After a successful Kickstarter, years of testing and development, Allbirds released their signature minimalist designed sneaker direct on their website in 2016. Now on the feet of over 1 million satisfied customers, their secret is attributed to its founders, Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger’s commitment to finding a sustainable substitute for the footwear industries unsustainable raw material standards. Their first sneaker, made from a sustainably sourced merino wool upper and an insole derived from castor bean oil, is innovative, sustainable, and functional. Their long-term growth hinges are their ability to continue to find innovative supply chain solutions in an industry dominated by unsustainable products.
Allbirds Are Actually All-Sheep
Merino wool is a natural fiber grown by Merino sheep. The advantages of Merino wool include body temperature regulation, moisture-wicking, odor-fighting, soft hand, biodegradable, and even flame retardancy. With all these characteristics, its shocking Allbirds were the first to successfully utilize this fabulous fiber in footwear.
However, it’s important to remember that wool comes from a living animal that can be subject to unethical treatment if unregulated. The industry was brought into the spotlight when Patagonia, discovered animal cruelty in its supply chain. They immediately took action to rebuild their wool supply chain and encouraged others to do the same. Allbirds’ wool is regulated through the ZQ Merino Standard, which ensures their wool is ethically sourced, and of the highest quality. The ZQ Standard also ensures their wool is environmentally sustainable as commercialized sheep farming causes degradation of the land and soil. All ZQ growers create a land environmental plan to manage their impacts relative to their grazed areas. ZQ Merino Standard is regarded as the leader in sustainable wool certifications.
Other Allbirds Sustainable Materials
Unlike many self-proclaimed sustainable brands, Allbirds products are as close to 100% suitability sourced as it gets. Heres a few of their other sustainable materials:
TENCEL™ Lyocell: At some point, Allbirds needed to grow beyond wool shoes while refusing to use traditional synthetics that dominate the sneaker industry. Allbirds decided to make their sneakers with Tencel, which is derived from trees grown on farms, thus not disturbing natural forests. Compared to synthetic fibers, its production uses fewer resources and toxic chemicals. The process is managed by a closed-loop system that allows 95% of chemicals to be recycling.
SweetFoam™: A revolutionary, new material made from the byproduct of sugarcane processing that mimics the functionality of rubber. Developed by Braskem and backed by Leonardo Depcrapio, Sweetfoam is processed in facilities running on renewable energy and claims to be the first carbon-negative bioplastic. Allbirds plans to transition Sweetfoam into all products.
Trino™: Unable to find a sock yarn to meet their functionality and sustainability standards, Allbirds took matters into their own hands and invented Trino. Made by mixing responsibly harvested eucalyptus tree fibers with ZQ Merino wool, Trino yarn is used to knit socks that are softer, cooler, and more breathable. And of course, they are sustainability and ethically sourced.
Allbirds also uses recycled polyester, castor bean oil, and recycled cardboard.
Putting Their Money Where Their Mouth is
A lot of brands talk about sustainability and make sustainability claims, but due to investor pressure and profit-seeking, most fall short of their sustainability initiatives. Allbirds is not afraid to invest in sustainability. In 2019, they became carbon neutral by offsetting their carbon footprint by purchasing carbon credits. This is a move in the right direction as the footwear industry emits 700 million tonnes of carbon dioxide each year. However, carbon offsets are just a starting point but do not physically reduce carbon emissions despite what the name may imply. The majority of Allbirds footprint lies in its raw materials, and the brand has shown a consistent commitment to investing to decrease its overall footprint. For example, their original shoelaces were not biodegradable, so they partnered with their supplier to make a sustainable substitute at 3x the cost. In line with their commitment, Allbirds ate the cost increase and decreased margins. Over time, through continued investment and innovation, the price eventually came down, and margins rose.
It’s rare to see a company of this size that puts sustainability before profits.
Are Allbirds Sustainable?
100% YES. I could nitpick here, but I don’t want to. They use nearly 100% sustainably sourced materials, offset their carbon emissions, and invest in sustainable innovations for them and others in the space. They could have signed an exclusive agreement with SweetFoam, but they didn’t and welcome competitors to use the bioplastic. However, I wish they were more transparent about their shoe manufacturing partners. Nonetheless, their commitment to sustainability praiseworthy and with great intentions.