also because they could make more comfortable products – comfort is the number one consideration for shoe buyers.
Most start-ups focus solely on staying in businesses, and sustainability takes a back seat. What has your experience been?
My co-founder Joey Zwillinger and I have a deep empathy for this topic, and from day one believed that there was a business opportunity to bring sustainability to the footwear industry. But then we spoke with Eric Ryan, one of the founders of method® products, who said that if you want to incorporate sustainability into a consumer brand, don’t talk about it. People don't buy sustainability, they buy great products.
That became the first pillar underpinning our approach to launching Allbirds: make a great product, and then work out how to make it as sustainably as possible.
The second pillar is that we believe sustainability should be a non-negotiable for everyone in business today. We all win when we stop talking about this topic, and that evolution is taking place today – though it’s of course a complicated problem to solve. The topic of sustainability is not something that we're going to solve alone or in the 36 months that we’ve been around. There’s a humility to tackling this topic that's really important, and fosters a lot of learning.
The third pillar is that we wanted to be part of a new type of brand and business that is serving to explain sustainability. Regardless of consumer support for the environment, empathy often goes completely out the window at the point of purchase because there's a disconnect between this empathy and buying behavior, in part because of limited options but also because a lack of understanding around what exactly sustainability means. That’s why we’re trying to do our absolute best to try and explain it along the way.
How do you approach the sustainability challenges of a global supply chain?
One of the ways we’re working to understand the impact of our materials is through certifications – they’re incredibly important for us. In the case of wool, we can't be on every farm to see and understand things like animal welfare and land use – that’s why we lean heavily on a certification program called ZQ. Likewise, we rely on Forest Stewardship Council certification, which makes sure that the trees we use for our shoes are harvested ethically.
We’re also conducting “life cycle analyses” of our supply chain. Our first analysis, for wool, was incredibly insightful. But after just completing our second one, we’ve come to terms with the fact that this is a cumbersome, expensive, and time consuming process. That’s why we developed an internal tool that allows us to accelerate the analyses and develop quick estimates that guide our decision making throughout the supply chain.
We’re finding that this lets us bring sustainability into the product and innovation process from the beginning. Part of the ability that we have as a small business with 130 people is that we can move fast and try and innovate both in the products we make and how we make them.
What did you learn from the life cycle assessments?
The most interesting thing to me is that in the footwear industry, no one else really seemed to have done this. We could find very few examples of life cycle assessments for footwear, and what we did find was hard to verify. So we really felt like we were starting again, which was both a challenge and an opportunity.
But they helped us uncover simple things, like, for example, the energy usage in the places you manufacture your products has an enormous impact on your environmental footprint. For example, if you moved manufacturing from China, which relies heavily on coal, to Vietnam, where there is more of an emphasis on hydroelectricity, that can lower your footprint significantly. The same goes for method of shipping.
We’re only in the first or second innings of understanding our full impact, but some of the early lessons have helped set us in a more sustainable direction.
Are you planning on sharing the LCA tool with other startups to help them assess their own materials and supply chains?
Well, before we start screaming from the rooftops that we have all the answers, we need to truly understand how it can be used. But, yes, absolutely we are open to sharing the tool.
Sustainability best practices are better done when they’re shared. For example with SweetFoam™, our sugarcane-material innovation that just launched last week, we've worked in partnership with an enormous green-energy company in Brazil that has invested millions of dollars in allowing us to make a sugarcane-based EVA, which is one of the most commonly used materials in footwear.
What we learned is that if you essentially connect some different pipes in your factory, and you can effectively take the petrol out of this commonly used material and replace it with sugarcane. In its raw form it is a carbon-negative innovation. It's a huge story to tell, and we want to showcase that can be done, and then our plan is to make this innovation available to the larger footwear industry.
How are you thinking about environmental policy or engaging in the policy discussion, given the importance of sustainability to your business?
Given that we’re only two years old, we're not getting on a soapbox at the moment to say that we're anything more than a small company in San Francisco that's pretty fired up about sustainability.
But Joey and I founded this company because we believe that improving environmental impact across the board is the biggest problem of our generation. And we really do feel that business could be a force for good in solving that problem. I also see a great opportunity for small companies to come in and change things themselves, rather than waiting for government intervention.
There’s an emerging group of consumers that want to act responsibly, and they largely just don't know how to, and so they're putting their trust in brands, hopefully like ours, to try and solve that problem for them. So, that's been our vehicle to impact change.
We are also proud to be a B Corp certified company but perhaps even more importantly, we have made the environment one of the stakeholders of our business. Sustainability is written into the governance structure of Allbirds. So if Joey and I get booted out one day, no one can take that away from the DNA of this company. We’ve tried to create a roadmap for how this is done.
As you face market pressure for your next products, how will you balance sustainability and innovation?
Here in San Francisco, the hotbed of startups, sometimes the words disruption and innovation are thrown around too loosely. Innovation isn’t always about adding new things; it can mean simplifying production or using an old product in new ways. For example, we’re using wool and eucalyptus fiber – materials that have been around for a long time. Likewise, rethinking how EVA is made. What we're doing is not rocket science.
But right now, because we make essentially one product, shoes, and we're not changing it all the time unnecessarily to meet different sort of wholesale criteria, we can update the product as we learn about better materials or better processes, like with shoelaces that we now make out of plastic bottles. I’m also really excited about the SweetFoam™ material, which we just took to market in a in a flip-flop and which we’ll roll out across our larger product line over time.
We're going to continue to innovate with new materials as we find them, with a view that any product that we have can be bettered. That sense of innovation and of continuous improvement allows us to move quicker and to focus on materials but also to be very nimble as a business.
In fact, if there's anyone out there that has a sustainable material in development – or even just in your thoughts, we'd love to hear from you.
Last but not least, are you a wool guy or a tree guy?
What I will say is, be careful if you start a footwear company, because you have to wear the product every single day. So that's good incentive to get it right. If someone catches you without it, they assume that you've lost faith. I wear Allbirds all the time except at weddings and funerals. But at the moment, with the warmer weather here, I’m wearing the tree product.
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