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Here’s How Allbirds is Decarbonizing Its Footwear Supply Chain

Allbirds has nailed down its climate priorities. Its top three? “Carbon, carbon, carbon.”

While the San Francisco-based footwear brand tracks several environmental metrics, it maintains a “very clear strategy to measure, reduce and offset” its carbon emissions, vice president of innovation and sustainability Jad Finck said during a webinar sponsored by Tencel-maker Lenzing on Tuesday as part of Climate Week NYC.

The cult-favorite company (and certified B Corp), Finck said, conducts a full cradle-to-grave life-cycle analysis for every product it creates. And it isn’t keeping that information close to its chest. Just as the first wave of Covid-19 sent reverberations throughout retail, Allbirds decided to label its products with a carbon “score card” that tallies the volume of emissions generated by materials, manufacturing, use and end of life. (Not included are those from transportation because of their high variability.)

Its signature wool runner, for instance, has a footprint of 7.1 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent, or just over half of the 12.5 kilograms a standard pair of men’s synthetic running shoes generates, according to estimates by environmental consultancy Clean Agency, which partnered with Allbirds on the effort. In May, the brand announced it will be collaborating with sportswear Goliath Adidas to take that number closer to zero.

Finck compared the the score to the calorie counts we find on food—and he wants it to be just as ubiquitous.

“We want it to be as easy and as simple and as expected as nutritional facts on food,” he said. “You can turn around every piece of food you buy in the grocery store and figure out the calories [and] make your own choices. We think that should be a responsibility of everybody producing things today.”

Internally, Allbirds views the score card as a “kind of report card but also like a heat map” to figure out its greatest areas of impact, which are “sometimes intuitive, sometimes not,” Finck said. “And what we found out very quickly in footwear is that it’s really dominated by materials and manufacturing. And so working with companies to find low-carbon materials and to make them even better is pretty important.”

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That’s where the reduction part of its strategy comes into play. While Allbirds says it uses the “lowest-carbon materials possible with the lowest-carbon processes possible”—including New Zealand merino wool, Tencel and its sugarcane-derived “carbon-negative” SweetFoam soles—the company wants to keep quashing its figures.

“We take these life-cycle analyses back to our factories,” Finck said. “And they’ve been fascinated to see, ‘Hey, look, this is what the score is for what we’re making together. Let’s use this as a priority list so we’re not just chasing everything with the same urgency.’”

Its final piece: offsetting. In April 2019, Allbirds started slapping a “carbon tax” on every product it made, funneling that money into an Allbirds Carbon Fund that invests in verified better-for-the-planet initiatives like reforestation, building solar and wind capacity, and recapturing methane from landfill and livestock operations. Buying credits can be controversial; in isolation, they can be viewed as a way for companies to pass the buck and greenwash their image rather than do the much harder, soul-searching work of curtailing emissions from their supply chains.

Finck sees a role for offsets, however.

“We know that today it’s not generally possible to get your inherent footprint down to true zero,” he said. “So we look at getting to net zero, offsetting our products with verified carbon offsets, and making sure that we’re not waiting until some pledge in 2040 or 2050 to reduce our overall footprint by x percent.”

And that’s where the industry as a whole should be headed, he added. With apparel and footwear production responsible for 4 percent to 8 percent of global carbon emissions and counting, there’s no time to lose.

A 2019 study by the nonprofit Stand.Earth found that only two major fashion companies—Levi Strauss and American Eagle—have committed to Science Based Targets in line with the 2016 Paris Agreement’s goal to limit temperature increases to a further 1.5 degrees Celsius, which would stave off the worst effects of climate change, such as extreme temperatures and unprecedented natural disasters. With the pandemic causing unprecedented socioeconomic upheaval, fashion companies must make decarbonization part of their post-Covid-19 strategy or risk losing everything, the group said in August.

“We think everybody should be at net zero right now,” Finck said. “And then get back to the hard work of working with your partners to reduce your inherent footprint to zero.”