It’s 2019, and we’re doing all we can to make the most of the new year. One major resolution for individuals and companies alike is to improve sustainability, whether it be to improve recycling habits, or commit to conscious consumption. If you’re fashion-minded, finding brands that are both elegant and eco-friendly may feel challenging. However, sneaker start-up Allbirds promises to practicality without sacrificing style.

Co-founded by former New Zealand soccer player Tim Brown, the simple sneaker has evolved into a ubiquitous fashion staple, taking over the closets of Silicon Valley titans and Hollywood elite. Made from natural materials, the minimalistic design is so light and breathable, the shoes feel like you’re wearing slippers.

Their latest release is the Tree Topper, a high-top rendition of their classic shoe made from a magical eucalyptus tree fiber and sugarcane outsole. Once you put on a pair, it’s hard not to fall in love – reducing your carbon footprint has never been easier.

We sat down with Brown to talk about Allbirds and his new, effortlessly cool creation.

 

What inspired you to start Allbirds?
I actually came up with the idea for what would eventually become Allbirds while I was playing professional soccer in my native New Zealand. I was sponsored by one of the big sportswear brands and noticed that so many of the shoes were over-designed and over- logoed. I realized there was a gap in the market for something simple. Growing up in New Zealand – the land of 29 million sheep – I was familiar with the miraculous properties of merino wool, and it surprised me that it wasn’t being used in footwear. Both of these insights created the foundation for Allbirds – a shoe that was simple in design and made with renewable materials.

Can you take me through the process of finding the best materials and fit for your first shoe? How many prototypes did you go through?
The very first product we launched, the Wool Runner, is made from ZQ-certified merino wool from New Zealand. While I was still playing soccer, I applied for a grant from the New Zealand wool industry to develop a material that was strong enough for footwear but retained the softness that makes merino so special. After years of refining the fabric and hundreds of prototypes of the Wool Runner later, we released the Wool runner with a proprietary knitted 17.5-micron superfine wool material made for us by an 150-year-old Italian mill just outside of Milan. The unique qualities of wool – wicking moisture, regulating temperature etc. – contribute to a wonderful comfort experience.

Why is it important to have sustainable footwear? Is there a specific kind of shoe that is the most detrimental to the environment?
Aside from the fossil-fuel industry, the fashion industry is the largest contributor to carbon emissions. There are approximately 20 billion pairs of shoes sold each year, with the industry still primarily relying on synthetics and cheap leathers. That’s why we are striving to do better. Allbirds recently launched a sugarcane-based green EVA sole material, a better alternative to the petroleum-derived industry standard solution, and an example of how we’re dedicated to creating new sustainable solutions that push ourselves and the industry forward. In a nod to this, we decided to open-source this material so anyone could use it, with the belief it’s imperative we work together to create significant change.

Your shoes are made of really unique materials – sugarcane, castor oil, recycled plastic bottles, etc. How did you discover these? How much manufacturing is required in order to transform them into a fiber you can then work with? How long do these materials last?
We have a team dedicated to sustainability and material innovation who are always on the lookout for new and interesting green solutions. We have a very high bar in terms of comfort and design and any recycled or natural material we use needs to meet those standards, so it takes a lot of refining to get these materials to market. We invest a significant amount of R&D – sometimes even a number of years – into every new material we introduce into our products.

How can individual consumers become more environmentally-conscious when buying shoes and apparel? Do you think fast-fashion could ever become sustainable?
While it’s important to do your best to research a brand’s materials and manufacturing practices whenever possible before you buy, the onus should be on brands to treat sustainability as a non-negotiable. While consumers care about the environment now more than ever before, the majority still won’t – and shouldn’t have to – buy less stylish or functional products just because they’re greener. It’s up to brands to provide more options for consumers that look and feel great, while also having less of an impact on the planet.

“Fast fashion” as we currently understand it is difficult to reconcile with a more sustainable approach to manufacturing. Our hope is to be a small force pushing to change the way things are made and what they’re made out of, but we still have a long way to go

Your latest shoe, the Tree Topper, is a fantastic take on the classic high-top sneaker. They are so comfortable and light, especially in comparison to a classic Chuck Taylor, or even a Nike Air Force – both popular, high-top sneakers. Why did you choose this shape as the latest launch? Do you see it having similar functionality to your regular sneaker, or could it cross-over into a casual basketball/athletic shoe? Do you think you’re going to do a wool version?
The Tree Topper is an incredibly versatile shoe, which provides the same breezy comfort of our Tree Runners. A classic high top is a silhouette we’ve had our eye on for quite a while, and we saw a ton of demand from customers who wanted us to do our own spin on the style. The Tree Topper is our first design to incorporate all three of our hero materials, a cozy Wool interior, light Tree exterior made from eucalyptus fiber, and our SweetFoamTMsoles.

While our Tree Toppers will keep you comfortable as you roam around all day long, we don’t recommend you take to the court in them.

As for a wool version, you’ll just have to stay tuned to see what we do next product-wise!

Can you explain what the SweetFoamTMis in your Tree Toppers and why it’s a fantastic alternative to the typical petroleum-based sole? Why was this an important part of the Tree Topper design? What is the typical impact of a regular petroleum-based sole?
We had been searching for a sustainable solution to the petroleum-based EVA widely used in casual shoe soles since well before we launched Allbirds in March 2016. The soles were the one part of our shoes we couldn’t work out how to make from bio-based or recycled materials, and we knew we’d have to invest in a significant amount of R&D to develop something more environmentally friendly. This past August, we released SweetFoamTM, our new soles made from the world’s first carbon-negative green EVA derived from renewable sugarcane. The Tree Topper is our first permanent style to utilize SweetFoamTM, which will be rolled out into the rest of our product line in the coming months.

EVA is traditionally made from petroleum. Because it utilizes one of the dirtiest sources of carbon, standard EVA emits a significant amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The footwear industry’s reliance on petro-based EVA is a contributor to the 700 million metric tonnes of CO2 it emits each year. Taking out petroleum and replacing it with sugar is a huge moment for one of the most commonly used materials in footwear.

You’ve just opened up a London store, which is the first European market you’ve entered (after US, NZ, Australia, and Canada, of course). How are you able to cater to multiple countries that have such varying climates, and thus footwear demands?
We only made shoes out of one primary material – merino wool – for our first two years in business, in large part because of its incredible properties. Merino is moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating, and incredibly soft. However, wool can get a bit hot when the weather gets warmer, so we introduced our second hero material, Tree, in March of 2018. Tree is made from Eucalyptus pulp, which is silky, cooling, and breathable, making it perfect for hotter climates. Seasonality definitely has some impact on which of our shoes people are gravitating towards, but we’ve found that these two comfort experiences are able to keep customers happy in different climates and regions throughout most of the year.

Luxury has taken a turn for the casual, definitely to the benefit of Allbirds. More and more people are wearing your shoes to work, out with friends, etc. Is keeping to trends in order to attract customers important for your design process, or do you set out to create a trend and hope the public will follow?
Trendiness has never been something we’ve focused on. Right from the start, we set out to create something simple, free from logos, and timeless in silhouette and design.

You’ve had an exciting year – Allbirds has tipped into the mainstream, gaining celebrity attention and a broader fanbase, and even with an investment from Leonardo DiCaprio this past August followed by a third round of funding. Can you take me through this whirlwind? How are you dealing with the increased demand? What are your plans in the next year or so?
2018 has been incredible for us. We’re so humbled by the support we’ve received, and it’s exciting to see people get excited about our mission to make better things in a better way. However, we still have a long way to go before we can make the kind of impact we’d like to. We’re a small player in a very large category, but we’re going to continue to scale our brand and push the industry to make more sustainable choices.

 

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