At Allbirds, Hana Kajimura is charged with making the complexities of climate change easily understandable to customers. She spoke to Melinda Williams as part of our Seven Plans for a Better Planet interview series to talk about how her firm is making sustainability part of its DNA.
Melinda Williams: When you began at Allbirds, the first thing you did was clarify the company’s sustainability direction. Why was that?
Hana Kajimura: Sustainability can mean 10 different things to 10 different people. It can be this very emotional, subjective space, so it was really important that we defined what sustainability meant to Allbirds the brand. Allbirds had all this ambition to do the right thing, be a responsible business in every sense of the word, but was also starting from scratch. We always had the mentality that focus was going to be key to us having an impact and that what we cared about could scale over time.
MW: And how did you choose your areas of focus?
HK: So, really it was a conversation with Tim and Joey [Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger are Allbirds’ founders] early on about why they started the business, which was that the footwear industry in particular relies really heavily on synthetic materials which are plastics, which come from oil, and as we know, oil and gas are really driving the climate crisis. It became clear that climate change was our number one priority and the most urgent issue facing our generation, so then the question became okay, so how do we measure, track, judge our progress towards reversing climate change?
MW: So refining your focus enabled you to get really granular on how you’re making a genuine difference.
HK: What’s nice about this space is that as big of a problem as this is, it’s really objective. Carbon emissions are driving climate change, and measuring carbon emissions is something we can do by looking at every stream that we create and coming up with the carbon footprint of each product, and coming up with plans to reduce that footprint over time. And while carbon is not the only metric for sustainability, it does encompass a lot of other elements of sustainability, whether we’re talking about types of materials, amount of materials, waste, energy. A lot is rolled up into that carbon footprint number, so we felt that it was a great place to start.
MW: Has your sustainability focus allowed you to work more productively with other like-minded businesses?
HK: We’re always looking for ways to share what we know and to learn from our peers in a way that benefits everyone. In material innovation, we’ve invested in material companies to develop and bring natural alternatives to the market, for example – our sugar-cane based form we developed with a company in Brazil and then open-sourced to the industry so that anyone can use it. I get emails every day from new brands that want to try it. And the other main way we collaborate is by working with other brands. Last May we announced a partnership with Adidas to create the lowest-carbon performance shoe, because we have all this experience around natural materials and using them in footwear, and Adidas brings decades and decades of manufacturing experience, and together we could combine to create something more than either of us could alone. That’s just the way we need to operate at this point. We have less than 10 years left to avoid the worst effects of climate change and if we all keep trying to do that alone we’re never going to make it in time.
MW: Given what’s happened in the last year, have you found that taking a strong sustainability stance has created greater resilience?
HK: We have. It’s been really fascinating to watch because conventional wisdom has said that in the midst of a global pandemic and financial crisis, sustainability would have been the first thing to go off the CEO agenda but that just hasn’t been the case at all, not within our business, not in conversations I’m having with my peers. Instead, sustainability has really accelerated and I think at the root of that is this global social awakening of customers waking up to their power and realising that they can and should demand more from businesses than just great products. In this world where there are a million things they can buy, they are able to be more selective about where they spend their money, and want to do that in a firm that is in line with their values.
MW: This year you published the carbon footprint of your shoes. What kind of responses have you had to that accountability?
HK: This is a two-fold answer. Customers respond really well to the transparency and accountability. They like that we’re providing hard numbers and not just fancy marketing taglines. Of all the sustainability topics you could go after as a brand, carbon is probably the most intangible and hard to grasp, as opposed to say, plastic bottles. So we’re at the start of the education journey there. But there needs to be other carbon footprints out there, not just for shoes but for other products so we can start to create a broader understanding about carbon footprints in the same way as we have around calories in food. You don’t actually need to know what a kilogram of carbon equivalent emissions is, you just need to know the difference between a shoe and a sweater.
MW: We can understand that at Britomart, because we talk about carbon emissions too, but in terms of the ones produced by buildings, which is something people have less personal agency over. What have you learned about communicating sustainability concepts effectively?
HK: So much of it is just persistence and giving the message again and again. Something we’ve thought about a lot is that telling a story and generating understanding around carbon and carbon emissions is probably one of the most powerful things we can do as a fashion brand. Like, we make shoes and shoes probably aren’t going to solve the climate crisis by themselves. But we can make climate change fashionable in a way that no other industry can. So we just really keep challenging ourselves to get creative in the way we tell the story. We provide both a really scientific download from the website that talks about the ins and outs of our calculations, as well as a very funny, entertaining video from Bret McKenzie from Flight of the Conchords. We just really try to meet people where they are.
Illustration by Lucy Han