“We’ve made a very clear choice when it comes to how we sell our products. We want a simple offering, that is consistent wherever you find it and is focussed on the shoe itself.”
For something 5,500 years old, the world’s oldest shoe is in remarkably good condition. Discovered by a PhD student in a cave in Armenia in 2008, its 1,000 years older than the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt. Made of cow-hide, with leather laces, at a glance it could be a ballet shoe. It probably belonged to a woman as it’s a European size 37 / US size 7, though as people were smaller then, it could have been worn by a man. It’s a precious artefact, preserved only due to the stable, cool and dry conditions in the cave and a timely reminder that until recently, everything we wore was bio-based.
But we don’t have to go back to the Chalcolithic era (thanks Wikipedia!) to see what bio-based shoes look like today. Instead, open your web browser, tap your phone into life, or head to one of their growing number of shops and pick up an Allbirds shoe. This is a company that we’ve tracked for a few years now, and it’s fantastic to see their growth as an innovative, lively and resolutely commercial organisation. Yes, they make shoes. But it is not just about them as Jad Finck, their Vice President of Innovation & Sustainability exclusively tells Luke Upton.
The origins of Allbirds lie in a partnership between an ex-professional footballer from New Zealand, Tim Brown, and engineer and ex-Solazymes VP, Joey Zwillinger. Merino wool is abundant in Brown’s home country, but throughout his career, which took him to the 2010 FIFA World Cup, he was always frustrated at the low-quality footwear he had to wear and why this natural material was virtually absent from the footwear industry. Together, they thought they could change this and via a Kickstarter and extensive R&D, Allbirds was launched.
Jad, whose career has included roles at Chevron, Bechtel and is also a Solazymes alumnus, tells us more about the early days of the company: “Footwear for us is about three things; comfort, design and sustainability. To deliver in these areas, from day one, we’ve made the material the hero. And we soon realised that this hero needed to be something new. We were looking at ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA), which has been used since the 1970s and knew that we could do something. So we partnered with Braskem and developed a copolymer derived from sugarcane, rather than oil. This carbon-negative product we called SweetFoam. From this our first product was born.” Allbirds launched into the footwear market with flip-flops made from SweetFoam and featuring interchangeable straps made from recycled PET bottles, bio-suede and castor oil-based thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU). And, of course they arrive in packaging made from 90% recycled cardboard.
“The world’s most comfortable shoe.”
From here they haven’t looked back. As the product range has been slowly but methodically added to, maintaining their adherence to quality and minimalist almost utilitarian design – there’s no dramatic logos, or zany colours – their media coverage has exploded.
Among the many highlights, are Time Magazine in 2016, describing them as “the world’s most comfortable shoe”, and a tweet from Leonardo DiCaprio in August 2018, telling the world (and his 18 million+ followers) that he was “proud to be an investor in @Allbirds, a company dedicated to creating a more sustainable future by developing new materials and serving as a model for the footwear industry.”
The product range and their materials has grown too, their ‘Runners’ and ‘Loungers’ are made from wool from the South Island of New Zealand. And now the shoes in their Tree collection use responsibly grown and sustainably harvested eucalyptus tree pulp, laces made from post-consumer recycled polyester and even the eyelets (where the laces go through) is made from a bio-based version of Thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) created thanks to unique microorganisms that consume plant sugars. All their shoes are the same price (USD95, GBP95, EURO110) and there are no discounts for 3rd party retailers.
“We’ve made a very clear choice when it comes to how we sell our products. We want a simple offering, that is consistent wherever you find it and is focussed on the shoe itself. When we launched with a direct-to-consumer model we were web only, but have since expanded into ‘bricks and mortar’ shops in San Francisco, New York and since November 2018 in London as well. Because what we develop are tactile in nature, we always planned to open shops that could give customers a space to interact with our shoes. We want as many people as possible to try on our shoes, we are confident they’ll love them! And we have plans to open more shops too internationally” states Jad who was a keynote speaker at World Bio Markets 2019.
I visited the Allbirds shop in London just after opening and I can confirm it’s a very pleasant experience, bright and airy and featuring an interactive wall explaining their products, free laces made from their materials, and plants encased in recycled plastic bottles.
What is also clear, both in the shop and online, is the simplicity of the offering – a limited number of shoes laid out in a clear and concise way. This approach is a stark contrast to established players like Nike and adidas who offer hundreds of varieties of shoes (and that’s before the customisation options) and retail spaces, such as Niketown that are pushing lifestyle and experience as much as the products themselves.
“…focus on the product.”
Indeed, speaking to Jad, and a number of recent interviewees helming growing businesses, what becomes obvious is a laser like focus on product: “My advice to anyone starting a sustainable business is to focus on the product. If sustainability is your reason for being, then you’ll only go so far. Because if we are honest, most people don’t look at what goes into a product. Focus on what you are offering to consumers, and clearly ask yourself what it offers to make a customer choose you against more established and bigger rivals.” The shoes that Allbirds design and sell have a lineage right back to those worn 5,500 years ago by that nimble footed Armenian.
It’s a wonderful link, and one that meanders through the moccasins of the Americas and the Pampooties of the west of Ireland among many others and we are excited to see where the next steps take one of the bio-economy’s brightest stars.
This feature was originally published in Issue #13 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly.
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