LONDON – When Allbirds founders Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger launched the shoe brand in 2016, they wanted to make a plain looking shoe without a logo. They started with a wool upper sneaker, and ads claimed they were the "most comfortable" shoes in the world.
Their sneakers soon became the footwear of Silicon Valley executives, but they had a mission other than being fashionable: to be environmentally friendly. However, using a sustainability message in marketing at the time wasn't exactly the sexiest selling point, explained Hana Kajimura, sustainability leader at Allbirds.
"Right from the start, it was crucial for Tim and Joey to bring our product out into the world so that we would have an (environmental) impact. Sustainability is a big issue, it's really hard. People don't really get it. We don't want to take the risk of confusing them. So let's guide with comfort and design, "Kajimura told CNBC over the phone.
While concern for the environment was something the founders "embedded" into the business, it needed to focus its efforts, Kajimura explained. She joined Allbirds in 2017. "My job was to say: OK, sustainability is this incredibly big term, this broad umbrella that can mean 10 different things to 10 different people … and what does that mean for us?"
Brown and Zwillinger knew that sneaker soles are traditionally made from plastic, which is made from fossil fuels and contributes to carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. "Climate change is really the key issue we wanted to make change in and the way we wanted to do it was by reducing our own carbon footprint and then helping other companies to do the same," explained Kajimura. Working with a Brazilian manufacturer, soles were made from sugar cane, a product called SweetFoam, and the technology was made available to other companies free of charge.
An outdated topic
According to a McKinsey estimate, the fashion industry caused around 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2018. Anna Granskog, a partner in the company's global sustainability practice, told CNBC that "far too few" fashion companies are doing anything to address this, and McKinsey's August report "Fashion on Climate" suggests the sector is doing its best Reducing CO2 emissions must halve in the next 10 years if the climate targets set in the Paris Agreement of 2015 are to be achieved.
"For fashion companies … if they want to think about their sustainability agenda, they have to deal with emissions to gain credibility for that agenda," Granskog told CNBC over the phone.
Allbirds' environmental goal is to eliminate the carbon emissions of its products, from the raw materials used to the CO2 that shoes produce when they break down in landfills. His approach is to measure its emissions, reduce its environmental footprint by including recycled or natural materials, and then offset whatever is left.
Allbirds prints the carbon footprint of its sneakers on their soles.
Measuring emissions is complex because several processes are involved in the manufacture of goods. However, the company estimates the carbon footprint of an average Allbirds product to be 7.6 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent emissions). This is equivalent to putting five loads of laundry into a dryer, calculated and compared to 12.5kg CO2e for the average standard sneaker using a method used by Allbirds, based in part on an MIT study that looked at how emissions in Shoes can be reduced production.
The problem with discussing carbon footprint or greenhouse gas emissions is that these are not terms that the average consumer instinctively understands, Kajimura explained. "We chose to cover the toughest topic first. I think something like plastic is really tangible to people. You can see it, they can touch it. So when companies talk about ocean plastics or recycling, it's pretty intuitive "Climate change, carbon emissions, not like that," she told CNBC.
Part of the solution might be to tell the story better, and earlier this month Allbirds released a video with comedian Bret McKenzie explaining that emissions are pretty similar to calories. As he says, "the higher the number, the more work we have to do to get it picked up," and up to that point Allbirds publishes the carbon footprint of all its products.
"We believe this is an important step in helping our customers develop this relational understanding of carbon footprints in the same way they already have for example calories or other nutritional information on food," said Kajimura.
People are more concerned about green issues than they were when they started Allbirds, she added. "(Now) the average person is becoming much more aware of what sustainability means … And as we grew and had a bigger platform and audience, we felt it was our responsibility to involve more and more people in this conversation, regardless whether they get it first or not. "
Comedian Bret McKenzie explains in an Allbirds video how a carbon footprint is calculated.
Karl-Hendrik Magnus, Senior Partner at McKinsey and Co-Head of the Apparel, Fashion and Luxury Group, agrees that more transparency is needed. “When you go into a fashion store and look at a t-shirt, you have a hard time judging whether it is a sustainable garment or not. This allows the consumer to make the educated decision to move away from unsustainable brands to remove and. " Celebrating and supporting sustainable brands is the first thing (companies) can and must do better, "he told CNBC on the phone.
In May, Allbirds announced a partnership with Adidas to create a sports performance shoe with "the lowest carbon footprint ever". Allbirds should encourage other companies to also publish details about their emissions, said Kajimura. "In making the decision to publish our carbon footprint, we recognize that another brand may have a lower carbon footprint than we do. However, that would be an asset as we would not only get people to know about carbon footprints to speak, but would also manage to do so. " Competition and (that is) exactly the right way to reduce the footprint of our industry. "