WOOL FOR THE TREES
Allbirds’ sustainable merino shoes have captured the hearts, minds and feet of urban adventurers around the world. But the company was never j ust l i mited to wool – or even shoes. It was about fi nding better materials and manufacturing processes. Carolyn Enting caught up with co- founder Tim Brown to hear about i ts l atest i nnovation, shoes that grow on trees.
allbirds co-founder Tim Brown was back in his homeland recently to unveil the company’s latest trick: shoes made from eucalyptus fibre.
In keeping with brand’s sustainable ethos, a fleet of Teslas were dispatched to ferry guests to the award-winning Pohutakawa House, situated at the far end of Piha, near Auckland. And what better place to launch a ‘Tree’ collection than a house that’s been built around a tree.
The new shoes were displayed on plinths in the garden, garnished with eucalyptus leaves beside crystal bowls of the silky eucalyptus fibre. Orphans Kitchen (which keeps bees on the roof of its Ponsonby Road restaurant) catered the occasion with local produce, as 20 guests got to rest back in their chairs with the added comfort of a wool throw. Allbirds has founded its reputation on merino wool runners, after all.
“It’s an opportunity for us to unfurl our vision for what the brand is about,” says Brown. “From the beginning, Allbirds wasn’t really about wool. I didn’t grow up on a sheep farm. And it wasn’t about shoes – it was about sustainable material innovation.”
From humble beginnings as a Kickstarter campaign in 2014, Allbirds’ stylish and comfortable merino wool shoes were an instant hit and have proven particularly popular among the Silicon Valley set. One of the fastest growing shoe brands in the world, the Kiwi-born company sold its millionth pair in March, just two years after launching. That’s one pair of Allbirds sold every minute since it launched.
But customer feedback about the original Wool Runner showed that merino wasn’t ideal in warm weather, so they set out to find another material to solve this problem, using some of the US$27.5 million of funding from American investment firm, Tiger Global Management, to do it.
Their investigation into alternative materials led them to tencel lyocell, a wood pulp textile produced from ethically sourced South African Eucalyptus trees. Allbirds wove the cellulosic fibre into a mesh material through a unique 3D-knitting process, allowing the shoes to stretch and retain the comfort of the original shoes, without impacting as harshly on the environment.
“Eucalyptus fibre is incredible for its cooling qualities and incredible softness,” says Brown. “It’s taken two years of development. First, they found a way to turn it into a yarn. Then we realised that wasn’t enough, they had to introduce a whole new manufacturing process. The uppers are knit with our proprietary yarn, where we could control the different aspects of the knit structure to improve comfort and breathability. We also found a way to use a bio-based material in the eyelet which are fused on in a process that is incredibly advanced. The shoelaces are also made out of recycled plastic bottles.”
The eucalyptus fibre also uses only five percent of the water and onethird of the land when compared to traditional footwear materials, and is Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified. Allbirds has also stepped up to register with B-Corporation, “a new type of company that uses the power of business to solve social and environmental problems”.
The ‘Tree’ collection offers two styles in three colours: ‘ tree skippers’ offer a modern take on the traditional 1930’s boat shoe, and ‘tree runners’ follow the classic Allbirds sneaker style. The in-sole and heel-cup are still made of merino so the soft fit the brand is renowned for remains. And, don’t worry. The merino Allbirds won’t be running away, either.
With plans to expand its direct to consumer business to a fourth country soon and funding set aside to invest into new retail spaces (so far it has launched a range of pop-up stores around the world and has two permanent stores in San Francisco and New York), the company continues to branch out.
Carolyn Enting and Tim Brown