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?”