With its new shoe, Allbirds makes the case that zero-carbon is more than a pipe dream for fashion

Silicon Valley’s footwear darling is walking away from carbon entirely—including carbon offsets—with its latest shoe.
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· 4 min read

In the wake of a disappointing end to its first 18 months as a publicly traded company, the maker of San Francisco’s favorite footwear, Allbirds, is launching a new product. And it’s got a tagline the company is hoping will resonate with shoppers, who it says are young and environmentally conscious: “The world’s first net zero carbon shoe.”

While carbon reduction is undeniably a powerful vision for fashion, it’s a claim that has commonly included carbon-credit purchases and the G-word (greenwashing). But Allbirds said its reimagining business as usual in the apparel industry, and has achieved a zero-carbon footprint with its new shoe, the “M0.0NSHOT.”

According to Allbirds, M0.0NSHOT was achieved without carbon offsets and instead uses carbon-negative materials, including those Allbirds invented itself. So while packaging and shipping the shoe will emit carbon, the product’s net carbon output balances to zero.

It’s a move that CEO Tim Brown said was made possible by the company’s relatively small size and the flexibility of its supply chain, and that Allbirds hopes will put it at the forefront of a fundamental change in footwear design and production.

Shoot for the moon

Allbirds isn’t the only brand shouting from the rooftops about its reduced carbon emissions. But Nancy Landrum, sustainability management professor at Munich Business School, said most companies making these claims are purchasing carbon offsets (compensation for emissions by investing in carbon reduction projects). Landrum described that approach as the “route of least resistance.”

Instead, the footwear industry needs an overhaul, and according to Landrum, the tech is ready, but most companies aren’t willing to make the move.

“The real effort has to come from redesigning the product, finding new materials…They have to redesign their supply chains,” Landrum said.

“There would be no competition if they would just take that step,” she added. “Instead, they’re all…fighting it out over little incremental improvements, for a little bit more market share, a little bit more publicity.”

Enter Allbirds: Allbirds was founded in San Francisco in 2014, in a flurry of DTC activity that saw the rise of Warby Parker, Glossier, and Casper Sleep.

However, like many of the DTC brands of its era, Allbirds is seemingly struggling, with March’s Q4 earnings report showing a 2022 net loss of $101.4 million. In a presentation to investors, Allbirds highlighted a “transformation plan,” which includes slowing store openings and expanding wholesale.

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The presentation didn’t reference M0.0NSHOT (though it did note a focus on reconnecting with core consumers), but the development of the shoe has been in the works for several years, the focus of a cross-functional team of half a dozen engineers, material scientists, and designers, Brown said.

Crunching numbers: The average sneaker produces 14 kg of carbon emissions throughout its lifetime. In 2021, Adidas and Allbirds teamed up on a sneaker they say produces 2.94 kg. Allbirds said designing new materials allowed it to bring the M0.0NSHOT to zero.

The company partnered with Lake Hawea Station, a regenerative sheep farm in New Zealand which has been third-party verified as carbon zero, to produce the wool for the new shoe’s upper structure.

The sole of the shoe uses a sugarcane foam of Allbirds’ own invention, and the eyelets are made from bioplastic created out of captured methane.

Calculating the full carbon footprint of M0.0NSHOT is done using Allbirds’s internal Life Cycle Assessment tool, which the company says has been third-party verified. But Allbirds hasn’t provided third-party verification of the carbon output of the shoe itself, which Landrum said is key to differentiate companies putting in the necessary work from greenwashing.

Promising the moon: The Allbirds team said they’re prepared for skepticism. “When you’re going first, you’re going to face a lot of scrutiny,” Brown said.

But there’s a way to go before the shoe makes its way to the feet of loyal Allbirds fans. The company is still figuring out details like dyes and consumer pricing, and while Brown plans to unveil the prototype in June at the Global Fashion Summit in Copenhagen, the shoes won’t hit shelves until 2024.

While separate from the science of carbon neutrality, look and pricing are extremely important, Brown said. That’s in part because of the realities of running an apparel business: Even sustainable shoes need to spark consumer desire.

“That’s a complicated conversation, and often one you don’t want to have on the topic of sustainability, but it’s the truth,” Brown said. “We need to make objects that people want to…consume. And we’ve got to do that in a way that deeply considers their impact.”

Retail news that keeps industry pros in the know

Retail Brew delivers the latest retail industry news and insights surrounding marketing, DTC, and e-commerce to keep leaders and decision-makers up to date.