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How Allbirds’ Plant-Based Leather Partner is Shrinking its Footprint

Natural Fiber Welding’s (NFW) plant-based leather alternative may emit 10 times fewer greenhouse-gas emissions than its conventional hide and pleather counterparts, but the Illinois-based biomaterials firm says it’s far from satisfied.

The Ralph Lauren-backed company said it’s committed to using 100 percent natural inputs instead of fossil fuels in all its materials, but it knows that “agriculture isn’t perfect.” Case in point: NFW’s cotton backer is Mirum’s highest-impact ingredient, according to a life-cycle assessment.

So it latched onto an idea: to use cotton sourced from the California Cotton and Climate Coalition, a.k.a C4, to back its blend of rubber, plant oils and agricultural byproducts such as rice hulls and citrus peels. Led by textile nonprofit Fibershed, the initiative helps brands source cotton directly from farms that are transitioning from conventional to regenerative practices that work in “harmony with earth’s biological system” rather than against them.

As part of the coalition, NFW will work directly with two farms in California—Bowles Farming Company in Los Banos and Stone Land Company in Stratford—to grow cotton that is both “climate beneficial” and “farm forward.” Their goals are to rebuild soil carbon stocks, increase the soil’s capacity to hold water and slash synthetic inputs.

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“We partnered with C4 to work side by side with leaders who are making the transition to regenerative agriculture in the textile industry and fashion space possible,” said NFW vice president and Mirum general manager Oihana Elizalde. “The partnership allows NFW to deliver a product that sets a new sustainability standard towards reversing climate change and we’re so appreciative of our brand partners who make this all possible.”

But all that cotton has to go somewhere. So NFW roped in four of sustainable fashion’s heaviest hitters: Allbirds, Stella McCartney, Pangaia and Reformation. Allbirds, another investor, debuted a Mirum-clad sneaker last month, while Pangaia released a line of Mirum-made wallets and pouches in December. Stella McCartney and Reformation are readying product launches of their own, though details are not yet available.

Stella McCartney, who cleaves to a strict no-leather, no-feathers, no-fur policy, has dabbled in ersatz leather before. The British designer’s eponymous brand is a member of the Mylo consortium, which seeks to scale and bring to market Bolt Threads’ mycelium-derived material. Last March, Stella McCartney feted the world’s first Mylo luxury garments. Not long after, it rolled out 100 Mylo Frayme purses, which it touted as a milestone for conscious luxury. At Paris Fashion Week in March, Stella McCartney trotted out bags made with grape waste from Italian wineries. In terms of impact, Mirum might blow them all away.

“Since I launched Stella in 2001, I have dreamed of a plant-based alternative to leather created in harmony with nature,” she said. “Mirum is that vegan vision brought to life—so realistic without any plastic, on a regenerative cotton backing that helps to improve biodiversity and soil health while sequestering carbon to fight climate change.”

Her $200 million SOS Fund, which she created in August with venture capital firm Collaborative Fund to invest in sustainable solutions, could play a further role in expanding Mirum’s reach—and, by extension, C4’s.

“In collaboration with SOS Fund, my hope is we can bring this incredible material innovation to an industry-wide scale and inspire other fashion houses to join our conscious movement; one that crafts uncompromising, desirable products that do not harm animals and give back to Mother Earth,” McCartney said.

Rebecca Burgess, executive director at Fibershed, welcomes this. One of the major obstacles for the regenerative agriculture movement, she said, is the financial risk that often comes with trying new things.

“Agriculturalists often work with very tight financial margins and have to make difficult decisions on a day-to-day basis…including the weather, animal health, equipment function, and labor,” Burgess said. “These constraints impede the implementation of innovative practices, especially if they require cash or capital investments.”

By investing in C4 cotton, NFW is providing farms with the financial stability they need to incorporate regenerative practices and “lead the way by example.” The firm is also making purchasing commitments with the farms in advance—a critical move since a lack of commitment can stymie uptake and growth. Working together, on the other hand, distributes the risk, whether from the implementation of innovative techniques or the development of new goods. The plan, the company said, is to keep pushing boundaries.

“Through C4, we will be able to directly measure the impact of the cotton we source and support farming that goes beyond simply reducing carbon emissions to instead actually capturing carbon via soil sequestration,” Elizalde said. “The result will be the most traceable and low-carbon Mirum ever made.”