Gone are the days of having to choose between style and sustainability. Allbirds, a Northern California-based shoe company, is redefining what an eco-friendly product looks like while fashionably reinventing the industry on the whole. In a world where sustainability is becoming increasingly important to consumers, Allbirds may just have found the shoe that fits.
Conceptualized in 2014 by vice-captain of the New Zealand football team, Allbirds’ Co-founder Tim Brown originally sought to create an all-wool athletic shoe–an alternative to the chemically concentrated products of other footwear manufacturers that were more comfortable for the consumer and the environment. After teaming up with Joey Zwillinger, a biotech engineer and renewable materials expert, the two launched the San Francisco-based company touting the world’s first shoe with an all wool “upper” (for those of us who don’t make shoes, that’s the part of the shoe that isn’t the sole) in March 2016. The company’s sustainable approach and versatile product became a quick hit, with Allbirds raking in over $7 million from investors in its first year. Despite having a limited product offering at launch, the company attracted substantial investments from notable firms that have put their faith in other daily wear startups that are now household names at the forefront of minimalist sustainable fashion like Warby Parker and Everlane.
The company’s industry-shattering shoe is woven in Italy by state-of-the-art manufacturing that uses about 60% less energy than the standard, synthetic shoe. That’s not to mention that wool is, of course, naturally occurring. The wool itself is sourced from New Zealand, where there are six times more sheep than humans, so there’s no shortage of this regularly shedded material. Additionally, Allbirds adheres to strict animal welfare standards to ensure the sheep responsible for these shoes are living happy lives.
Allbirds has also taken a historically bold stance on emissions, garnering significant media attention. They’ve pledged not only to have net-zero carbon emissions in the near future, but have a long term goal to be “carbon-negative,” meaning their carbon output would be far outweighed by their investments in carbon offsets. The best way to think of this, according to the company’s sustainability statements, is to equate it to a tree: leaving less carbon in the world than there would be without them. Meanwhile, the San Francisco giant is investing in projects and methods to offset the greenhouse gasses they do create. Their earth-friendly approach has earned accolades among some of the highest corporate responsibility organizations.
Allbirds adopted the growing method of direct-to-consumer sales, improving efficiency and granting them greater leeway for marketing its products and promoting its eco-friendly methods. By selling their footwear only through their own site (and more recently in traditional, Allbirds-only storefronts) the company could focus solely on their minimalist offering, marketing, and global impact without fear of their ethos being diluted by a third-party seller.
Allbirds’ sustainability, climate-conscious, and humanitarian efforts do not stop with their shoes. In addition to the footwear itself, the now thriving company boasts its use of 90% recycled cardboard for packaging, plastic from recycled bottles for shoelaces, and naturally occurring castor bean oils in the soles themselves. Since the start of the national COVID-19 response, the company has also launched a successful program to provide frontline healthcare workers with a pair of Allbirds totalling over $500,000. From material sourcing and manufacturing to packaging and philanthropic campaigns, this once unthought of concept for a shoe company has become the poster child for corporate responsibility.
“We’re a young company and we’re doing it,” Zwillinger told an audience at a grand opening event in Washington, D.C.’s Georgetown business district. “Any big company can do it, too. Everyone’s got excuses.”