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Greenwashing Check: Is Allbirds As Sustainable As It Claims To Be? – Ecocult

Even if the name allbirds doesn’t ring a bell, you’ll probably recognize the brand’s comfortable fleece slippers.

Founded in San Francisco in 2015 by biotech engineer and renewable energy expert Joey Zwillinger and former soccer player Tim Brown, Allbirds has made its name from sneakers made from wool, which it says is the most sustainable option. In half a decade, this Silicon Valley startup has grown to become a major player in the shoe industry. It’s been worn by tons of celebrities and garnered an early investment from Leonardo DiCaprio, and has expanded to offer activewear and loungewear in similar minimalist designs and conscious materials. by 2020, allbirds was valued at $1.7 billion, and in August of this year, the brand filed for what it calls a sustainability initial public offering.

Reading: Allbirds ethical

It is widely considered a sustainable business. allbirds is a b company that is known for inventing its own materials, as well as for promoting greater collaboration and transparency in the footwear industry. in July, the brand announced a 10-step sustainability commitment called the every bird flight plan that aims to cut the brand’s emissions in half by 2025.

But when a company comes out with lines like “reversing climate change through better business,” one can’t help but be a little suspicious. Is allbirds the sustainable disruptor we are led to believe? let’s get into it.

allbirds sustainable sneakers trainers activewear

making less but better shoes…for now

allbirds launched with a single product, the fleece runner, a lightweight, machine-washable casual sneaker that time magazine called “the world’s most comfortable shoes.” Since that first super-successful sneaker, the brand’s offering has slowly expanded into trainers and casual footwear in a range of muted colours. in 2019, it launched a small range of socks, followed by underwear in 2020, and in August this year, the brand launched sportswear with a modest five-piece womenswear and two-menswear collection. by any brand’s standards, that’s a small range of products.

“I think their process is the equivalent of slow fashion,” says ken pucker, a tenured professor at tufts fletcher school and consulting director of berkshire partners, who spent 15 years at shoe giant timberland, 7 of which He was the head of the company. head of operations Pucker just co-authored an Allbirds case study at the Harvard Business School. “They introduce so few styles annually compared to the big shoe companies, and they don’t have a product development schedule that’s based on speed, it’s based on innovation.”

allbirds’ approach to selling footwear and apparel is minimalist in every sense of the word, which is important considering the footwear industry traditionally relies on a regular slate of celebrity collaborations, new brand launches, slightly modified products and novelties. versions of your existing shoes. “I’ve tried to make us almost the opposite of Nike,” Tim Brown told Glossy last year. “The initial idea of ​​allbirds was the reduction of the shoe to its simplest form, which is the opposite of the streetwear model, with small changes and a million different models”.

What’s less minimalist is the brand’s ambition to scale. The founders of Allbirds have said that since its launch, the brand has sold more than eight million pairs of shoes and has big plans to expand physical retail stores (by 50% according to Bloomberg) and product offerings.

The question remains, can the brand continue to grow and be a publicly traded company while maintaining the environmental credentials that are core to its DNA?

allbirds sustainable and ethical sneakers trainers activewear

are allbirds materials sustainable?

Through a combination of eco-friendly materials and conscious manufacturing, allbirds claims their shoes have a 30% lower carbon footprint than a standard pair of shoes on the market.

there are four main materials that allbirds uses, including merino wool, tencel lyocell (a sustainable alternative to viscose), sweetfoam, a sugar cane-based eva rubber used in the soles of allbirds shoes, and trino , made from a blend of merino wool and lyocell. Allbirds shoelaces are made from recycled plastic bottles, recycled nylon can be found in the brand’s sportswear, and other pieces are made from trinoxo, a material that contains chitosan, a compound made from crab shells. To understand how much investment allbirds put into materials, let’s take a closer look at two of the most prominent.

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merino wool

brown, a native of new zealand, has been working closely with the country’s wool farmers to supply the ideal material for allbirds shoes. allbirds works with zq merino, a wool certification created by the industrial group new zealand merino company that ensures that farms and suppliers meet high standards of animal welfare, care for the environment and social responsibility. In March 2020, Allbirds and ZQ held the inaugural Regenerative Wool Summit in Christchurch, bringing together 160 farmers from across the country to educate them on regenerative farming practices. “Putting carbon back into the soil through regenerative agriculture is one of the best opportunities to address human and climate health, along with the financial well-being of farmers around the world,” states the brand’s 2020 sustainability report. Crucial to the brand’s ethical expansion strategy is encouraging the industry’s shift towards better farming practices, and by 2025 it aims to source 100% of its wool from regenerative farms.

Not everyone is convinced of the brand’s efforts. Earlier this year, a class action lawsuit was filed against Allbirds alleging that the company has led consumers to believe that the brand’s shoes are more sustainable and ethical than they really are. The lawsuit, filed in New York by a woman named Patricia Dwyer, cites a Peta article that accuses both Allbirds and ZQ Merino of neglecting some of the environmental impacts of their wool, as well as refusing to give Peta access to more information on the living conditions of sheep on farms. The suit also claims that ZQ’s audits, which occur every three years, do not do enough to prevent animal abuse in the wool supply chain.

further reading of the article and the lawsuit suggests that peta and dwyer have a problem with using wool in general, not just wool from allbirds and zq in particular. peta points to “luxury animal-free options” without going into detail about what these alternatives are.

Considering the prominence of wool in allbird’s products, as well as the unique selling points of wool featuring prominently in brand marketing (breathable, moisture regulating temperature, moisture absorbent), it seems unlikely that all birds will shed this fiber any time soon.

sweet foam

The vast majority of shoe soles are made from ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), a rubbery foam derived from petroleum. In 2018, Allbirds announced a partnership with the Brazilian petrochemical firm Braskem. Together they created a bio-based, carbon-negative EVA made from Brazilian sugarcane, a renewable crop fueled by rainwater that removes carbon from the atmosphere as it grows. sweetfoam, as all the birds call it, was named one of the best inventions of 2018 and is now used across its range of footwear. allbirds states that while the manufacture of a regular kilogram of petroleum-based eva emits 1.8 kilograms of co₂e, “the sweet foam material actually removes 1.2 kilograms of co₂e per kilogram of material produced.” however, allbirds has not provided a third-party certificate that certifies this figure.

water, energy and carbon footprints of all birds

allbirds has set ambitious targets for 2025 in relation to energy and water use. however, what is not clear is the current use of these resources by the brand: the 2020 sustainability report analyzes this to focus on future commitments.

Water is identified as one of the brand’s five core themes (along with fair labor, chemistry, animal welfare, and traceability and transparency) in the 2020 report, but details on it are scant . allbirds prioritizes materials that are efficient in the use of water, such as tencel lyocell, manufactured using a closed-loop process, where 99% of the water used is recycled, and sweet foam, which comes from a source of dry farming. the brand also says it is committed to measuring and reducing water consumption within its tier 1 and 2 suppliers, but does not provide details. part of the flight plan strategy for 2025 is to convince 100% of its customers to wash their shoes in cold water, although it is not clear how this would be achieved; the brand currently provides customers with suggested care instructions.

Energy (which allbirds defines as “electricity and fuel in material processing, manufacturing, transportation, and customer service”) accounts for about three-quarters of the brand’s carbon footprint, so which is making some pretty impressive compromises to reduce its use. by 2025, its goal is to use 100% renewable energy in all allbirds offices, retail stores and Tier 1 suppliers, which the brand says it will achieve by working with factories located in regions with cleaner grids and by working with suppliers on energy efficiency. as well as promoting “low carbon materials”. the brand did not provide further information on how this would be achieved. allbirds also plans to use 95% sea freight by 2025 (as opposed to more carbon-intensive air freight), which would be an 80% increase by 2020. it should be noted that tier 1 suppliers, which are those from manufacturing use a much lower proportion of energy compared to Tier 2, 3 and 4 suppliers: dyeing, finishing, material manufacturing and raw material extraction.

allbirds has been carbon neutral since 2019 when it became a founding member of climate neutral, a non-profit organization that helps brands reduce their footprint in part by offsetting their emissions through environmental projects. Since its incorporation, the brand has used carbon credits to offset 100% of its emissions by financing initiatives that include the Big Smile wind farm, the Envira Amazon project, the Argentine regenerative wool, and the Montana grazing project, among others. . Allbirds’ key goal is to reduce the carbon of the brand through regenerative agriculture, renewable materials and responsible energy.

“Environmentally speaking, I think they’re pretty good,” Pucker says. “I think they are authentic about their claims, and I think the plan they have put forward to become a net zero emitter is legitimate, aggressive and informed.”

allbirds sustainable sneakers trainers and activewear

open source, collaboration & investments

allbirds’ investment in material innovation is not just for the benefit of the brand. after convincing braskem to adapt its factory systems to make sweetfoam, allbirds opened up the recipe so that the rest of the footwear industry could also adopt green eva. Timberland has since adopted the material and renamed it GreenStride, while Puma’s Green EVA is called Better Foam. Since then, Toms, Dansko, and other brands have incorporated Green EVA into eco-cap collections.

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Similarly, in April, allbirds shared its proprietary carbon footprint calculator, a lifecycle assessment tool that helps a brand understand its carbon footprint, as well as its carbon labeling template, with the industry. “Our big hope is that this will act as a catalyst for other people to share the science [behind their products], and it’s going to take some time,” Brown told Vogue last year. the lca was created to fill a void in the industry for auditing tools, pucker believes. “I think that allbirds dared to come up with their own product [the lca system] and be willing to share it,” he says. While Pucker doesn’t disagree that a targeted outside group should create and oversee these assessment tools, “they’re not saying they won’t participate in an industry standard,” he says. “but the absence of something led them to say: ‘we are not going to wait'”.

allbirds has also partnered with adidas on a footwear collaboration called futurecraft.footprint, set to release in 2022 (turns out the “opposite of nike” is adidas). The partnership, announced last year, has the ambition to create a shoe with a carbon footprint of less than 2kg (around 5kg less than the production of an allbirds shoe).

allbirds is no stranger to seeking investment, but the company has also invested in five other ventures, including natural fiber welding, which creates a plant-based leather substitute that allbirds looks set to introduce into its range this December.

allbirds sustainable sneakers trainers and activewear

lack of labor transparency

as a b corp company, allbirds is required to have a “triple bottom line” that values ​​people, planet and profit; this includes paying living wages, ensuring safe and fair working conditions, and providing opportunities for growth and development to its employees throughout the supply chain. The minimum score a brand needs to qualify as a B Corp is a score of 80/150, and allbirds currently scores 89.4, but B Corp does not provide any information on how this score breaks down.

one area where allbirds shares very little information is about the garment workers who make their products in countries like the united states, peru and indonesia. In 2020, allbirds worked with only nine Tier 1 factories; however, no information is available on factory names, factory audit results, or areas for improvement. in fact, in its 42-page sustainability report, only two pages of information are provided to manufacturing partners. As it is becoming the industry standard, allbirds has a publicly available supplier code of conduct policy, as well as a short document on their factory audit process.

As of September, good on you gave allbirds a rating of “not good enough” for job transparency (and an overall rating of “it’s a start”), while remake gave the brand 28/100 points in its impact assessment. Worker well-being does not fall under any of the brand’s 10 quantitative commitments for 2025, although fair work is outlined in the 2020 report. The brand’s initiatives around fair work include conducting a salary analysis of first-tier suppliers and support for workers in areas affected by climate change, although the details of these initiatives are not specific. this dearth of information doesn’t necessarily indicate that the brand’s manufacturing partners aren’t up to the task, but considering transparency is such a hot topic (and given the brand’s open and collaborative actions in other parts of the business) , it’s worth asking why there is such a lack of detailed information when it comes to garment workers at allbirds.

allbirds sustainable sneakers trainers and activewear

our conclusion

We contacted allbirds for more information, but they declined to comment citing the quiet period required by the second after applying for an IPO.

so allbirds is a perfect company? No. we wish they would do more to back up some of their claims with third-party certifications. but it is fair to say that it is a young brand that has made great strides to improve the footwear industry, not only for its own sake, but also for that of its competitors. from open source information to investing in and inventing new materials, it is ambitiously challenging the industry status quo by looking at the big picture (the climate emergency) to inform its strategy.

Industry veterans like pucker can’t rate them highly enough. “Their approach to material development and innovation is spectacular,” he says. “I think their transparency about their net-zero footprint and intentions is really good, and their focus on collaborations, like a partnership with adidas, ostensibly a competitor, is amazing. They seek to influence the industry.

materials are clearly the brand’s biggest focus, but it’s hard to ignore that there’s one glaring omission from its reporting: worker rights and safety, which only appears briefly in its future strategy. overall, allbirds is making tangible commitments to become as sustainable as possible, with a diverse portfolio of projects that could help you achieve these goals. If you’re in the market for a shoe that’s made more sustainably, you could do worse than Allbirds.

Fingers crossed that there are no labor scandals lurking in your supply chain.

allbirds sustainable and ethical sneakers trainers

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