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Allbirds co-founders Joy Zwillinger and Tim Brown decided to go into the shoe business while hiking together in the Marin Hills. They were surrounded by nature and gorgeous views of the Pacific Ocean, just across the bridge from San Francisco, known for innovation. Combining natural materials and techniques was their ticket to building a sustainable footwear company.
Allbirds burst onto the scene in 2016 with a new wool sneaker that sold over a million pairs in its first two years. From its soles to its new resale platform, Allbirds has pushed sustainability forward in every way.
Despite the uncertain economic times, Joey remains optimistic about the company’s mission to fight climate change and produce products that consumers love. Here are some insights he shared about building a business truly focused on sustainability.
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1. Embrace being an outsider
Tim is a former New Zealand professional footballer. Joy worked in biotechnology. Neither was deeply involved in the shoe industry when they started Allbirds, and Joey says they used their outside perspective to their advantage.
“We were two outsiders who wanted to do really different things,” Joy says. “The team and I thought we could come together and systematically offer products following natural substance innovation in a way that is incredibly attractive and differentiated to consumers.”
The industry at the time still depended on leather and plastic to make shoes, but Allbirds designed new materials: fleece, sugarcane soles, and leather-like textiles made from natural oils.
2. Foster creativity within constraints
Joey says the key to success was looking for sustainability opportunities at every step of the process and ways their competitors would never notice. “We’re limiting our R&D process to be better for the consumer in terms of performance, but also better for the country,” he says.
For example, the company recently announced the world’s first carbon-neutral shoe, which seemed unimaginable considering that regular sneakers typically have a 14kg CO2e carbon footprint.
3. Design to sell
Sustainability doesn’t necessarily drive sales. Above all, consumers want well-designed products. In terms of footwear, they want sneakers that are comfortable, durable and look good.
But sustainability and good design can certainly survive. In fact, they have to. “If we can’t build a great sustainable business financially, we won’t achieve our mission environmentally either,” says Joy. “We offer a beacon of hope for how you can have everything you want in terms of consumption, but not leave such a blight on the earth.”
4. Consider the entire product life cycle
A big part of the sustainable fashion movement is buying used. Allbirds has launched an online resale platform called ReRun to facilitate just that.
Joy has spoken to several business owners about building similar platforms, but she says they are often hesitant. “Their biggest fear is that it’s going to cannibalize their core business, and it’s going to take sales out of their full-price business,” says Joy. “And we found out that’s not the case at all.”
In fact, he says, ReRun has been a good way to attract new customers at a lower cost. These same customers are often later converted to purchase new, full-price Allbirds.
5. Motivate with higher goals
Like many public companies, Allbirds is now under the microscope. Joey says his company plans to double down on its digital business and seek new partnerships to scale in international markets.
Still, Joey says he’s excited about the company’s mission and the opportunity to bring more sustainable options to customers. “Without that goal, it wouldn’t be successful, no matter how much money was raised.”
To learn more about Allbirds’ sustainability practices and San Francisco connections, listen to Joey’s full interview on Shopify Masters.