Allbirds has flown the coop, branching out from its original Bay Area, Calif. headquarters to a secondary “nest” in Portland, Ore.
The New Zealand-born brand’s fresh space was chosen with the city’s outdoorsy ethos in mind—as well as its heritage in performance footwear. Located a stone’s throw away from the offices of footwear titans Nike and Adidas, the one-floor, open-plan studio has become a refuge for industry veterans and a proving ground for hungry young creatives.
Opened last spring in Portland’s industrial Northwest waterfront district, the office has now amassed a workforce of about 25 employees specializing in design and product development as well as marketing. Chief brand officer (CBO) Kate Ridley, who came to Allbirds in January 2022 after serving seven years in executive roles at Adidas, said Oregon HQ has attracted mostly creatives like herself for now. Along with Allbirds vice president of innovation and sustainability Jad Finck and co-founder Tim Brown, Ridley envisions a fluid interplay between the two offices, with Bay Area colleagues dropping in frequently to collaborate.
Where San Francisco’s polished headquarters resembles that of a tech startup, Portland is an artists’ loft—a space where designers can tinker with digital renderings and throw around material swatches. And during a lunch break, they can take their latest samples out on one of the city’s nearby hiking trails.
Design and storytelling continue to evolve as the brand’s roster of eco-preferred materials grows and it iterates on the simple, sock-like silhouette of the Wool Runner with more complex designs. Today, the line features technical performance styles designed for gym classes and trail running, along with more streamlined shoes like ballet flats and slip-ons for casual daily wear.
Ridley said Allbirds’ core consumer is still focused primarily on comfort—a need that’s only deepened since the pandemic. “We have a lot of knit uppers which lend themselves more to casual lifestyle, and we want to make sure that we’re covering styles that that are a little bit more sophisticated, for a polished look that makes you feel like you can go from work to after-work activities,” she said.
As the brand expands its repertoire, it’s guided by the virtue of versatility. Ridley said sneakers remain its bread and butter, from the all-purpose Wool Runners to the more advanced and highly designed Wool Flyer Mizzles, developed for distance runs. The Trail Runner SWT Mizzle appears tailor-made for the Pacific Northwest, with a water-repellant outer membrane and sizable treads that make it ideal for “wet-weather trail running, hiking and walking.” Newer releases like the Canvas Pacer, a cupsole lace-up, speak to a young consumer eager to augment their collection of Stan Smiths with something more sustainable. But even the brand’s more technical styles are built for easy-wearing, capitalizing on the growing “gorpcore” trend.
Footwear buffs know Allbirds as an innovator in the realm of material science. From its patented, sugarcane-based Sweetfoam and Swiftfoam midsoles to castor bean oil-derived insoles, Tencel yarns and signature woven sheep’s wool uppers, the nine-year-old label continues to deepen its bench of better-for-the-planet fibers and inputs. The Plant Pacer sneaker, made with Natural Fiber Welding’s rubber, plant oil, rice hull and citrus alt-leather, Mirum, dropped in the U.S. last fall and will debut internationally Feb. 7. While the benefits of moving away from polymer-based foams and polyester fabrics are clear to those familiar with the industry’s ills, Ridley said she believes the average shopper still needs more coaxing.
“When it comes to inspiring people to change the way that they live, and change consumer behavior, we feel that science is a part of that but it can’t go all the way,” she said. Transparency is essential, but she is wary of bombarding shoppers with stats. “It’s really our time as creators and designers and storytellers to inspire people to do things differently.”
The creative lead said the brand has developed some tools to do that, from tactile experiences in store (Allbirds’ debut at Nordstrom New York’s Center Stage featured massive, fuzzy wool pillars and its owned retail locations incorporate materials like sugarcane, wool and eucalyptus into their decor) to humor-tinged branding. The brand is probing for entry points, and whimsy, irreverence and quirkiness are its antidotes to the seriousness of broaching sustainability and climate change with would-be buyers. “This doesn’t have to be such a big heavy topic,” said Ridley, who believes treating it as such may be pushing consumers further away from engagement. “I think it brings up feelings of shame, like ‘Am I making the right choices?’”
The brand is attempting to make those decisions easier with its carbon labeling convention. In the absence of industry-wide carbon impact reporting standards, Allbirds developed an ISO-approved methodology for measuring each shoe’s carbon footprint. That carbon score has historically been displayed under the sockliner of each shoe, and Allbirds is now displaying these numbers more prominently on the heel counter. “We put the methodology into a document for everybody to download,” Finck said. “We said, we’re going to take a bit of a risk by putting something out there that is definitive, because we think people need it.”
The sustainability lead said carbon scoring will figure more prominently into the brand’s designs and marketing moving forward, and he hopes the system Allbirds has developed takes hold across the sector. “We thought we were going to get a lot of scrutiny,” but instead, the company has been fielding calls from competitors asking how to integrate carbon scoring into their own lines. “It just reinforced that sometimes the industry needs people to take a bold stand,” he added. “Acknowledge that it’s imperfect, but share all your work, show your numbers and say, ‘Here’s how we did it.’”
The tool also helps drive accountability internally, pushing designers to develop product with a focus on lowering carbon impact. Vice president of product design Ashley Comeaux called the creative process a “dance” between prioritizing aestheticism while preserving the company’s values. The former Nike footwear design director, who joined Allbirds two years ago, said she’s redefined her approach in her short time with the brand.
“You can imagine the kind of experience and education you get with any of these other bigger players, but coming here, I feel like I’ve just started again in this industry,” she said. “It’s just a new way of approaching everything.”
In previous roles, Comeaux could choose from innumerable leathers, fabrics, trims and inputs to make her creations come to life. However, she doesn’t view Allbirds’ relatively small sustainable material list as a setback. “It’s not looked at as a lack of resource or lack of a toolbox—it’s highlighting the opportunity that exists, and where you can get things right.” Comeaux relies on thoughtful design features, like an unexpected midsole shape, or a striking juxtaposition of wool and textile, to inject newness and visual interest into the line.
When it comes to designing for carbon reduction, “you can’t just design without some semblance of parameters,” she said. “But I think those limitations breed innovation, and they breed creativity. They’re a forcing function to get there.”