Interview: Allbirds on transforming the industry through material innovations
We speak to co-founder and co-CEO Tim Brown about carbon-negative shoe soles, T-shirts made of discarded crab shells, and the latest innovation, aiming to bring the most sustainable leather alternative to the industry.
26 Feb 2021

The former professional football player retired after going to the World Cup in South Africa in 2010 with the New Zealand national team. One thing he knew from his football career was that shoes were generally made from synthetics.

— And since I’m from New Zealand — the land of +20 million sheep — I started kicking around this idea of using wool in footwear. The brand was born from an insight that there was an opportunity to create sleek, logo-free shoes from natural materials that could be better for the planet. After years of working on this idea off and on, I was lucky to be introduced to my co-founder Joey Zwillinger, who shared my vision and understood the potential of the business idea, and together we launched the brand. 

He and his colleagues refer to San Francisco-based Allbirds as a natural material innovation brand, designing and developing footwear and apparel made from natural materials such as Merino wool, eucalyptus-free fiber, sugarcane, and more.

— As a B Corp, Brown explains, our mission is to tread lighter on the planet and help our customers live life in better balance by providing them with sustainable wardrobe solutions.

The brand launched in 2016 with one silhouette, the Wool Runner.

— It took us 14 months before we introduced our second style, so we’ve always been very thoughtful in our approach to releasing new products. We design our collections with sustainability as a non-negotiable, led by this fundamental insight that people don’t buy sustainable products, they buy great products.

— We believe that business should be used as a force for good to create positive impact. We recognize the need to decarbonize the fashion industry and beyond, and we hope to inspire an industry-wide shift from petroleum-based synthetics to renewable natural materials. As we race towards a carbon negative future, we need to drastically lower our carbon emissions, which is why we started to label our products with their carbon footprint to hold ourselves accountable. We’re also 100% carbon neutral since 2019. We hope to encourage other businesses to follow our lead in becoming more carbon conscious.

Tell us more about your fabric innovations.

— We are constantly innovating and sourcing natural materials, says Brown. SweetFoam, made from sugarcane, is our green alternative to EVA, the ubiquitous synthetic-based foam traditionally used in most shoe soles. It’s actually carbon negative in its raw form and we decided to open-source the technology to the wider industry as it could truly transform the footwear industry’s dependence on petroleum.

— TrinoXO, the material in our t-shirts, is a super yarn that blends Merino wool with eucalyptus fibre — making it light, breezy, and temperature-regulating. Its secret ingredient is what we call XO, an extract from discarded crab shells that has unique anti-odor properties. This means you need to wash your tee less, ultimately reducing the carbon footprint of the product.

Even though they’re very sustainable, these material blends might make the pieces more difficult to recycle. How do you resonate with that?

— Recycling is a complex topic in the fashion industry, that no one has found a silver bullet solution to yet, unfortunately. Collaboration across the industry will be key in unlocking the best way to collect, repurpose, and recycle textiles at the end of their lifecycle, without resulting in any unintended consequences like increased carbon emissions due to additional transportation between customers, brands and recycling facilities. We’re constantly looking into new end-of-life solutions, while also continuing to invest in lowering the footprint of our materials and manufacturing, which, like for nearly all retail brands, make up the bulk of our emissions.

This week, Allbirds announced a $2M investment in material innovation firm Natural Fiber Welding and its Mirum ​technology, as seen in the top picture, aiming to bring the most sustainable leather alternative to the industry.

— Through this partnership, Brown tells, we’ll be introducing a 100% natural plant-based leather alternative, destined for our collections. Knowing how confusing it can be for customers to understand what things are made from, we’re simply calling it Plant Leather. It doesn’t contain any plastic and it’s also biodegradable. But more importantly, we’re very proud that its carbon footprint is 40 times lower than traditional leather and 17 times lower than synthetic leather made from plastic. We believe it can be a game-changer for the fashion industry and beyond and we can’t wait to introduce it to our customers, end of this year.