This sustainable shoe brands' secret to success is having no secrets at all

Home > Culture > Life & Style

print dictionary print

This sustainable shoe brands' secret to success is having no secrets at all

Allbirds' signature Wool Runners in natural grey. [ALLBIRDS]

Allbirds' signature Wool Runners in natural grey. [ALLBIRDS]

 
When organic food was first introduced to the market, consumers were quite skeptical, with preconceptions that organic foods and beverages tasted bad and were too pricey. But as more and more people began to see the connection between health, diet and the environment, organic food has become a booming trend.  
 
The exact same rule will apply to the fashion industry sooner or later, projects a sustainable footwear company called Allbirds — a reason for its continued global expansion and addition of Korea to its list of outlets.  
 
On Aug. 18, Allbirds opened an online mall in Korea, which is managed directly by its headquarters in San Francisco, and will possibly launch an offline retail store in the near future.  
 
The ultimate mission of Allbirds, according to its founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, is to show the revolution of sustainable manufacturing to the next generation and make them a part of the movement that believes “there’s no compromise when it comes to protecting the environment.”
 
It seems like being environmentally friendly has become the key factor for popular fashion brands attracting millennials with purchasing power.  
 
The Allbirds fad began inside Silicon Valley. Young startup gurus and Silicon Valley CEOs were frequently spotted wearing Allbirds’ Wool Runners — the sustainable shoe brand's most famous silhouette. The trend penetrated into Hollywood, and the company's shoes ended up on the feet of top celebrities and even former U.S. President Barack Obama, suggesting that being eco-friendly was set to take the fashion industry by storm.  
 
Thanks to the fad, it only took a couple of years for Allbirds, which started as a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2014, to become a globally recognized brand. The brand's footwear was named as “the world’s most comfortable shoes” by Time magazine in 2017. Since then, Allbirds’ products have been selling so well that it entered the unicorn club by late 2018 and the brand is now valued at $1.4 billion.  
 
As of this year, Allbirds operates in 35 different countries. Expanding to Korea was in fact in Allbirds’ plan since the beginning, as the brand's shoes are made in Korea. It was just a matter of “timing,” according to the founders, as it wanted to come to Korea when the brand was ready to target long-term success in the Asian market.  
 
Manufacturing company Nova International in Busan has been producing Allbirds’ wool runners since the brand’s launch. Superfine merino wool is the bedrock of this popular shoe line and according to the brand, it is very difficult to make shoes out of it. To start, Allbirds reached out to European countries to create a sample. 
 
Allbirds' co-founders Joey Zwillinger, left, and Tim Brown. [ALLBIRDS]

Allbirds' co-founders Joey Zwillinger, left, and Tim Brown. [ALLBIRDS]

 
But after many failed attempts over a period of 18 months, Allbirds turned their eyes toward Korea, the country known for “creativity and sophisticated craftsmanship,” said Brown. Finally, it was able to find an incredible partner in Busan — Nova International — which is now Allbirds’ “most important partner.”  
 
“We believe Korea is an essential market for us to win long-term success in Asia,” said Brown. "And it's about time.”  
 
So what’s the secret to Allbirds’ success?
 
It’s the fact that each shoe is derived from “ethically and sustainably sourced merino wool and tree fiber or sugar, while reducing the carbon footprint in the manufacturing process. But this secret recipe is in fact, no secret at all.  
 
In hopes of seeing other footwear companies following suit and together making products that are better for the world, Allbirds’ sustainable manufacturing process is public.  
 
To learn more about Allbirds, the Korea JoongAng Daily recently interviewed Brown, an ex-football player from New Zealand who, together with Zwillinger, a former executive from a renewable energy company, founded the company. The following are edited excerpts.  
 
Producing sustainable clothing using recycled plastic is now quite widespread. But as I know, it’s quite difficult to produce sustainable shoes, which is why many eco-friendly fashion brands give up on launching footwear. How did Allbirds make this possible?  
 
Footwear has relied on the same manufacturing practices and material preferences for the better part of a century. There has been a prevailing low-cost mentality that has led to the widespread use of synthetics and cheap leathers, in large part because of the tight margins of the wholesale model.

Changing course means investing more into research and development to find greener solutions, which sometimes requires greater upfront costs or spending more on natural or recycled materials. This is the approach we’ve taken at Allbirds, and we’ve found that over time, we’ve actually been able to bring costs down, and make sustainable options even more affordable for our customers. The goal should not be to make sustainable products, but to make great products with the understanding that today, for a product to be truly great, it must also be sustainable.  
 
Merino wool, recycled bottles, castor bean oil and recycled cardboard are all the materials you use for Allbirds' footwear. Anything else? 
 
At our core, we see ourselves as a sustainable material innovations company. Wherever we can, we find new uses for materials that naturally exist right in front of us. So far, this has included working with the likes of Merino wool, eucalyptus tree fiber and sugarcane. These natural materials aren’t just kinder to the planet, but they also provide unique comfort benefits for our consumers.  
 
How did you come up with the idea of using Merino wool for footwear? Just imagining Merino wool shoes makes my feet sweat, never mind running in them!   
 
This all started as a curiosity project while I was still playing football professionally. Growing up in New Zealand — where there are more sheep than people — I was familiar with the miraculous properties of Merino wool. 

I couldn’t get the idea for a simple wool sneaker out of my head, and it surprised me that it wasn’t already being used in footwear since its breathability, softness and odor regulation seemed perfect for shoes. 

It turns out that it’s incredibly difficult to get superfine Merino wool to stand up to the wear and tear of footwear, but after years of R&D, we were able to create the proprietary textile that is now used in our wool product line.

Despite its name, the Wool Runner is a casual shoe, and while our performance shoe, the Dasher, does have touches of our signature Merino wool, its upper is primarily made from our light and cooling tree material.
 
Allbirds seem to stress reducing carbon footprint more than the use of sustainable materials. Why?
 
“Sustainability” means 10 different things to 10 different people, from water usage, to microplastics and deforestation. While all of these are important, it makes it incredibly difficult for consumers who want to shop responsibly to know what to look for. We realized there was a need to even the playing field and make it easy for customers to compare the impact of the things they buy.  

For us, carbon is the singular metric that can provide objectivity to this emotional issue. That’s why we decided to label everything we sell with their carbon footprint, which represents the amount of carbon dioxide emitted during the production and use of the product. This is a radical initiative — no other footwear or apparel brand has implemented carbon labeling to this extent. 

We hope this practice will continue to be adopted more broadly so that one day, shoppers will compare carbon numbers at the mall as they do with nutritional facts in grocery aisles.  
 
I see that your company has a sustainability manager. Is that common? What’s the initiative behind that management system?  
 
We made the environment a key stakeholder in our business from day one. As a public benefit corporation and certified B-Corp, we are legally bound to our commitment to sustainability and are held to higher standards of social and environmental responsibility. 

To ensure that we are always living up to our mission, we made it a point to build a dedicated team with expertise in natural materials and sustainable businesses. We also made the unique decision to seat our sustainability team under the product organization, guaranteeing that our environmental impact was considered throughout every step of the product development process.
 
Why do you think Allbirds' products are so popular these days?
 
We’ve always understood that, first and foremost, we must create great products, and our customers have consistently told us that they love the way their Allbirds look and feel. However, in the four years since we’ve been in business, we’ve seen a growing focus, especially from the younger generations, in the environmental impact of the things they wear and buy.

We’ve been able to prove that you don’t have to compromise on sustainability to make a well-designed, functional product, and that’s really resonated with consumers.
 
Why do you think sustainable, eco-friendly fashion is so important in today’s world? 
 
Climate change is the problem of our generation, and we believe that business can be a force for positive change in this fight. Consumers are more aware than ever of how their purchases can impact the environment, and as a result, are demanding that same level of accountability from the brands they shop from.

If we want to continue pushing fashion toward a more sustainable future, we need companies to take responsibility for the information they share — and don’t share — with consumers. Having a universal scorecard, like carbon number labeling, can help bring clarity to the sustainability conversation.
 
Even though you use open-source, sustainable technology, it’s not easy for other companies to make use of it because of the cost. I heard that there are more than 100 companies that are using the technology of your SweetFoam TM. Can you introduce how that sharing of information works?  
 
While it took us nearly three years to develop SweetFoam™ with the help of Braskem, a Brazilian green energy company, we’ve open-sourced the technology so any business can easily make a more sustainable choice. Though most footwear brands closely guard their innovations, we’re aware of the impact we can have on other businesses by both setting an example and creating green solutions they can apply to their own products. 

While it currently requires a greater upfront investment, the more brands that adopt the green-EVA foam at the core of SweetFoam™, the more its price will be driven down to levels competitive with petroleum-based EVA. Our hope is that this innovation will spur an industry-wide shift toward greener solutions, and together we’ll be able to phase out the high-polluting materials that are traditionally used in footwear and beyond.
 
Some Korean companies are beginning to start sustainable fashion brands using recycled plastic to import the recyclables from overseas as the process in Korea means the plastic is not usable. Many local sustainable fashion brands insist that they should raise awareness of proper recycling first before launching a brand. Is that also a problem in the United States?   
 
Our ultimate goal is to create products that actually benefit the environment, and the only way to get there is by using natural materials. While recycled plastic is better than virgin synthetics, we focus instead on using renewable materials sourced directly from nature. 

Through regenerative agriculture and manufacturing innovations, the wool, eucalyptus and sugarcane we use have the potential to actually absorb carbon from the atmosphere, rather than emit it. That simply isn’t possible with traditional plastic, even if it’s recycled.
 
Allbirds' Tree Runners. [ALLBIRDS]

Allbirds' Tree Runners. [ALLBIRDS]

 
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE   [sharon@joongang.co.kr]
 
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
s
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)

What’s Popular Now