Why not produce a sneaker made of natural materials instead of synthetic ones? Allbirds‘ founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwilinger came up with this idea and launched their first sneaker model, the Wool Runner, in 2016. Within two years, the model sold 1 million pairs. Today, Allbirds, based in San Francisco, is active in 18 markets and employs around 250 people. Sandeep Verma, Allbirds's managing director for Europe, tells us in an interview why Allbirds opened a store in Berlin, whether the world really needs sustainable sneakers and what he thinks about copycat Amazon.
In July you celebrated the launch of the online shop for the German market. Now the opening of the first physical store in Germany is about to follow. Why did you decide to take this step and why Berlin?
When our co-founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwilinger came up with the idea to Allbirds, they saw an opportunity to reinvent how shoes, and in particular, trainers were being made. They set out to make an amazing product that was simple, comfortable and beautifully made from natural materials. In other words, completely different from the cheap synthetics that are so common in the footwear industry…. Our customers really fell in love with the product and we started to see demand for the business expanding beyond the US and New Zealand. We launched Allbirds in the UK in 2018 and we quickly noticed that we got a lot of traction from mainland Europe; there was a pent-up demand from Germany, in particular. While e-commerce is a core part of the business, and in Germany it has exceeded our expectations, physical retail has always been in the cards. Brick-and-mortar offers customers a tactile way to connect with our brand–they can touch the materials and learn about our products in a really engaging way. It felt natural to open our first German store in Berlin, as we’re seeing that people here, as in so many other places where we operate, are environmentally conscious, have embraced a minimalist and casual style and value quality.
What are your plans for Allbirds in the near future?
Our North Star is “making better things in a better way” and we are constantly innovating new products and materials that are kinder on the planet than traditional solutions. An example of this is our sock collection, which we launched a few months ago. The socks are made from a proprietary material we call Trino, which is a blend of Merino wool and eucalyptus tree fiber. It’s the first time we’ve expanded beyond shoes, so we’re very excited about what this material can be used for in the future. We also just launched a water-repellent shoe, specially developed to withstand our wet and cold European winters! Typically, weather-resistant footwear is riddled with chemicals, but the Mizzle Collection has been treated with a fluorine-free water repellent coating so it doesn’t come at an environmental cost. We have even more exciting launches coming up in 2020, so keep your eyes peeled.
Right now, we are experiencing that more young people are protesting for a better climate and are making themselves strong for environmental protection. The fashion industry is also increasingly addressing this issue. Supposedly sustainable brands are springing up like mushrooms. And on closer inspection, these labels are not so sustainable in terms of their CO2 footprint, the transparency of their supply chain or the materials used. In your opinion, is it really possible to combine the sustainability aspect with the fashion industry?
Absolutely. Earlier this year we announced we were going 100% carbon neutral through the Allbirds Carbon Fund, a self-imposed carbon tax that funds emissions reductions projects. To ensure that our brand wouldn’t have a negative impact on the environment, we began by measuring our carbon footprint, then paid to offset that carbon. But we won’t stop there–we’re going to continue to innovate new solutions and reduce our initial emissions. We believe that businesses can play a big role in helping to solve climate change, and although we’re still a small company in a huge industry, we’re working to make a difference. We need to stop looking down on imperfect solutions and applaud those who are trying to make a change–every little bit helps. However, it is problematic when companies are using sustainability as a marketing ploy, or treat it as an appendage to their main business. It confuses customers, fuels cynicism and can dilute other brands’ efforts.
Doesn't even the "greenest sneaker" still have a significant impact on the environment in terms of production, shipping and disposal?
We all have a carbon footprint–even yawning has an impact on the planet–but buying a sneaker that’s better for the environment is much better than buying a sneaker that isn’t. People won’t stop consuming, so it’s up to businesses to offer responsible solutions that take our planet into consideration. We know we’re not perfect and have a lot of work to do, but our goal is to constantly get better. We are working to get to a place where we can make a shoe that emits close to zero carbon and while we’re clearly not there today, by investing in R&D and rolling out new material innovations we’re continuously improving. Until then, we’re offsetting 100% of our corporate, production and shipping activities.
What makes Allbirds a sustainable brand?
We’ve treated sustainability as a non-negotiable from the start and we set out to make a difference from the get-go. Unlike many other brands, sustainability is embedded in our values; we’re even a certified B Corp, which means that we’re held to high standards when it comes to social and environmental performance. We’re constantly working on improving our products. To give you a few examples, when we launched Allbirds, our shoelaces were virgin plastic, now they are produced from recycled plastic bottles. Our soles originally used EVA, an oil-based plastic, but a year ago we launched a sugarcane-based green EVA, which actually sucks carbon out of the air and is carbon negative at source. We call it SweetFoam. Since EVA is one of the most widely used components in footwear, we decided to open source the green EVA technology in SweetFoam making it available to any brand that wants to incorporate it into their supply chain. So far more than 100 companies have enquired about using it and we are excited to see how this can help to transform the industry.
Online giant Amazon has very brazenly copied the Allbirds models and now offers them at a much cheaper price than the original Allbirds models. If you have taken legal action against them, what is the current status?
We're aware of the shoes released by Amazon's 206 Private Label and its similarities with our Allbirds Wool Runners. While it’s flattering that other companies are looking to us for inspiration, a considerable amount of time and investment go into our products, so we would prefer if they didn’t copy our styles. We are more concerned, however, with ensuring businesses adopt our sustainability practices and standards. We wholeheartedly echo the sentiment in one of the top reviews for Amazon's product: "I hope Amazon has made these shoes with the same environmental ethos that Allbirds have. It's not enough to simply copy their shoes, they need to follow their environmental actions too!"