When I first met Tim Brown, on a bus heading to dinner during a sustainable fashion summit in Copenhagen last June, I didn’t know who he was. This proved embarrassing, because he’d just been on the summit’s main stage, announcing that his company, Allbirds, had created the world’s first zero-carbon shoe.
In an attempt to save face, I told him I’d recently written a story about recyclable sneakers. He replied (something to the effect of) that durability was more important than recyclability. To which I responded (something to the effect of) that carbon wasn’t really the right metric to focus on either.
We quickly found other people to talk to. But later in the evening, he did what all good founders do and told me the origin story of the global sneaker brand that has always stood for “comfort, sustainability and minimalist design”.
Brown has the confidence and affability you’d expect of a former New Zealand soccer player whose company was valued at more than US$4 billion after its first day of trading on the Nasdaq. That was in 2021 – seven years after he launched a Kickstarter campaign to create a woollen running shoe that would go on to become very famous. The success of that campaign led him to biotech engineer Joey Zwillinger – his co-founder and chief executive.
For several years wearing Allbirds was synonymous with a specific type of progressive power and success. Jacinda Ardern and Barack Obama have worn them, as has Google founder Larry Page. Leonardo DiCaprio liked his so much he became an investor. In 2018, at the height of their popularity, The New Yorker declared the runner the “It shoe among woke millennials and techies”. The New York Times described it as a favourite of venture capitalists.
Allbirds now has more than a dozen different sneaker styles, 47 stores in the United States, four in the United Kingdom, one in New Zealand and several in Asia. But some missteps over the past two years have seen the company shares plummet to just 5 per cent of their initial public value. The most notable was a failed attempt to expand the line of products into more technical running shoes and a range of apparel that included puffer jackets and dresses. All but the underwear, socks, T-shirts, tracksuits and hats and scarves have been discontinued. This led to some staff lay-offs in May and Brown stepped away from his role as co-chief executive. He is now chief innovation officer.
At a time when juggernaut success stories from Silicon Valley are taking unexpected turns, with their founders occasionally meeting difficult ends, the business community is waiting to see what Allbirds does next.
“We’ve made some things that haven’t resonated well with our core customer,” says Brown via Zoom from San Francisco, where the company is based. He seems to have carried some of his philosophical conditioning as an athlete into business and often – even in casual conversation – sounds like a motivational speaker.
“If we’ve lost our way a little bit, it’s because we’ve lost some of that focus. I know in the process of reflection and facing those challenges we will be better for the experience,” he says. “The answers lie in going back to the beginning and the tenets of the vision that made us successful in the first place.”
The first place is the wool runner. Allbirds relaunched a significantly updated version of it earlier this month. It is a simple sneaker with a knitted merino wool upper, a sole made of EVA-based sugar cane and laces made of recycled plastic bottles. It is machine washable and so comfortable it can be worn without socks. Thanks to wool’s natural properties, it shouldn’t make your feet smell. Brown says the update has an evolved aesthetic, enhanced durability, improved structure and incorporates new sustainable materials.
Much has been written about the popularity of the original, but it has also been described as boring and “algorithmically empty” (in a later piece by The New Yorker). Its durability has been questioned too, with reports of holes forming in the wool knit. The update addresses some of these issues but essentially it is the same shoe, albeit slightly sleeker. Brown says quality concerns were a symptom of growing quickly while making something as “dynamic” as footwear.
“Have we always got that right? No, but I think Allbirds makes great products and that’s been the foundation of how we’ve grown so fast,” he says.
The second time I met Brown was at a dinner in London in July, to celebrate the launch of the M0.0NSHOT – the shoe Brown had announced in Copenhagen the previous month. The dinner was in a large greenhouse attached to a permaculture garden that grows herbs and vegetables. The M0.0NSHOT was on display, perched on top of several white plinths under the glass ceiling in a separate room to the long dining table.
The first thing I noticed when I picked it up was how incredibly light it is – and that it’s derivative of Balenciaga’s famous speed sneaker. It is shaped like a sock with a sole attached. The ribbed woollen upper has no laces and wraps tightly around the foot and up the ankle. The wool is the same colour as the sole, which is made from a lighter version of the bio-based EVA used in the other shoes.
The shoe’s zero-carbon emissions are achieved using merino wool from Lake Hawea Station, a farm in New Zealand that uses a range of regenerative practices such as native species planting and time-managed grazing to sequester more carbon than it emits. It was certified by sustainability assessors Toitū Envirocare as a carbon-zero farm in 2021.
Allbirds has calculated that using wool with a negative carbon footprint cancels out emissions from the sneaker’s transport, end-of-life and use phase. The sole’s impact is zero because of production techniques that use renewable energy and track the carbon sequestered during the growth of the sugarcane from which the EVA is derived.
Allbirds labels the carbon on all its products. The original wool runner had a carbon footprint of 8.03 kilograms, the new one is 6.9. Most brands don’t disclose this information, but research from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2013 suggests production of the average sneaker emits about 13 kilograms.
With the M0.0NSHOT, Allbirds is pitching for more than just sales; Brown hopes it might transform the fashion industry. Alongside the sneaker’s launch, the company published its “recipe book” online, in the hope rivals would adopt it. In the notoriously competitive footwear industry, this would be a big step in terms of collaboration towards emissions reductions. When I ask Brown if any brands have taken up the offer he says: “Yes. Some great ones I can’t tell you anything about.”
Open sourcing the M0.0NSHOT reflects Allbirds’ ambition to be a business leader in the fight against climate change – it just has to prove it is possible to create a profitable business that doesn’t harm the environment.
The first step was to show natural materials, and in particular wool, could create better sneakers than materials derived from fossil fuels such as polyester and nylon.
“What was true then and remains true now is that wool’s really remarkable and that natural fibres do things that synthetics can’t,” Brown says. “We’ve been innovating materials made from plastic for 50 years and nature’s having something of a comeback.”
When he explains that often margin and efficiency improvements in a financial sense equal better environmental outcomes, his optimism reminds me of Yvon Chouinard, the founder of another global sustainable clothing label, Patagonia. “These things go hand in hand a lot more often than not,” Brown says.
But analysts are predicting Allbirds will have its first annual sales decline as a public company this year, so Brown also has to address the notion its environmental goals are getting in the way of financial success.
He rejects the idea sustainability “is an enemy” of profitability and the long-term viability of a business. Given the time pressures and the speed of global warming, it’s fortunate that for Brown, this challenge brings to the fore the singular vision and self-belief that’s common to professional athletes.
“This is just a moment in time where you need to be smart and you need to be focused, and we need to not lose faith in the progress that I think we’re making,” he says. “We’re in a period of doubt, [but] certainly as a founder, I can no more disown the purpose of my business than I can my own family – so this is an opportunity to double-down.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on
November 18, 2023 as “Birdman rallies”.
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