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Allbirds co-founders Joey Zwillinger and Tim Brown decided to leap into the shoe business while on a walk together in Marin Hills. They were surrounded by nature and sweeping views of the Pacific, just across the bridge from San Francisco, a city known for innovation. Combining natural materials and tech was their ticket to building a sustainable shoe company.
Allbirds exploded onto the scene in 2016 with a novel wool sneaker that sold more than a million pairs in its first two years. From its soles to its new resale platform, Allbirds has pushed sustainability forward on every front.
Despite volatile economic times, Joey remains optimistic about the company’s mission to combat climate change and make products that consumers love. Here are some of the learnings he shared about building a business truly focused on sustainability.
1. Embrace being an outsider
Tim is a former professional soccer player for New Zealand. Joey worked in biotech. Neither were deeply embedded in the shoe industry when they started Allbirds, and Joey says they used their outsider perspective to their advantage.
“We were two outsiders wanting to do things really different,” Joey says. “Tim and I thought we could come together and systematically offer products off the back of natural material innovation in a way that was incredibly compelling and differentiated for consumers.”
The industry at the time was still reliant on leather and plastic to make shoes, but Allbirds engineered new materials: a performance-ready wool, soles made from sugar cane, and leather-like textiles made from natural oils.
2. Foster creativity within constraints
Joey says the key to success was looking for sustainability opportunities at every step of the process and going down roads their competitors would never consider. “We constrain our R&D process to be both better for the consumer from a performance perspective, but also better for the earth,” he says.
For example, the company recently announced the world’s first carbon neutral shoe, which seemed unthinkable considering a normal sneaker typically has a carbon footprint of 14 kg CO2e.
3. Design to sell
Sustainability doesn’t necessarily drive sales. Above all, consumers want well-designed products. In terms of shoes, they want sneakers that are comfortable, durable, and look good.
But sustainability and good design can certainly co-exist. In fact, they have to. “If we can't make a big sustainable business from a financial perspective, we're not going to achieve our mission on the environmental side either,” Joey says. “ We are offering a beacon of hope for how you can have everything that you want from a consumption perspective, but not leave such a dent on the earth.”
4. Consider the full lifecycle of a product
A big part of the sustainable fashion movement is to buy used. Allbirds launched an online resale platform called ReRun to facilitate just that.
Joey has talked to several business owners about building similar platforms, but he says they’re often hesitant. “Their biggest fear is that it's gonna cannibalize their core business and it's going to take away sales from their full-price business,” Joey says. “And we have found that that's not the case at all.”
In fact, he says ReRun has been a good way to attract new customers at a lower price point. These same customers often later convert to purchasing the new, full-price Allbirds.
5. Motivate with a higher purpose
Like many public companies, Allbirds is now under a microscope. Joey say his company plans to double down on its digital business and look for new partnerships to reach scale in international markets.
Still, Joey says he’s energized by the company’s mission and opportunity to bring customers even more sustainable options. “Without that purpose, it wouldn't be successful no matter how much money was made.”
To hear more about Allbirds sustainability practices and its San Francisco connections, listen to Joey’s full interview on Shopify Masters.