It’s the most disruptive footwear brand to appear in recent years. Since Allbirds launched in 2016, they’ve been adopted as the uniform of a globally cool, conscious and creative crowd. From Hollywood royalty like Leonardo diCaprio and Jennifer Garner through to Barack Obama - Allbirds' message of sustainable production and simple design, as well as their USP of ridiculous comfort was a breath of fresh air. When you know, you know.
But surprisingly, there were few footwear specialists within the company. Perhaps if there had been more, they would have been vetoing the bold ideas that have made the brand boom. It’s because Allbirds was founded by an LSE alum (Tim Brown) and a renewables expert (Joey Zwillinger) rather than a shoe designer, that the vision of creating a unisex shoe brand, inspired by nature and using sustainable wool, have become such a wild success.
On Tuesday I had the privilege of asking the company’s Sustainability Lead, Hana Kajimura, everything about the brand’s sustainable credentials in front of a live audience at the London store, above. Hana works on every decision from what soap is best for the company’s bathrooms through to visiting the hill farms in New Zealand that provide the wool for the sneakers. Over nibbles before our in-store talk it dawned on me that sustainability is in the Environmental Science graduates’ DNA. Hana ordered tap water and asked for her huge portion of hummus and bread to be boxed for take-out. Her jeans were old Levi’s patched a dozen times - so stylish - but also, of course the most sustainable option.
I wanted to narrow down what sustainability means to Allbirds. It’s a word that is currently bandied about and has been adopted by huge fast fashion brands, ticking the green box by bringing out a ‘sustainable’ capsule collection while their factory workers survive on pennies a day and breathe in toxic chemical dye fumes… For Allbirds it’s a simple as, “The ability to meet the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future.” Simplicity seems to be the best way to disrupt the system. If ordering online, your shoes arrive in a box. Just one box.. How refreshing to strip back the need for shoe box, tissue wrapping, outer packet, air pockets and styrofoam peanuts! It’s a no brainer but no one else has done it. Obviously the box is made from 90% recycled cardboard too.
And what about the shoes. What are they made from? Hana shared the fact that about 60% of all shoes manufactured globally are made from synthetics - of petrochemical origin - while 25% are made from leather. A pair of shoes could take over 100 years to decompose, depending on their composition, treatment and materials. However, Allbirds use ZQ wool from New Zealand, where the cruel practise of mulesing (slicing off a sheep’s skin to prevent a disease called fly strike) is outlawed and long term contracts with farmers give them financial peace of mind. TENCEL™ (made of wood from Forest Stewardship Commission approved plantations) and SweetFoam™ (a sugarcane derived substitute for traditional petro-EVA) are two other revolutionary materials that make up Allbirds’s range.
One element of the Allbirds journey that I was truly impressed with, is the way they work with suppliers. Most brands have an idea of a product but are led by the factory as to how that can be executed. At the start of production Allbirds used virgin laces but were searching for a recycled plastic option. They pushed the factory to come up with a new version, which they finally offered at three times the price. Allbirds didn’t flinch and took on the expensive, recycled plastic bottle laces and absorbed the cost… which gradually came down in price until the difference was financially negligible but sustainably? Huge.
But do they live up to the strapline of, “the world’s most comfortable shoes” granted by Time Magazine? I’ve been wearing a pair of Tree Toppers I was gifted all week and can verify that yes, they really are the lightest, easiest and most comfy footwear I’ve ever owned - out ranking ballet flats, sports trainers and even slippers… With plans for even more innovation, a carbon neutral mission for 2019 and a million shoes sold just two years after launch, Allbirds will continue to change, so the climate doesn’t.
This post is paid for in collaboration with Allbirds