As retail industry outsiders looking to address the issue of climate change, footwear wasn’t the obvious choice for Allbirds co-founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger. “Making stuff is hard,” Brown says. “Making shoes is particularly difficult and trying to do so with materials never used before in the category with a deep focus on sustainability is even more so.”
But the pair — Brown, a former World Cup player for New Zealand, and Zwillinger, an engineer and renewables expert — found that retail allowed them to show consumers what sustainability could do, while creating a simple sneaker in an overcrowded, overdesigned market. “Something like 20 billion pairs of shoes are bought and sold every year, and they all end up in the landfill,” Zwillinger says. “The fashion and apparel industry puts 700 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions into the atmosphere annually and is a significant contributor to global warming.” The founders acknowledge their shoes alone won’t make a notable impact on the planet just yet, but they're hoping their work around sustainable materials can make a difference. They have invested heavily in R&D and share lessons learned with the industry — such as open sourcing their innovation for their environmentally-friendly SweetFoam sole material. They’re letting sustainable material innovation lead the way for Allbirds, Zwillinger explains. “We expect to be much more than shoes.”
Before the brand launched in 2016, Allbirds tested hundreds of prototypes and faced challenges with its manufacturer — both around the uncertainty of selling directly to consumers and the unknowns of working with wool. “If we had followed everyone’s guidance,” Brown says, “we would have thought making a shoe out of wool was impossible, that we didn’t have enough experience and that there wasn’t a new emerging class of consumer that cared about the provenance of the things they buy.” But after finding the right manufacturing partners and finding the right mentors, like Starbucks’ Howard Schultz (an early investor), Brown and Zwillinger continued to refine their prototype until they were ready to launch their first she. Nearly three years later, they've sold over 1 million pairs of shoes, launched in five countries, and opened three retail stores.