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Allbirds treading new ground

They’re good enough for Jacinda Ardern to wear regularly and she’s given a pair to former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull. So what is all the fuss about? Sasha Borissenko spoke to Allbirds shoes co-founder Tim Brown to find out.

Footwear company Allbirds started when former Wellington-Phoenix player Tim Brown had his sights set on playing for the All Whites for the 2010 World Cup. His trajectory was looking bright, and with it, came sponsorship deals with big sporting names. The shoes on offer, however, were all a bit ho-hum.

“I got lots of free gear, with big logos, all brightly coloured, and they changed all the time. I saw a real opportunity to create something simple. There’s an assumption that innovation must include adding this and that but I saw an opportunity to do much less.”

And so it was. Brown retired from soccer and went to business school in London. In typical New Zealand fashion, he teamed up with his future wife’s-best-friend’s husband Joey Zwillinger, an engineer and renewables expert. Together they launched the world’s first shoe made of wool in 2016, and so far, so good, he says.

Tim Brown with his co-founder, Joey Zwillinger. Photo: Supplied

Official figures haven’t been disclosed publicly, but the company sold one million pairs in its first two years of business.

And last week it was announced the company had closed a US$50 million series C funding round.

Now based in San Francisco, the pair named the company Allbirds to pay homage to Brown’s motherland. They may be made out of wool, but the pair liked the concept of treading lightly. Birds were specifically not used in the designs for fear of limiting where they could go, he says. New Zealand native birds have influenced their choice of colour pallet.

Sustainability is Allbirds' shtick. He says the footwear business hasn’t changed a whole lot in the past hundred years, and there’s an obsession with making shoes with poor materials, in confronting colours, and at high prices.

Brown's shoes are made with merino wool, eucalyptus fibre, or a renewable sugar cane material which took three years to develop.

Allbirds released a pair of limited edition shoes, inspired by the Kea, for Bird of the Year 2018 Competition. Photo: Supplied

“Petroleum is usually used in a lot of casual footwear products. We’re a green energy company so it’s taken a while but we’ve tried to think deeply about using better materials. It’s the core of what we’re about.”

But in an age where ‘wellness’ and ‘sustainability’ are being increasingly commodified, you have to question whether the company is doing more than paying it lip service. But Brown says it’s not.

“Corporate social responsibility certainly resonates. We have a footwear industry that’s dominated by a handful of enormous businesses, who think there’s only one way to do business. We’re facing an enormous problem. The fashion industry is one of the largest contributors to carbon emissions. I mean if we can put a man on the moon, surely we can sort this out. Unfortunately, only a few companies have made [sustainability and ethical production a] non-negotiable. We have.”

And consumers are following. There’s definitely a new generation of consumer which is demanding a more ethical product, he says.

“You can be both profitable and innovative in a way that’s better for the environment. It’s the future of business. If we wait for government, we will be waiting a long time.”

But environment and sustainability wasn’t always Brown’s modus operandi, he says.

“I had a really meaningful career before, playing soccer for New Zealand. When I bowed out to make shoes, my dad jokingly called me a cobbler. I didn’t grow up on a sheep farm, or have any connection to wool. But now, I think I’m doing something that my grandkids could be proud of.”

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