Going to Zero
When it comes to carbon footprint, Allbirds works by a rigid mantra: Measure. Reduce. Offset. But that’s just the beginning. Here’s how one of the biggest start-up names in retail is trying to do what no company has done before—make and sell products without leaving any trace at all.
By Jason Buckland
Whenever she can, Hana Kajimura, the young, smiling brunette helping lead much of Allbirds’ sustainability efforts, books her office meetings in a room named Manuka.
It is aptly titled, a nod to the tree found often in New Zealand, where the beloved sneaker brand was born and where the merino wool is still sourced for its shoes. Each meeting room in the start-up’s headquarters—rooted now in northern California but calling always back to its origins in the southern hemisphere—is named after a tree, and indeed the office is precisely as you might imagine for the type of “it” brand that reportedly broke the billion-dollar valuation mark only two years after its debut. High ceilings, open areas, and exposed brick set the spaces. Black iron railings, colorful murals, and glass-walled rooms augment them.
But even in a pristine office, spread across two stories of a white-faced building in San Francisco’s historic Jackson Square district, to Kajimura there is something about Manuka. Inside are white walls, a large rectangular whiteboard hung on one. Two green plants rest next to the windows, and a white table sits underneath a hanging light fixture in the center of the room. It is the first conference area you see as you walk up the stairs to the second level, and, at the right time of day, the sun appears to hit it just so. “I try to schedule anything I can in that room,” Kajimura, Allbirds’ sustainability lead, says. “The light just helps it feel alive.”
Manuka also happens to sit right next to the desks of Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger, Allbirds’ co-founders and two bona fide A-listers in the nouveau retail class. Brown, 39, an Englishman, launched the brand’s first wool sneaker on Kickstarter in 2014 from New Zealand, where he had then recently finished a long career in pro soccer. Soon after, Zwillinger, also 39, an American engineer by way of a Wharton MBA and stints at Goldman Sachs and the biotech firm Solazyme (now TerraVia), joined. In 2016, Allbirds crossed the Pacific and hung its banner in the Bay Area.
In the early winter of 2019, Kajimura called Brown, Zwillinger, her boss, Jad Finck, Allbirds’ VP of innovation and sustainability, and Allie Cantley, then a senior analyst in supply chain operations, into Manuka. Kajimura had joined Allbirds two years prior, when the company was still around 50 employees (current headcount: more than 400), and she knew it was much easier to build direct-line relationships with its founders. But on this day, her friendly ties to Brown and Zwillinger notwithstanding, Kajimura was racked with nerves.
She had a big pitch, something she’d been prepping for more than a month, though her audience brought with it certain anxieties. “They’re brilliant,” she says of her company’s founders, “but they ask really hard questions. They push you, and so you really want to have a bulletproof argument.”
In Kajimura’s own life, sustainability was already an all-consuming ideal. She had studied environmental science at Stanford, and later spent three years with the prestigious consulting firm Bain & Company. She was, in short, precisely the type of young candidate that could have had her pick of jobs in a free market. “I really wanted to dedicate my life and my career to an issue was that I thought was a) really hard and really complicated, and b) was going to be central to humankind for a long time,” she says. “And I believe that the number one issue facing all of us today is climate change.”
She landed at Allbirds, a place where the bar for sustainable practices was already high. Inside the shoe maker, there is a mantra staff like to repeat: “Measure. Reduce. Offset.” It’s less rallying cry than it is ethos to those in the company directory, most of whom, like Finck and Kajimura, have arrived at Allbirds because sustainability is a personal principle they’d long held within them. When she joined, Kajimura’s team led the effort to measure the company’s carbon footprint, the first step in assessing what next to do about it.
By late 2018, Kajimura’s mind had turned to transportation. There were greater concerns to offsetting and reducing Allbirds’ carbon footprint—most of the company’s emissions, she says, come from producing the materials used to manufacture its products—but offsetting transportation was a “quick win,” according to Kajimura, who would propose Allbirds impose a tax upon itself to compensate for the emissions used in carrying its goods across the globe.
Inside Manuka, Kajimura wrapped her presentation, sure that her company’s founders would acquiesce her proposal. Just then, a ton of bricks fell right on top of her. “Okay, so you’re saying we should do this for transportation,” Zwillinger said. “But shouldn’t we do this for everything? If it’s the right thing to do for our transportation emissions, shouldn’t it be the right thing to do for our entire footprint?”
Kajimura staggered out of the meeting, and part of her wondered what she’d just done. “I had this really specific ask, and now it’s become this huge, almost moral, question,” she said to herself. “And now I need to go back to the drawing board.”
Was it frustration she felt? That much she couldn’t quite place, but what was certain was the Everest-sized challenge that lay before her: Figure how to offset, and eventually drive to zero, every last ounce of Allbirds’ carbon emissions.
When she steadied herself, a new perspective hit. “Pretty quickly, I realized that was exactly the right question to be asking,” she says. “It’s what I was after in the first place.”
Allbirds’ Earth Day Pledge
In the world of sustainability, Christmas comes in April.
Since 1970, Earth Day, the hallmark environmental event on the global calendar, has arrived every April 22. It was created by the peace activist John McConnell, who proposed a day to honor Earth during a United Nations conference in San Francisco—the very city Kajimura, some 50 years later, now reports to work.
At a company like Allbirds, Earth Day matters as much as any Black Friday or Christmas season ever could. For every time Allbirds has made a splash in the news—be it through a Shake Shack-branded limited release in 2018 or, in 2020, its partnership with Adidas to create a new sustainable sport performance shoe—Earth Day has been the moment when the company truly makes waves.
Following her meeting early in 2019 with Brown and Zwillinger, Kajimura was about to enter the busiest and most critical moment of her career to date. She hunkered down, spending long days researching how other companies, non-profits, and even governments had gone carbon neutral.
If anything, her team found first what Allbirds ought not to do. The company had observed other brands, nominally Allbirds’ competitors, offering vague pronouncements—general promises to be better, but with little transparency on execution or with seemingly little sense of urgency. “One of the reasons these environmental pledges are common,” Finck says, “is it gives [companies] a snooze alarm to say, ‘Don’t bother us. We’re working on this for the next 30 years. We’ll check back with you in 2050.’”
Allbirds decided it would make no public declaration unless the company could show its work. A few months after her meeting in Manuka, on Earth Day 2019, Allbirds unveiled the creation of its Carbon Fund, a self-imposed tax that would allow the company to become 100% carbon neutral. Ten cents per pair of shoes sold would go toward funding emissions reduction initiatives—like tree planting, clean energy projects, and air purification—that would offset the carbon Allbirds used to run its business.
This, in itself, was a massive step, and more than Kajimura had once bargained for. But even she knew this was only the next domino to fall for Allbirds. The natural gravity of the company she worked for would not let it stop there.
Committing to offset its carbon footprint was one thing. But could Allbirds pledge to one day bring its entire carbon emissions to zero?
What are Allbirds made of?
Kajimura again found herself in the thick of it.
As Earth Day 2020 neared, Allbirds had something new up its sleeve. But there was a long tail of rigorous work many at the company had to take on before any announcement could be made. In the early months of the year, Kajimura and her team were back at the center.
Right on the Allbirds website is a promise for more. “Carbon offsets are a starting point,” it reads. Ultimately, the company states, “we’ve got bigger goals. Like leaving no trace to begin with.”
The pursuit of turning Allbirds into a company that produces no carbon may be an eternal one. No company, let alone scientist or biotech engineer, knows today how to make goods without leaving a mark on the environment. No company, let alone scientist or biotech engineer, can say with certainty if this will soon be within the reach of human capability.
No matter how you phrase the question, you won’t find anyone at Allbirds willing to put a date on its quest for zero carbon emissions. Not 2030. Not 2050.
What it will do is promise to get closer each year. Kajimura’s task ahead of Earth Day 2020 was to help make Allbirds even more transparent about how the creation of its products impacts the environment. Each morning, she would arrive at the office before 8 a.m. to align on her tasks for the day before “the madness of people running by my desk started,” she says. At the end of the day, well into the evening, she would return to a Microsoft Excel tracker she’d made. Each item before her was either green, yellow, or red depending on its level of progress. At any given time, there were about 30 things her team needed to help clear by Earth Day.
By April, Allbirds had a major milestone to announce. Forbes, Vogue, and others clamored to cover the company’s big news. According to Allbirds, it is now the first footwear and apparel company to break down the carbon footprint of its goods the way a box of cereal would have a nutrition label on it at the supermarket.
What Everlane did for transparent pricing years earlier, Allbirds had now done for emissions disclosure. Everything that goes into an Allbirds product—materials used, manufacturing, the product’s use, and its eventual end of life—was catalogued and measured so that its environmental impact is laid bare for all to see.
It was an accountability measure more than anything else. Most consumers don’t know what it means when they learn that a pair of wool runners creates 7.1 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) to produce—though Allbirds does its bid to try, supplementing a dense five-page PDF on its methodology by explaining that it’s about the same as driving a medium-length commute in your car, or running the dryer in your laundry room about five times per week.
But any shopper can look at a number and watch it go up or down. Allbirds believes it can trim that 7.1 kg CO2e number (which it says is already well below the standard sneaker carbon footprint of 12.5 kg CO2e), and it believes that sharing its progress will help the company become a better standard bearer for the industry.
“By putting our numbers out there, we’ve set a clock,” Kajimura says. “We don’t exactly know that our carbon footprint is going to be 30% lower by next year, or 40% lower the year after that. We’re still working that out. But at least we’re accountable to our footprint now.”
Allbirds’ race to become carbon free
Measure. Reduce. Offset.
It’s a spring morning in San Francisco, and on this day the words are never far from Kajimura’s mind.
She sits in her home, miles from Jackson Square and the Manuka meeting room that has produced some of her best work. COVID-19, as it has to every place the disease touches, has seen to it that her 2020 will conclude much differently than it began.
It’s funny, Kajimura observes. This pandemic, horrific though it may be, has taught us a few things about sustainability and what humans are able to give back to the planet. “One thing that stood in our way of making progress on climate change is this idea that the kind of sweeping change required to combat the climate crisis is too drastic, too dramatic, not possible,” she says.
Kajimura noted news stories from the beginning of 2020, about how coronavirus lockdowns across the world—and the dramatic carbon emission decreases that had come with them—showed what was possible with the right tweaks to our human behavior. “Clearly,” Kajimura says, even if the world would return to its pre-pandemic emission levels before the year was out, “we are capable of that kind of sweeping change.”
A sign of what’s to come
Allbirds replaces its polyester shoelaces for those made of recycled polyester
TIME’s best inventions of the year
SweetFoam: shoe soles made of sugarcane
Reversing climate change by rebuilding and restoring soil
For Allbirds to reach its target of zero, what’s most pressing is changing the company’s own ways—to keep getting better at harvesting the raw materials that go into each one of its products. Of the 7.1 kg CO2e that is produced by every pair of wool runners, Allbirds says, 80% of those carbon emissions come from its materials alone.
Even on this number, Allbirds has made great leaps. A small win the company made years ago was to ditch its very first shoelaces, made of regular polyester, and swap them for laces made of recycled polyester. Later, the big swing came. In 2018, Allbirds debuted a product called SweetFoam, a new material made from sugarcane that would form a first in the footwear industry—an outsole not made from petroleum. TIME, which once famously called Allbirds the “world’s most comfortable shoes,” named SweetFoam one of its 100 best inventions of the year. In the hope that other companies would remove environmentally harmful petroleum from their products, Allbirds offered to give away its SweetFoam formula for free.
Allbirds has its eyes trained now on improving the carbon emissions from the supply of its wool, the hallmark material that set the company apart in the eyes of customers from the beginning. Wool itself is a very sustainable textile, but—and don’t laugh here—sheep belch plenty in their fields, emitting loads of greenhouse gas. “That’s what makes up the footprint of wool, basically,” Kajimura says. “Sheep burps.”
Before the pandemic shut down global travel, Kajimura had seen it up close, visiting New Zealand with her team. There with her were Allbirds’ supply chain partners, farmers, and soil scientists hell bent on making this key ingredient to Allbirds’ products better for the world around them. Regenerative agriculture, the years-long practice of farming and raising animals that can reverse climate change by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity, is how Allbirds will draw the carbon output of its wool sourcing closer and closer to nothing.
The race toward zero continues, though even those at Allbirds will not claim they are near yet. “We’re still in the early stages,” Finck says.
Each year, as Earth Day nears, it’s a strong bet that Finck and his team will be behind a major announcement charting new progress the company has made.
Kajimura will do her work, all the while wrestling with a turmoil she feels inside. “Every day,” she says, “I oscillate between feeling really pessimistic—like we’re never going to figure this out, and it’s so hard, and it’s going to be too late—to then feeling reinvigorated. Thinking that we have to keep going.”
It is an internal sense of drive she has brought with her—first as a curious academic at Stanford, later as a serious professional with the ear of the founders behind one of retail’s hottest start-ups. She could have picked anywhere in the world to be, until she realized that climate change hadn’t left her any other way.
“What other choice do we have,” she says,” but to figure this out?”