Bringing Business To Life: Allbirds

Allbirds’ minimalist sneakers have been spotted on the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (who is also an investor), Cindy Crawford and Mila Kunis, and were dubbed by TIME Magazine as ‘the world’s most comfortable shoes’ – they also happen to be consciously made using sustainable, innnovative materials. San Francisco-based Allbirds is the brainchild of former New Zealand footballer Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger – a biotech engineer and renewables expert from San Francisco.  Together, they set out to create an environmentally-friendly footwear brand built around comfort and good, simple design.  A certified B-Corp, Allbirds uses merino wool, eucalyptus fibres, castor bean oil, sugar cane and recycled plastic bottles to create sustainable shoes that are both stylish and supremely comfortable. Since launching in March 2016, Allbirds has sold over 1 million pairs and was recently valued at $1.4 billion after a $50 million Series C investment. And growth showing no sign of slowing down – Allbirds opened its third brick and morter store in London’s Covent Garden in October 2018 to join its New York and San Francisco stores. Tim Brown shares the story and inspiration behind the brand shaking up the footwear industry.

What inspired you to launch Allbirds?

Allbirds was built on the three things we stand for – simple design, comfort and obviously sustainability.

It started back when I was playing soccer (or football depending on where you’re from) professionally and I was wearing gear given to me by major sportswear brands. I saw a category in footwear that was over-designed, over-logoed, and seemed to change all of the time but for no good reason. So I set out to try and see if was possible to make it simple. 

I visited my first footwear factory in 2010, when I was still playing professionally, and found an industry that was incredibly old-fashioned with a prevailing low-cost mentality – both in terms of the way that it made products and also the materials it used to make shoes (not very nice synthetics and leathers).  I realised there was an opportunity to innovate with different materials to make suitably simple footwear.  

We started on a multi-year journey to work out how to make shoes out of wool, which had never been done before. We ended up in a partnership with an Italian mill just outside of Milan, using wool that was usually made into fine suits for Tom Ford and Armani.  The textile mill owned the farms in New Zealand all the way through the supply chain to the finished textile, and had some of the finest sustainability creds in the whole industry.

My co-founder Joey Zwillinger and I launched on the 1st March 2016, anchored in the idea that we could build products that were better for the environment but also simply better – which for us meant more comfortable.  There was an opportunity in an enormous category (20 billion pairs of shoes are made on average each year) to try and find better ways to make them and to build a business where sustainability was at the core of what we were doing – the reason why.

We also realised that people don’t buy sustainability, they buy great products, and it was incumbent on us to understand that and to learn to make it a non-negotiable rather than a selling point.

Why wool?

As a Kiwi, I probably inherently understand that wool is miracle fibre that wicks away moisture, regulates temperature, and is incredibly soft and comfortable. But probably most importantly, wool is a renewable resource that has probably been usurped by the rise of synthetics. The wool industry really has a material and a fibre that creates an experience like nothing else, and the idea of using it for footwear felt intuitively obvious and interesting, and has helped us create a product that’s quite different.

Not all wool is created equal – we’re using what we think is the best of the best, both in terms of the quality of the fibre but also in the land management. You know the animals and the environment are cared for in the production of the wool through our ZQ certification.

What have been the core milestones and triumphs so far?

Materials are at the core of what the business is all about.  The direct to consumer business model gives you enormous data and information on your customers, and so pretty early on we realised that a lot of people wear our shoes without socks when the weather gets warm.  We found a material in the eucalyptus fibre that had a natural cooling quality, creating a solution that provided a different kind of comfort, had enormous sustainability credibility and hadn’t been really used in footwear before.   So we created our Tree range using TENCEL™ Lyocell fibre, made from FSC-certified Eucalyptus from South Africa that ensures that the land is managed properly and cared for.  We launched Tree just after our second birthday, which was a big moment for us.

Then more recently we’ve added our sugar SweetFoam™ soles – made of the world’s first carbon-negative green ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam, derived from sugar cane sourced from Southern Brazil, which was our third big material innovation and probably in some ways our most significant.  

EVA is one of the commonly used materials in this enormous category of 20 billion plus shoes – and taking the petrol out of that material and replacing it with sugar cane in its raw form to make it in a carbon-negative way was a big moment when Joey and I felt like we were on the right track.  Then on top of that, to use it in our products – and to proudly do so – but to also make it open source and available for anyone to use with the view that we are solving the larger problem of sustainable manufacturing as a collective was another nod to the way we were thinking about things. 

Leonardo DiCaprio investing was a cool moment – to have a guy join us who is so outspoken about the environment and the importance of being more thoughtful about it.  We announced his involvement around the time we announced SweetFoam™.  We didn’t go looking for it, we found each other in sort of an organic fashion, which is the best way to do these things and he has been a real supporter.

Why did you launch your first international store in London? (Allbirds already has stores in San Francisco and New York City, as well as online)

After I was fortunate enough to play in the World Cup in 2010, I retired from football and attended grad school in London. I was born here –  my father’s English and my mum’s a Kiwi – and I always imagined myself coming back. Around the same time I was in the very early stages of having the idea of footwear, which later evolved into Allbirds when we got to San Francisco and met Joey and we raised some money to do it properly. So it’s special personally for me to come back to where this was incubated as an idea.

Has challenging is it to maintain your principles as you grow?

Of course it absolutely is challenging, and it’s a complicated area and topic to understand. But I think it starts with a fundamental decision on our end to never compromise on the quality of the product. Sustainability isn’t about buying something that’s more expensive and less good – it’s about making it a non-negotiable for businesses to solve problems, working back from what the consumer wants. There are different schools of thought on this but largely I don’t think problems in the industry are going to be solved solely by consumers changing their behaviour, but by businesses making sustainability a non-negotiable in the way that they operate.

For example, when we were creating our shoelaces, our designer wanted to make them out of three strands of colour in a nordic-inspired rope-like structure. But we couldn’t find a way to make them out of post consumer material, which sounds crazy but you just couldn’t do it.  However we kept going and ultimately our manufacturers found a way to make them out of a single recycled plastic bottle. The manufacturers came to us and said they had finally solved this problem, but it will cost us three times as much. 

Like any good business, we have operational efficiency targets and margins and goals, but we went back to our leadership team and said this is what we want to do and we think it’s the right thing to do and we made a decision in 10 seconds. 

The factory looked at us like we had six heads, but what has been so interesting is that over time that cost has come down, and the types of solutions that they’re presenting us with now have ramped up enormously because they’ve started to realise that this is a non-negotiable.  If it’s not non-negotiable, if it’s a ‘nice to have’, I totally understand why it drops off because it’s in conflict with so many of the principles of business, and I think over time that has to change. But fortunately for us we have a business model that has some margin room to invest in materials to try to lead on this approach.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to launch a sustainable business?

Don’t think it’s about ‘sustainable business’ and ‘not sustainable business’. This is about action not words, and it’s not something to be proud of just to say you’re going to try, because everyone should be doing it. The fact that they’re not is an advantage for new start-up businesses to show people how it’s done. Because at the end of the day, the businesses that are preparing now for being carbon-neutral or carbon-negative are the ones that are going to win in the long term. So it’s smart business as much as anything else, and it’s about action more than words.

What other sustainable businesses have inspired you?

Method is a great example of a business that focused on a great product. They said they’re going to bring great design to a category of cleaning products, which was a big innovation at the time. They said we’re going to create this thing that sits on the sink we’re going to say our product is better for the environment but it’s also a better product full stop.

And then when you look at the Method brand, of course underlying their approach is their mission, but they’re not saying support us because we’re doing things more thoughtfully – they’re saying support us because this is a great product. I just think that mindset is so, so important for brands that are thinking about it, and I also think it’s better and fairer for the consumer too.

Ultimately, when we stop talking about sustainability that will be a good moment because it will become the new normal, rather than something that feels like a ‘nice to have’. 

Discover the sustainable shoe brands you need to know and for more footwear inspiration, see our guide to ethical sneakers.

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