These Sustainable Sneakers Are a Reluctant Game Changer
There are a couple things about Allbirds that are surprising, but there's one that rises above the rest. It's not that the sneakers are made from New Zealand wool, though wool isn't a traditional choice for shoes and New Zealand isn't exactly the first place we think of when we think of sneakers. It's not that the shoes are all solidly priced at $95 a pop, which is practically a steal in the current market. And it's not that Allbirds has become the sneaker of choice for the Silicon Valley elite. It's that Allbirds' founder, Tim Brown, isn't really into sneakers.
"I don't particularly like shoes," he says. "As good as that would be for the PR sort of story."
The story of Allbirds isn't a bunch of guys who love sneakers trying to leave their mark on the industry, even if their approach does present a major shift in thinking. Instead of leather or synthetics, the brand's uppers are made from merino wool, which is remarkably good for shoes thanks to its durability, plus odor-reducing and heat-regulating properties. It's also ethically sourced: Allbirds is a certified B Corporation, and its wool is ZQ certified for animal welfare and social and environmental care. And, perhaps most importantly, wool is sustainable.
So really, the shoes are a means to an end. And it's a much bigger end than Brown and his team were ever expecting.
Before becoming his own version of a footwear mogul, Brown was a soccer player. He started in his youth, played for teams all over the world, and eventually became one of the foundational members of the Wellington Phoenix in 2007. He even played for the national team of New Zealand for eight years. But it was never about the game for him.
"I didn't really like football, if I was honest, but playing for New Zealand was meaningful," he says. That very same sentiment has ended up shaping the way Allbirds does business.
After retiring from football and teaming up with his partner at Allbirds, biotech engineer Joey Zwillinger, he jumped into figuring out what they could do with this product beyond putting more shoes into the world. "Joey and I were like, 'Fuck, we don't like shoes,'" Brown explains. So they decided to make it bigger. That's where the push for sustainability comes in.
In a world full of greenwashing, this may sound cynical. But at Allbirds it's much more than a marketing scheme. In fact, it's barely a part of the brand's customer-facing presence at all, precisely because Brown doesn't want to call undue attention to it.
"Anyone that is going out into the world needs to be thinking and doing everything they possibly can to make the product in the best way," he says. "It's not something to be proud of; it's something you just do." Instead of using environmental awareness as a sales or PR tactic, Brown sees it as a genuine imperative.
"Fuck, we don't like shoes."
There is something to be said about the fact that you're currently reading an article about Allbirds' sustainability when the founder himself is saying that the company doesn't do it for attention. But it's important to tell this story—not just to illustrate Allbirds's efforts, but to show that any other brand could do the same (or even call attention to the ones that aren't).
"You make the best product you can and you make it hand-on-heart as sustainably as you possibly can, and then the next year you go and improve," Brown says. "We're building this thing from the ground up. We don't have the margin pressure of a wholesale model [the brand sells direct to consumers], so we can do things differently and that's the goal. I feel like Joey and I and the team are on a mission, and it's a good feeling."
Whether they're working on creating a bio-based sole, or restructuring the way New Zealand farmers do business, they're trying to make the whole system better.
One thing, though: As much ink has been spilled congratulating brands like Allbirds for adopting sustainable methods, there's a dearth of customers who are hunting for explicitly eco-friendly products. There's a sort of stigma that comes with being mindful of those issues, an assumption those processes result in inferior products. Brown is acutely aware of this—and that's perhaps why Allbirds doesn't bill itself as The Sustainable Sneaker Brand, even if it is.
"If you asked 100 people on the street out there do they care about this issue, 98 out of 100 say they care. And then at the point of the purchase, the thing fucking goes out the window," he explains. "We need to shift the thinking, and I think we're about to embark on a manufacturing movement where the best products will just be sustainable products because people won't accept anything less."
It's not that Brown wants the industry to make sustainable shoes, he wants the shoes we make to be sustainable. It's a subtle difference, yes, but it represents a paradigm shift when it comes to thinking about the way product is made. Brown ultimately wants to create a shoe that, "when you're finished with it, you bury it in your garden and it disappears, you know?"
Allbirds has been around for less than a year, but it's already outpacing expectations and growing every day. As each of the wide variety of colors sells out online—you can buy some men's pairs on the website but you'll have to wait for them to arrive; they're backordered—the interest increases. But from Brown's point of view, the company still has a long way to go.
"It's not good, bad, or indifferent. It's a commitment to improve," he says. "And I certainly don't think we're doing anything great yet, but trust me, we're trying. We're trying. Hopefully our consumers and our audience and our community trust that we are trying really, really fucking hard."
This story originally appeared on Esquire.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Esquiremag.ph editors.