CSR Spotlight: Allbirds
Transform the consumer goods industry by leading by example.
Joey Zwillinger, co-founder of Allbirds, makers of the world's comfiest shoes, was visiting Wellington when we got a chance to sit down together and talk sustainability. Here we go over making good products, challenges in becoming sustainable, & businesses who are leading the change.
How would you describe yourself in a sentence?
I would say I like to make things, and I like to use business to do good for the environment.
Have you always been like that?
Yes, for a pretty long time now the environment has motivated me. My last business was a renewable chemical company, where we used biotechnology to engineer microorganisms, and then utilize a highly sustainable fermentation technique to produce renewable chemicals at industrial scale. The industry typically uses petroleum, so what we were doing stood out.
The love of the environment has a lot to do with living in Northern California – it’s definitely the NZ of the US. When we started Allbirds, it was a natural home for us to start the company.
What was the motivation behind Allbirds?
The motivation to start Allbirds was first and foremost about the environment. We formed the company as a C-Corp, and then subsequently became a public benefit company, which is a sub-chapter of C-Corp law. This means we're not taking a traditional shareholder approach to growing the company, but that we can make decisions for the environment and other stakeholders too. Upon getting certified with B-Labs, a nonprofit organization based in the US, we are now known as a 'B-Corps' company, which signals that we're about more than just making shoes.
From the beginning, our aim was to build a sustainable innovations company – not only a shoe company and not just a wool company. It’s a vision we’re trying to – quite literally – knit into every product, from the beginning of life to end of life. As we roll out more and more products, that takes us further along the journey to becoming that company.
What's been the biggest challenge? Were you always taken seriously by investors?
Investors took us seriously not because of our environmental values alone, but because of money. It's appropriate to have both; they could see that our vision for building a business this way was a way to earn a profit, as well as happening to do some good for the environment at the same time. We saw it as a good way to do both too.
The most challenging part has actually always been the supply chain. Using renewable materials in a supply chain that doesn't normally do that has been hard; it makes it tough to deliver results from start to finish.
To make it work, we've had to go all the way back in the supply chain. As a team of two first starting out, we had to pick what sort of sheep we wanted and how the farming practices used were audited and certified, develop a new-to-the-world textile with our partner wool mill specifically designed for shoes, and find a factory with good labour practice. Normally a shoe company might take something cheap and have that manufactured and then pay for it, which we couldn't do.
As a company built on sustainability, we had to take every part of the supply chain a part to make sure we were delivering a fully sustainable shoe.
Are you noticing other companies jumping into sustainability more?
Yes I think so. There are a few different approaches to it, some companies do the one for one model where they give away a product for every bought, but we decided to focus on innovating around natural materials.
There are some companies doing that, but I'm not sure it's always so central. For a lot of consumers, this is not so much even a trend anymore, but an expectation you will do things in an environmentally sensitive way. You have to now or consumers will reject you as a company. I think it's starting to become the norm, which is great, but now we have to push that further.
What are you most proud of achieving environmentally?
If you take our shoe and look at how it is made and the materials we source, you'll see that our carbon footprint per shoe is substantially lower than other shoes on the market.
The reduction of carbon emissions over the lifecycle of our product has been significant, and that makes us proud - but I guess it's also important to say that no one’s celebrating yet. It’s still early success for us – we're just over a year in. But it’s on the radar of big companies out there, and people are taking note that it works to tell a story this way. Our whole reason for being here is that we expect to be copied if we're successful, and we don't mind that, because that means we’re transforming the industry.
Do you have any advice for companies looking to go this route?
It's important to remember that you can’t market sustainability. No one really cares about that from a purchase perspective. You need to make a great product, and it needs to sell itself from a consumer benefits point of view.
People might prefer sustainability when comparing two commodity products for the same price, but they're not buying into sustainability as a concept. And shoes are not commodities. They're wanting an expression piece or a comfort item first, and if you do a good job at that, the halo effect is that they love you more because you're sustainable. But the lesson is that you have to make a good product first.
Do you get accused of greenwashing?
No one's really questioned us yet, but I suspect the more successful we get the people might start picking holes in what we're doing more. We're starting out trying to be the best that we can, but all the time also being pretty transparent about not being perfect either, so we don't set ourselves up to fail. At every step we're clear about wanting to make progress over achieving perfection.
Why do you find this work important?
This [environmental degradation] is the biggest issue that our whole world is facing, but we’re going to try tackle it. Along with policy, businesses leading the change is really going to be the way, and we want to be a part of that.
1. Commit to the whole supply chain - it's not greenwashing if you're genuinely improving your processes as much as you can across the company.
2. Make progress not perfection - be transparent with where you're at sustainability wise and don't be afraid to make a good go of it anyway. Be about the progress you can make, and don't worry about not being perfect straight away.
3. Make a good product first - people don't buy sustainability as a concept, but they start to love you for it if your product is any good.
4. In the same sense, it's okay to attract supporters interested in profit if you can weave your more altruistic vision throughout the company and achieve both. Money makes a business work, and that's what helps you to deliver the most impact in the end, so don't be afraid of earning it.