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?
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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…