When it comes to industries that contribute to environmental degradation, fashion ranks among the worst offenders. Fast fashion, the quick production of new styles for consumer purchase, has disrupted seasonal cycles and created a culture of consumption that has accelerated wastefulness.
But consumer trends indicate fast fashion may be in jeopardy. According to Forrester Research in 2018, seven in 10 millennials and 52% of all online U.S. adults “consider company values when making a purchase.” These statistics do not bode well for businesses that do not consider the impact they have on the world.
Allbirds, a sneaker company, has consistently operated with sustainability since its founding. The company’s shoes are made from wool, tree fibers, sugarcane, recycled plastic bottles, and caster bean oil. The shoe boxes are made from 90% recycled cardboard.
And it isn’t just on environmental issues where Allbirds exhibits its values. In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the company donated more than $500,000 worth of shoes to medical professionals, launched a buy one, give one program for customers to aid in the efforts, and partnered with Strava (the company behind a popular exercising app) to donate $1 up to $50,000 to World Central Kitchen for every 5K race that participants in the initiative completed.
Allbirds is among thousands of businesses around the globe that have certified as B Corporations, surpassing third-party verified environmental and social thresholds. In a conversation with Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds co-founder and co-CEO, for my upcoming book Better Business, I learned more about the company and why purpose is so central to its mission, and how that plays into their public efforts and climate change efforts.
How can companies continue to prioritize climate change mitigation efforts while the effects of the pandemic continue to be top of mind?
Joey Zwillinger: We need to look at the collective response to the global health crisis as a lesson for how we can confront climate change, and it is more urgent than ever. We can’t return back to the way things were; otherwise, we will have no chance of avoiding a disastrous outcome for our species in the coming decades.
More than ever, consumers are voting with their wallets and supporting businesses who do not compromise on social and environmental issues. This trend is not going away—consumers are demanding more of companies, and the ones who thrive as we emerge from the pandemic are going to be the ones who take a hard look in the mirror at their sustainability practices and act swiftly and comprehensively.
How is Allbirds addressing the pandemic?
Zwillinger: As a B Corp, we do not ascribe to the shareholder-only model of capitalism that has led to corporate excess and poor environmental practices. Even though we felt the impact of COVID-19 along with the rest of the retail industry, we take our role as a business leader focusing on all stakeholders seriously and we acted accordingly.
In addition to shuttering our corporate offices and mandating that our employees worked from home to encourage health and safety, we also shut our retail stores. And despite the economic hit that we were taking with that significant loss of income, we committed to ensuring that all of our retail employees would receive at least their full wages and health care benefits for a four-month period, and have avoided making layoffs in our corporate team.
Even when faced with all this initial uncertainty, we knew one thing for sure: Our broader community needed help. The most obvious thing we figured we could do was provide some comfort to health care workers on the frontlines, so we quickly mobilized to donate more than $500,000 worth of shoes to medical professionals. When we were met with an overwhelming need beyond what we could do on our own, we invited our customers to also contribute via a buy-one-give-one program. Their enthusiastic response helped further our support for health care workers during such a critical time, and inspired us to launch another community-based initiative to benefit World Central Kitchen. In partnership with Strava, for every 5K race completed by a participant, we donated $1 to WCK, up to $50,000.
The collective action exhibited by our community has been a beacon of light in an otherwise dark time, and offers hope for how we may continue to come together to face this global challenge and others, like climate change.
Recently, Allbirds chose to label all of its products with a carbon footprint. Why? And what does your company hope to accomplish with this initiative?
The word “sustainability” means 10 different things to 10 different people—from air quality, to microplastics, to biodiversity, to fair trade. While these are all important, combating climate change is the most urgent issue of our time.
Man-made gas emissions that warm the atmosphere are the primary driver of this global crisis and, as such, carbon-equivalent emissions can serve as a singular metric that all businesses can track, eventually managing down to zero.
With this in mind, we decided to label every product we make with the amount of carbon emitted during its production, development, and customer use and disposal. It provides clarity to the conversation around sustainability and allows for a future in which shoppers can compare carbon numbers at the mall just like they do nutritional labels in grocery aisles.
We hope this approach becomes the standard for our industry and beyond.
Production of products like shoes is complex and many of the components are manufactured by third parties. Can you say a bit about how you assess the sustainability of your suppliers?
In terms of our supply chain, from a carbon perspective, we use third parties to do a lifecycle analysis. It’s super complicated and expensive. We don’t only do a tier one carbon measurement, which is what I think most companies do just to look like they’re doing the right thing. We go deep into absolutely every bit of carbon that affects our production of our product, including logistics and distribution and end-of-life.
An example is, our wool production uses something called “ZQ Certified Wool” and our Tree fiber production uses “Forest Stewardship Council Certified Fibers.” At tier one, we rely on things like ISO certifications and different kinds of standard bodies to make sure that we’re doing things in the way that we would feel proud if somebody walked into our factory. We also closely track fair wages, safety and employee standards across all tiers of our supply chain as well.
Do you have any examples of how you address tradeoffs between sustainability and making a profit?
Zwillinger: One simple example. We decided to use recycled plastic bottles as a basis for producing polyester for the laces, instead of using virgin polyester. We’re actually taking PET out of circulation. Yet, when we first introduced that, it cost us three times as much as we were paying for virgin polyester, but we decided to absorb that cost into our margins, rather than putting it back on the consumer. Our consumer does care about the authenticity of what we do, and we have to live up to our expectations that we set. We thought up a win-win where we sell laces as an add-on product.
When we launched a new material called “SweetFoam,” which we use in the midsole of our shoes, we open-sourced it to the world. Production of SweetFoam’s base resin is carbon negative, which means it achieved our goal of being like a tree, where it actually sucks more carbon equivalent emissions out of the atmosphere and locks it into the product. The open-sourcing of that sounds super altruistic because if everyone uses it, the planet’s way better off. That is a big component of why we did it, but it’s also quite pragmatic, because as more people use it, the cost comes down for us and everyone.