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Birdies CEO Explains How to Build a Better Business

When it comes to building a sustainable business, Birdies co-founder and CEO Bianca Gates gave attendees at the Shoptalk conference in Las Vegas this week one big piece of advice: ask probing questions about how your operations affect the environment.

“Why do we use the material we use? Why are we preferring one material for our shoe over another? It’s about asking ‘Why?’” Gates said. “It’s about taking apart the entire product, and looking all the elements of it and just asking ‘Is there a better way? Is there somebody else that I can listen to?’”

The brand known for its comfortable, professional women’s shoes asked its vendors in China and Vietnam to identify dependable sources for upcycled satin and silk from deadstock and factory waste, along with eco-friendlier rubber and latex. Despite incorporating more sustainable materials in the outsoles, these shoes are still more profitable on a per-product basis, Gates said.

Birdies quickly identified its two biggest sustainability opportunities: materials and transportation.

Now Birdies uses packaging made with 50 percent recycled materials, up from zero just three years ago, Gates said.

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“When you’re shipping these boxes from Asia, and they’re shipped like [a regular box], you can only fit a dozen of these on one pallet,” Gates said. “These new boxes are shipped flat, and you can get 50 of these on at once. Not all the emissions we’re saving are coming from shipping products to the U.S. From a transportation perspective, we’re already reducing what we’re emitting into the environment through the reengineered packaging. We’ve also eliminated the shipping box as part of the packaging.”

Birdies ships about 80 percent of its products by ocean freight, according to Gates.

Seven years after it launched in 2015, Birdies became a certified B Corp in October last year, joining a community of 5,000 companies in 70 countries and 150 industries aiming to center sustainability as the real driver of business success. B Corps like Birdies follow verified standards across social and environmental performance, transparency, and accountability.

During the Shoptalk panel, Gates said the two-year journey to getting certified by B Lab, the nonprofit gatekeeper bestowing Benefit Corporation status, included creating its Fly Together nationwide mentorship program with Step Up, a nonprofit helping young women from underserved communities reach their goals.

Birdies co-founder and CEO Bianca Gates (third) displays an example of the company's newer sustainable packaging, which is made from 50 percent recycled materials.
Birdies co-founder and CEO Bianca Gates (third) displays an example of the company’s sustainable packaging, which is made from 50 percent recycled materials. Glenn Taylor/Sourcing Journal

“Over the last few years we’ve made a lot of changes internally in order to become part of the official B Corp community,” said Gates. “It’s not a one and done, you have to continue on this path across the board. The governing body is helping us better understand the difference that we can make.”

According to Gates, emerging brands might want to consider applying for B Corp certification not only if they’re making a sustainable product, but also if they’re actively making the world a better place.

She also urged brands to share technology and sustainability ideas with one another if they’re serious about truly making an impact.

“It’d be great if the industry worked closer together to maybe cross-share a little bit more on who they are working with on packaging materials,” she said, suggesting that footwear brands and supply chain partners start their own group or association to better identify strategies that bring costs down and improve emissions efficiency.