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How Allbirds Created a Sustainable Supply Chain

In the footwear industry, new brands are a dime a dozen. But a company launched by industry outsiders using natural materials and a creative Kickstarter campaign? That’s a little harder to find.

After beginning his career in professional sports, New Zealand native Tim Brown stumbled into the footwear industry by accident after searching for a simple, classic sneaker sans logos or unnecessary design elements. When he couldn’t quite find what he was looking for, he decided to create it himself—using natural materials “in a category that has gotten a little bit lazy and over-reliant on synthetics,” Brown said.

Growing up with an appreciation for wool in New Zealand—a country that’s home to nearly 30 million sheep—Brown set out to develop a proprietary, superfine merino wool as the bedrock of his new shoes. He then launched a Kickstarter campaign in March 2014 to test his sustainable materials and simple designs, and within just four days, sold $120,000 in shoes.

That’s when the real work began. Struggling through one of the most challenging years of his life, Brown was tasked with building a supply chain from scratch and scaling operations to sustain the demand for his wool sneakers. He teamed up with engineer and renewables expert Joey Zwillinger, creating the brand’s e-commerce business from the ground up and raising $2.5 million in funding in August 2015. Then on March 1, 2016, Allbirds officially opened for business.

“All of a sudden, we were working with the best textile mill in the world to make our fabric,” Brown said. “We were working with an incredible factory in Korea and had world-class partners.”

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Allbirds’s exclusive woolen textiles are created by a mill outside of Milan, using superfine New Zealand merino wool of the sort typically reserved for luxury brands like Armani, Gucci and Tom Ford. The fibers are one-fifth of the diameter of human hair, making the material not only incredibly lightweight and surprisingly durable, but also breathable, odor-minimizing, moisture-wicking, temperature-regulating, itch-free and dirt-resistant.

The wool is sourced from the ZQ-certified New Zealand Merino Company, meaning it’s top of its class in terms of sustainable practices, land use and animal care. Allbirds’s wool requires 60 percent less energy to produce than the average synthetic shoe material, while the brand’s insoles use natural castor beans in place of polyurethane.

But Brown insists that Allbirds isn’t just making sustainable shoes for the sake of being sustainable. “We’re making the best shoe that we can, and we’re making it as sustainably as possible,” he said. “But we’re not making the most sustainable shoe. There’s a nuance there and a difference.”

“We believe there’s an enormous opportunity to create products that are better for our customers and better for the world.”

What the brand is trying to do is make one of the most comfortable shoes on the market. “Comfort is the No. 1 reason why people buy shoes, but it is very seldom paired with good design,” he said. “So the idea that we’ve brought beautiful design craft to the execution of a classic silhouette with a focus on materials, I think that’s why people come to us.”

Brown says Allbirds’s design approach is also based on curating and improving, instead of purely creating. “We make only one shoe in each category we go into rather than the traditional approach, which might be a full range or an ever-changing roster of products,” Brown said. “We deliver one solution to a particular problem and maniacally focus on each detail.”

After more than 17 months in business, the brand has unveiled just two silhouettes—the Wool Runner and Wool Lounger—both $95 and available in men’s and women’s sizes, as well as a rotating array of colors. “There’s not an enormous selection,” Brown said. “It’s all about efficiency and operational focus, so color becomes a really important driver.”

But just because it doesn’t release a wide range of new products each season doesn’t mean the brand’s innovation is stagnant. Since launching last year, Brown said its two silhouettes have gone through nearly 30 rounds of updates and improvements based on customer feedback—a process Allbirds can take advantage of thanks to its direct-to-consumer model. “It allows us to move really fast—not necessarily on the release of new products, but certainly on the improvement of them,” Brown said.

Though the vast majority of its sales come from the brand’s e-commerce business, Allbirds has one brick-and-mortar store in San Francisco, which opened last April. Brown said he hopes to grow Allbirds’ retail footprint, though the brand hasn’t announced any expansion plans to date.

Allbirds is also keeping new designs and natural materials under wraps, though Brown did reveal that natural material innovation and comfort will be its primary focuses moving forward. “We believe there’s an enormous opportunity to create products that are better for our customers and better for the world,” he said, “and we’re excited by the potential to keep improving.”