It’s been a big year for Allbirds. Since the company went public in late 2021, its share price has experienced some serious air turbulence. But the little Kiwi-US start-up that could hasn’t been knocked off-course in its ambition to produce the world’s most sustainable shoes. They’ve just announced they’ve succeeded in their multi-year ambition to create a net zero-carbon sneaker produced without buying carbon offsets. The M0.0nshot, as they’ve named it (with the 0.0 indicating the carbon emissions of the shoe), is a merino sneaker that sets a new benchmark for shoe sustainability – one that’s around 14kg less carbon per pair than the industry average.
The feat was achieved through a partnership with Lake Hawea Station, a regenerative sheep farm in Central Otago run by former 42Below boss Geoff Ross, his wife Justine and their two sons. The farm’s climate-positive (or carbon-negative, absorbing more carbon than it releases) wool production methods played a big part in getting the Moonshot down to the carbon-zero line, although a multitude of tweaks to packaging, materials and shipping got that carbon footprint much closer to the line in the first place.
We talked to Allbirds co-founder (and former All White) Tim Brown about what the new shoe – which will go into production later this year and launch to market next year – means for the company industry, the company, and New Zealand farming.
Melinda Williams: The M0.0nshot is a big moment for Allbirds. Why did you decide to commit to the project?
Tim Brown: To zoom back first, sustainability means a lot of different things to different people, and it’s made up of a bunch of interconnected topics like land quality and air quality and animal welfare and recyclability and end-of-life. So, the most important thing to understand is that carbon is the North Star for how we think about tackling sustainability. Much like calories on food, it doesn’t equate to every aspect of a healthy diet, but it’s an important metric that allows you to literally compare apples and oranges, and in the case of carbon footprints, compare a pair of shoes to a plane trip or a burger and make sense of what can sometimes become a very complicated and abstract topic around environmental impact.
As part of that, we partnered with adidas to try and create the world’s lowest carbon-footprint shoe. We landed at about 2.94kg, which is about half a hamburger. Our team walked away and said ‘We think we can do better’. And that’s what we’ve done. It’s a game of inches, of understanding every aspect of how a product’s made, where it’s made, what it’s made out of, and it’s allowed us as a brand with our DNA, our origin, in merino wool to partner really closely with New Zealand Merino to develop a regenerative agriculture programme that could understand the carbon intensity of the fibre we were using. One of the foundations of this project is a partnership with Lake Hawea Station in the South Island to create a carbon-negative fibre that’s the basis of being able to create a pair of shoes that has zero carbon impact.
MW: So, ‘regenerative merino’ was the breakthrough that made the zero-carbon outcome possible?
TB: It’s one of the foundational materials that by virtue of its negative carbon score is able to work alongside all the other myriad of small improvements we’ve made to packaging and transport and manufacturing and laces and insoles and midsoles to reach zero. One of the key drivers of that is this multi-year, regenerative fibre programme that we’ve worked on in partnership with New Zealand Merino. But that said, it was probably only a couple of years ago that we went to New Zealand Merino and explained to them that we were making commitments through our Flight Plan, our long-range sustainability plan, to halve the amount of carbon emissions from our products by 2025 and to get as close to zero as we possibly could by 2030. When you understand that to be the future, you have to be very fastidious about the materials you choose.
MW: I wouldn’t have expected wool to be carbon-negative, based on what I know – or at least think I know – about animal farming’s carbon intensity.
TB: At the time we first started talking to New Zealand Merino about this, not that long ago, wool was considered to be a very carbon-intensive material generally. But saying ‘wool’ is a lot like saying ‘cars’. There’s a lot of variance, from an electric car to a carbon-intensive, gas-guzzling Hummer. So first of all, there had to be a commitment from New Zealand Merino and their farming partners to measure and understand what was going on. What we learned quickly was that the numbers were a lot lower than what we had thought and that each farm is unique, with its own footprint of cover crops and approach to rotational grazing and all the levers you need to pull to farm regeneratively.
A lot of the time these were being used already, but the farmers just weren’t getting credit for them. In the farming community, a lot of times when you can use terms like ‘regenerative’ and it can be perceived by some to mean ‘I’m not a real farmer’. But what it means to Allbirds is that we’re going to pay more for that fibre, and that this is the future of where the material industry is going. The fashion industry is increasingly making big commitments and regenerative material is going to be foundational in delivering on these promises.
MW: I suppose the synthetic alternatives to natural fibres are pretty carbon-intensive themselves.
TB: The way I like to frame it is that for the last 50 years, the wool industry has had its lunch eaten by the synthetic industry. And moreover, there haven’t been many young Kiwis seeing farming as part of the future of our economy, but I think that’s changing. New Zealand Merino have now signed up close to 75 percent of their farms to this regenerative project, which I think represents almost 15 percent of New Zealand’s agricultural landmass. So we are talking about really meaningful chunks of this community that are taking a real bet on the future. Certainly from Allbirds’ perspective, that’s a great one, and as a New Zealander it makes me really proud and optimistic about what the future of merino can be.
MW: So this is good news not just for shoe-wearers, but merino-wearers, and other product brands who want to use sustainable materials like wool. And that’s always been part of the Allbirds ethos, hasn’t it, to promote change throughout the industry, not just within your own brand?
TB: Yeah, I think so. We’ve always tried to operate at the intersection of purpose and profit. In the the case of our Sweetfoam technology, we made that open source to the entire industry, and we did that because we knew that the more people that adopted that, the better it would be for the environment, but equally, we knew that the cost would come down and we would benefit from that. I think that sometimes you hear the word ‘sustainable’ and you think that it means more expensive and less good, and I think we need to shift the conversation to be more about sustainability being the problem of our generation and how we think about remaking our products and services. But I also see this as an incredible landscape of innovation and economic advancement that I think New Zealand is uniquely placed to lead.
MW: Have many other companies picked up on Sweetfoam?
TB: Many; north of 100 companies globally. Everyone understands this is a huge shift, a generational shift, and the companies that are working this out will be the ones to succeed in the long run. And some large organisations that have been for lack of a better word, addicted to using cheap synthetics and plastics will be finding it quite difficult to reimagine the supply chain. For 50 years we haven’t innovated the way we could or should have with natural materials so there’s going to be a period of catch-up. But again, in the seven years since we started and now, it’s quite incredible to see the shift and the increasing consumer knowledge, awareness and expectation. And we think this is very much a transformational shift in the apparel and footwear categories.
MW: Now that you’ve achieved your aspirational goal of a zero-carbon shoe, have you set yourself a new moonshot target, or are you taking a few moments to revel in this success?
TB: I’d like to think we can just celebrate this for a beat. It’s a really big achievement. We’ve been working on this for more than half the life of the business and we’re going to release the prototypes in the middle of the year. In the background, yeah, it’s about what we have learned from this, how can we apply this to our broader product range? That’s the great thing about innovation, you can do things in small ways that have potential for broader application. This is just a tiny start. It’s a really important start, a world first, and I’m proud of it and the partnership with the growing community. But oh gosh, we’ve got a long way to go.
MW: On the topic of evolution, how has being in your new(ish) design hub in Portland made a difference for the company?
TB: Well, you can go on the record and say the weather’s rubbish, though coming from Wellington that might be a little bit rich. But it’s global hub for the greatest, most iconic brands in footwear and a magnet for talent, so we’ve attracted some extraordinary designers and creators and storytellers who are in our office up there. I think it’s just another example of how we’re growing and attracting talent from “big footwear” who want to attack the type of challenges that are in our DNA. That’s a cool part of how we’ve grown.
MW: We still think of Allbirds as a Kiwi brand here at Britomart, but it truly belongs to the world now, doesn’t it?
TB: Look, Allbirds is a story with New Zealand deeply in its DNA and heart. It started in Wellington and has really only been made possible by the incredible fibre that the merino growing community is producing. It’s a New Zealand story but a global business with a global network of stores. But New Zealand is special to me and we do enjoy really wonderful support there. As we grow, I can promise you one thing, we won’t forget where we came from.
MW: Your latest growth period since you went public has brought a few challenges. How are you finding the balance between continuing to chase big, brave goals with the pressures of quarterly reporting and a strong focus on share price?
TB: Well, from my sporting days, pressure is a privilege. To be able to play on the biggest stage in business is something that if you’d told me I’d be doing it 10 years ago when I was launching a Kickstarter campaign, I would have probably laughed at you. So, it’s an incredible privilege and I feel very, very fortunate to have come this far. And now we’re here, we have to prove ourselves; that there’s a new generation of businesses that can bring purpose and profit together to create really successful profitable businesses and iconic brands, but also drive the conversation forward on sustainability. I think any brand that’s not thinking about climate change today is on the wrong side of history and it’s going to be a huge transformation of the entire economy. There will be winners and losers but we’re fortunate to have this written into our DNA and now it’s time for us to go forward on the world stage and prove it. There’s been no shortage of challenges but the way I like to think of it is that we’re seven years into a hundred-year journey to build an iconic brand that is able to prove that supernatural materials can be at the forefront of the fashion and footwear industries, and in the fullness of time it represents an incredible proposition.
MW: Sustainability is a long game.
TB: It doesn’t have to be. One of the things that the Moonshot proves is that you can do it now if you commit to it. Is it easy? Absolutely not. Is it a creative and innovation opportunity? Yes. Is there an increasing awareness from customers who want to know the provenance of what they wear and buy? Yeah, that’s where this is going. I think this is a small example of what can happen when you commit to it, and we hope it’s an example for others to jump in and follow. Allbirds has grown a lot from its origins in my apartment in Cuba St in Wellington to being a global company with north of 1000 people, but from the beginning this has been about partnership, from partnering with Brazchem, a huge green energy company to make Sweetfoam, or our partners who helped us create plant leather, to New Zealand Merino. On average the footwear industry makes 20 billion plus pairs of shoes a year. It’s an enormous industry and Allbirds is a very small part of it, but hopefully we’re showing leadership in the use of sustainable natural materials, through standing on the shoulders of giants, rethinking the way we do business, and making products that people want to be associated with.